Eartha Steward: Feel-good recycling of plastics conceals a deeper enviro issue
August 7, 2013
I recently read that China is refusing to take mixed plastics from the United States and other countries. How is this affecting our ability to recycle plastics and where do we go from here?
— Bill, Frisco
Recently, China enforced a policy called "Operation Green Fence" with the mission to eliminate the enormous amount of recycling contamination unloading from other countries. Simply put, China no longer wants to be on the receiving in of everyone's trash.
While not the case in Summit County, our recycling drop-off centers in Breckenridge, Frisco and Dillon take No. 1 and 2 plastic bottles only. You may have noticed recycling options for plastics opening up to 1-7 plastics elsewhere.
Across the country, many haulers and drop-off centers have been taking increased amounts of mixed plastics, including tubs, clamshells, bags and bulky plastics (i.e. buckets and large toys). It seems like anything with a number on it, including Styrofoam, is thrown as single stream into one bin with paper, metal and glass.
We recycle because it feels good. We want to divert our waste from the landfill. We want to see our trash turned into new products. And, we want to help the environment. Unfortunately, when it comes to plastic, it's not the "old bottle is recycled into new bottle" scenario that most of us assume. In fact, those plastics you throw into a recycling bin actually have a "down-cycling" destiny. That means most plastics are made into a non-recyclable counterpart, which is essentially a delay to an end life in the landfill.
Unlike an aluminum can, which is melted down and made into a new can in a matter of weeks, plastic is more complicated. It starts with that pesky numbering system that confuses all recyclers, even myself. The plastics industry designed various types of plastics including hybrid plastics without regard for recyclability. For that reason, there aren't reliable collection and processing systems for number 1 through 7 non-bottle plastics, especially locally.
Much of my research has found that the amount of plastic actually recovered by conventional recyclers is less than 10 percent. This low recovery percentage is predominately due to sorting. If you were to look at a 1-7 plastics stream and all of the tiny bits of plastic wrap, Styrofoam peanuts, messy yogurt containers and lids mixed in with 1 and 2 bottles, in many ways, it's not much different than looking at a dumpster. Then you get into the chemical makeup of those 1-7 plastics including density, coloration, blow-molded versus injected molded … you soon realize that you have quite a mess on your hands.
Compared to other recyclables, plastics don't have as many energy savings or raw material savings. When you consider how plastics are made — 80 percent of virgin plastic resin is made from natural gas in the U.S. then shipped to China to be manufactured and then shipped back to the U.S. to be sold and then shipped back to China to be recycled and remanufactured — you start to understand why we need to focus on solutions that maximize both waste diversion and environmental benefits.
The responsible thing to do is to use local markets, not to ship our resources overseas. The reason that corrugated cardboard, newspaper, No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles, etc., are commonly collected materials, is that there is a recycling infrastructure — processors and manufacturers — who want these materials and make them into products that are sold for profit and sold locally. Without this infrastructure our market recycling cannot be sustained.
A wonderful article that focuses on this very thing was written by Josephine Valencia in "The Journal of Municipal Solid Waste Professionals" titled "Low-Fat Recycling." She stated, "Without firm knowledge of the recycling activities in which we engage, we are absolved of consequences. Recycling feels good, and perhaps we don't really want to know what happens to this stuff. By occasionally recycling, we alleviate our environmental conscience and abstain from the need to learn more about the process."
Valencia goes on to say that the solutions to our recycling dilemma start here:
1). There has to be a local market! We must curb our habit of shipping waste overseas because there are no economic opportunities for those products in our own country. Let's focus on developing these markets locally.
2). We must close-the-loop! We must support policies that mandate the purchase of recycled content products to facilitate a buy-recycled loop. The United States has become dependent on neighboring countries to develop recycling technologies that process our materials. Again, we must bring this back home.
3). From manufacturer to consumer, we are all responsible! As a society, we must emphasize product stewardship where all stakeholders from manufacturer to retailer to consumer to government are involved in minimizing waste and caring for product end life.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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