Recycling Problems

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Recycling Problems

Issues with volume, consumption, and shipping to third world countries:


For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. But in 2018, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.

Most are choosing the latter. “We are doing our best to be environmentally responsible, but we can’t afford it,” said Judie Milner, the city manager of Franklin, New Hampshire. Since 2010, Franklin has offered curbside recycling and encouraged residents to put paper, metal, and plastic in their green bins. When the program launched, Franklin could break even on recycling by selling it for $6 a ton. Now, Milner told me, the transfer station is charging the town $125 a ton to recycle, or $68 a ton to incinerate. One-fifth of Franklin’s residents live below the poverty line, and the city government didn’t want to ask them to pay more to recycle, so all those carefully sorted bottles and cans are being burned. Milner hates knowing that Franklin is releasing toxins into the environment, but there’s not much she can do. “Plastic is just not one of the things we have a market for,” she said.

The same thing is happening across the country. Broadway, Virginia, had a recycling program for 22 years, but recently suspended it after Waste Management told the town that prices would increase by 63 percent, and then stopped offering recycling pickup as a service. “It almost feels illegal, to throw plastic bottles away,” the town manager, Kyle O’Brien, told me.

Without a market for mixed paper, bales of the stuff started to pile up in Blaine County, Idaho; the county eventually stopped collecting it and took the 35 bales it had hoped to recycle to a landfill. The town of Fort Edward, New York, suspended its recycling program in July 2018 and admitted it had actually been taking recycling to an incinerator for months. Determined to hold out until the market turns around, the nonprofit Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful has collected 400,000 tons of plastic. But for now, it is piling the bales behind the facility where it collects plastic.

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents in. 2018, a 33 percent increase from 2013.


They miss the obvious solution. I am so old and cynical I have to post stuff that shows these problems have been the same for decades. The Atlantic piece misses the problem so it misses the solution.


kropotkin1951 wrote:

They miss the obvious solution. I am so old and cynical I have to post stuff that shows these problems have been the same for decades. The Atlantic piece misses the problem so it misses the solution.

Nowhere do I see this more than with our attitude towards technological devices. It used to be that you had a landline that went into the same house. Maybe some people had different lines, but people were fine with that. Then tech advertisers convinced people that they all needed cell phones, and now multiple people in the same household all have their own individual cell phones. Why? Doesn't that seem like a wasteful practice? That to me seems to be part of the overall consumerist mentality that is driving up demand for resources that environmentalists have been speaking about for decades. Why, when you are driving somewhere to pick up your kid to take him or her home, do you need to text your kid when you arrive? Just say to your kid in advance, "I'll pick you up at such-and-such a time," no cell phone needed, and you save money not only on the devices but the data plans as well.


Why green energy isn't necessarily so

What I find noteworthy is where the article talks about all the resources necessary do to the renewable transition. Let's set aside for a minute the terrible human rights, labour, and environmental record of mining companies, which has long documented. With mining companies expanding their reach, that will bring more novel pandemic viruses like what we are currently experiencing with coronavirus.


This is interesting:


Although activists sounded the alarm about plastic waste in the 1970s, the documentary claims from 1990 to 2010, plastic production more than doubled. We've been sorting our trash for decades, believing it would be recycled. But the truth is the vast majority of the plastic we use won't be. Over the last seven decades, less than 10 per cent of plastic waste has been recycled

That's because, says David Allaway, from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the conversation has been almost exclusively about recycling and not reducing and reusing.

In the '80s, the industry was at the centre of an environmental backlash. Fearing an outright ban on plastics, manufacturers looked for ways to get ahead of the problem. They looked at recycling as a way to improve the image of their product and started labeling plastics with the now ubiquitous chasing-arrows symbol with a number inside. 

According to Ronald Liesemer, an industry veteran who was tasked with overseeing the new initiative, "Making recycling work was a way to keep their products in the marketplace." 

Most consumers might have assumed the symbol meant the product was recyclable. But according to experts in the film, there was no economically viable way to recycle most plastics, and they have ultimately ended up in a landfill. This included plastic films, bags and the wrapping around packaged goods, as well as containers like margarine tubs.
"Our own customers … they would flat out say, 'It says it's recyclable right on it,'" says Coy Smith, former board member of the National Recycling Coalition. "And I'd be like, 'I can tell you, I can't give this away. There's no one that would even take it if I paid them to take it.'" He believes manufacturers used the symbol as a green marketing tool.

"If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment," says Larry Thomas, another top industry official interviewed in Plastic Wars.

According to Lewis Freeman, a former vice-president with the Society of the Plastics Industry, many in the industry had doubts about recycling from the start. "There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way," he says.

Yet the plastic industry spent millions on ads selling plastics and recycling to consumers.


In 2020, roughly 60 years after concerns about plastic waste were first raised, the focus is still on the consumer to recycle, says Allaway, and not on the environmental impact of the product and overproduction by the industry.

Personally, I think this is a much bigger threat to human health in the long run than covid will ever be, and I would appreciate it if the media stopped trying to make everything about covid and started paying attention to larger issues beneath the surface like this one.


While I believe in recycling, there are fundamental problems with the industry that its leaders knew about since the 1970s. 

PBS Frontline and National Public Radio (NPR) showed that the oil industry lied since the 1970s about how recycling of plastics could save them from damaging the environment in order to not reduce oil production for these products with calamatous consequences for landfills, oceans and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Landfill workers bury all plastic except soda bottles and milk jugs at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon.

NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn't work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.

The industry's awareness that recycling wouldn't keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program's earliest days, we found. "There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis," one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn't true.

"If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry's most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR. ...

Here's the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can't be reused more than once or twice.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It's made from oil and gas, and it's almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.

All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties. ...

Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic. "The bottle may look empty, yet it's anything but trash," says one ad from 1990showing a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck. "It's full of potential. ... We've pioneered the country's largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles."

These commercials carried a distinct message: Plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it. It may have sounded like an environmentalist's message, but the ads were paid for by the plastics industry, made up of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont and their lobbying and trade organizations in Washington.

Industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on these ads and ran them for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean. Documents show industry officials knew this reality about recycling plastic as far back as the 1970s. Many of the industry's old documents are housed in libraries, such as the one on the grounds of the first DuPont family home in Delaware. Others are with universities, where former industry leaders sent their records. ...

Recycling plastic, it told the executives, was unlikely to happen on a broad scale. "There is no recovery from obsolete products," it says. It says pointedly: Plastic degrades with each turnover. "A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial fabrication, through aging, and in any reclamation process," the report told executives. Recycling plastic is "costly," it says, and sorting it, the report concludes, is "infeasible." ...

Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, wrote"The image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate. We are approaching a point of no return." He told the executives they needed to act. The "viability of the industry and the profitability of your company" are at stake. ... "The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire — we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products," he says. ...

So began the plastics industry's $50 million-a-year ad campaign promoting the benefits of plastic. "Presenting the possibilities of plastic!" one iconic ad blared, showing kids in bike helmets and plastic bags floating in the air. "This advertising was motivated first and foremost by legislation and other initiatives that were being introduced in state legislatures and sometimes in Congress," Freeman says, "to ban or curb the use of plastics because of its performance in the waste stream."

At the same time, the industry launched a number of feel-good projects, telling the public to recycle plastic. It funded sorting machines, recycling centers, nonprofits, even expensive benches outside grocery stores made out of plastic bags. Few of these projects actually turned much plastic into new things. ...

NPR tracked down almost a dozen projects the industry publicized starting in 1989. All of them shuttered or failed by the mid-1990s. Mobil's Massachusetts recycling facility lasted three years, for example. ...

None of them was able to get past the economics: Making new plastic out of oil is cheaper and easier than making it out of plastic trash. ...

And Thomas, who led the trade group, says all of these efforts started to have an effect: The message that plastic could be recycled was sinking in. "I can only say that after a while, the atmosphere seemed to change," he says. "I don't know whether it was because people thought recycling had solved the problem or whether they were so in love with plastic products that they were willing to overlook the environmental concerns that were mounting up." ...

Without question, plastic has been critical to the country's success. It's cheap and durable, and it's a chemical marvel. It's also hugely profitable. The oil industry makes more than $400 billion a yearmaking plastic, and as demand for oil for cars and trucks declines, the industry is telling shareholders that future profits will increasingly come from plastic. ...

Fix recycling is the industry's message too, says Steve Russell, the industry's recent spokesman. "Fixing recycling is an imperative, and we've got to get it right," he says. "I understand there is doubt and cynicism. That's going to exist. But check back in. We're there."

Larry Thomas, Lew Freeman and Ron Liesemer, former industry executives, helped oil companies out of the first plastic crisis by getting people to believe something the industry knew then wasn't true: That most plastic could be and would be recycled.

Russell says this time will be different. "It didn't get recycled because the system wasn't up to par," he says. "We hadn't invested in the ability to sort it and there hadn't been market signals that companies were willing to buy it, and both of those things exist today."

But plastic today is harder to sort than ever: There are more kinds of plastic, it's cheaper to make plastic out of oil than plastic trash and there is exponentially more of it than 30 years ago. And during those 30 years, oil and plastic companies made billions of dollars in profit as the public consumed ever more quantities of plastic. Russell doesn't dispute that.