Recycling: whose job is it?

Whether we see it as garbage or as a resource, it has to go somewhere

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

A few years ago most of us assumed that recycling was fairly simple, and we assumed that it was effective.

Most of us, from individuals to municipalities to corporations, believed that recycling was THE answer to waste reduction and disposal.

Just as the arrival of the “paperless office” certainly did not lead to the use of less wood-pulp based paper products, recycling certainly did not lead to less waste or garbage saturating our cities, neighborhoods and waterways.

Standard garbage can actually be a resource; methane captured from landfills is a renewable energy that can fuel vehicles or help power the electricity grid. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, waste-based energy makes up more than five percent of America’s renewable energy.

Garbage isn’t necessarily a problem – but plastic is.

I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else say this, but I think it is obvious – recycling would work if it wasn’t for plastics.

“One word: plastics.” – The Graduate

We, individuals, grocery stores, businesses, agencies and the military use vastly more plastic that we did a generation, or even a decade ago.

More than 90% of plastic is not recycled -https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/ - in fact, most of it lingers – in smaller and smaller pieces it scatters, congeals and is absorbed by plants, birds and fish – and us.

I found this Happy Birthday balloon in the water at Owen Beach. I know it seems obvious, but apparently it still needs to be said - please don't throw your garbage into the sky. It will come down eventually. Photo: Morf Morford

I found this Happy Birthday balloon in the water at Owen Beach. I know it seems obvious, but apparently it still needs to be said – please don’t throw your garbage into the sky. It will come down eventually. Photo: Morf Morford

Consider this excerpt from The Atlantic -

In 2014, scientists found a new kind of of “stone” on the beaches of Hawaii. It was made of sand, organic debris, volcanic rock, all swirled together with melted plastic. So they proposed the name “plastiglomerate” and they suggested that, as plastic lasts pretty much forever, these stones could be a marker of the Anthropocene in the rock record. In the future, our time might be defined by our use of plastics. - https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/plastic-age/533955/

Half of all plastic, the article went on to say, was produced in the previous 13 years.

This is not a problem we have had for a long time.

But it is a problem we will have for a long time.

As with most social problems, we can choose to make it better – or we can choose to make it worse.

The irony of plastic is that we humans throughout thousands of years of history have lived, worked, cooked and taken care of our basic needs with out the use of plastic.

Somehow, over the past couple decades we have all become dependent on an endless stream of plastic products, tools, containers and implements.

Has it ever occurred to you how many pieces of plastic you touch in any given day?

I don’t know about you, but I touch plastic from the moment I get up on the morning to the time I go to sleep at night. From my toothbrush to food containers to milk cartons to my computer, to every bag of fruit, to every surface of my car, plastic seems to be everywhere.

We have come to love and embrace plastic because it does two of our favorite things; it is cheap and it is convenient.

And it is everywhere.

Microplastics are found in rain and snow -https://weather.com/science/environment/news/2019-08-15-plastics-rocky-mountains-arctic-rain-snow, in our tap water -https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals - and in the bloodstreams of most people tested -https://owlcation.com/stem/Microplastics-in-the-Human-Body-and-Potential-Health-Effects.

Plastic micro fibers are even found in the air we breathe:  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/microplastic-microbeads-microfibres-pollution-environment-audit-committee-mps-evidence-a7021051.html

Plastics, for better or worse, have become irreplaceable across every arena of life from health care to food storage or preparation.

The problem with plastic is not its cost, or even its utility, the problem is the single use of it.

Vast amounts of plastic products are used once, perhaps for a few seconds, and discarded – which means it floats around our atmosphere or ocean for a century or two until it finally finds a home somewhere in our ecosystem.

Plastic has become so embedded (literally) in our ecosystem that “rocks” of congealed plastic (and other materials) have been found on isolated beaches of Hawaii.

Plastics have become so prevalent in our oceans that  a local politician described the collection and re-use of plastics as “harvesting plastic” from the ocean.

Single use?

The biggest problem has become what is known as “single-use” plastics; those throw-away items like plastic forks, candy wrappers and packaging.

The irony is that the whole idea of “single-use” of anything in foreign to us. Who uses a plate or a pair of shoes or a pen or anything once?

The idea that something created to essentially last forever is to be used for, at most, a minute or two, is bizarre beyond belief when you take a minute to consider it.

Future generations will certainly marvel at our obliviousness.

To address this accumulating mass of plastics, many municipalities, even nations, have attempted to ban single use plastics. (1*)

We tend to forget that recycling is, to a large degree, a business proposition. The cost of doing it need to be greater than the cost of doing nothing.

And, as always, indirect costs and opportunities have a way of adding up and influencing our decisions.

Up until the past years or so, China took the bulk of our recyclables.

It made sense – until it didn’t. For years we imported everything from sneakers to electronics from China and  those shipping containers returned empty to China. It was nearly free to send our recycled material to China – and they could use (most of) it.

As late as 2017, the single largest export from the Port of Los Angeles was wastepaper.

To put it mildly, this is not a workable business model.

When it comes to recycling, we need some new rules – rules that stay the same and don’t change every year or so.

And to do that we need some solid guiding principles – in fact maybe just one.

Companies that produce plastics need to be responsible for their ultimate disposal.  

Companies that produce the plastic items that we use every day have given us an impossible burden – to dispose of their waste products. We, as individuals, have been woven into a linear plastics supply-line.

For more on this approach to alternatives to recycling, I suggest this article – https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/11/build-circular-economy-stop-recycling/.

It should never have been our responsibility to clean up after corporations that make products that do not biodegrade.

Recycling should be their job – not ours.

 

(1*)    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/canada-single-use-plastics-ban-2021/ or https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/28/europe/eu-single-use-plastics-ban-intl-scli/index.html