As the Market for Those Recyclables Shrinks
“Once upon a time,” is how most fairy tales start and that’s how the “Plastic” fairy tale started.
Once upon a time, a wonderful product was discovered. It made cheap clothes possible, new goods to be wrapped and the availability of plastic bottles—so that no one had to worry if a glass bottle fell and broke. Life was wonderful, plastic recycled, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Unfortunately, we’re no longer living in that state of bliss.
“The U.S. is having a come-to-Jesus moment,” said Kreigh Hampel, Burbank’s recycling coordinator. “Recycling is not going to undo the damage done by consumption.” This quote was in a Los Angeles Times August 15 story, “Moving Past ‘Wishcycling’ As Recyclables Market Collapses, California Faces Hard Choices.”
When I was little, my cousins and I spent weekends roaming the mostly empty land near the farms they lived on. One cold Sunday afternoon, we discovered a small bank of trash. There were some rusting cans, a few glass bottles (most glass jars were used for canning), a broken chair and some paper that was well into a state of decomposition.
That had been the family dump for decades. It was small and most of the items were gradually being reclaimed by nature. There were no plastics. Coming from an economically depressed area, the consumption of new products was uncommon. Nobody knew about take-out.
Gradually but steadily, the United States has shifted to consumerism.
Plastics – PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and its domination in all aspects of the American culture was foretold in the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” when the hero of the movie, a recent college graduate named Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is cornered at a party by his father’s friend:
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Move over gas-powered vehicles–about 17 million barrels of oil are needed to produce plastic bottles–and more than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year. According to the Pacific Institute, synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans.
If we recycle, everything will be okay. Correct? No.
Not everything is recycled and even if plastic products are sent to recycling centers, they often end up in landfills.
Circling the News first learned that the contents of the few recycling containers in the Palisades business district (a move instituted by Marie Steckmest and Palisades Cares), are now thrown in with all the trash.
When the Will Rogers Run organizers Darlena and Thomas Hathaway collected the plastic water bottles from about 3,000 runners and tried to recycle them in 2018, they were told by Recreation Center officials that they don’t recycle this waste.
CTN learned that recycling is not done at any of the recreation centers in Los Angeles and when Councilman Mike Bonin’s Field Deputy Lisa Cahill was asked about last month, she replied, “I asked RAP [Rec and Parks], and they do not do it because of scavenging. This is similar in Santa Monica and the issue of mixing trash with recycling. We’d need to create a pilot/whole new program and to coordinate between multiple city departments, but our office is currently exploring what that would take and how we could best align that with the Mayor’s sustainability goals.”
Perhaps the lack of recycling plastic has more to do with the cost. According to the L.A. Times, “Companies that once turned a profit selling our used yogurt containers and water bottles now have accumulating piles of garbage and no place to sell it.
“Within Los Angeles County alone, three recycling centers and two material recovery facilities have closed since 2018, and as profits dwindle, many are operating a loss and potentially risk closure.”
Hampel, the Burbank recycling coordinator, told the Times, “We just don’t have a market for a lot of this stuff. We’re sending bales of plastic up to our landfill now and just burying it.”
In late 2017, China stopped importing 24 types of “garbage” and in April 2018 banned an additional 32 types. At the end of 2019, solid waste such as stainless-steel scraps and car scraps will be banned, too. Chinese officials cited the need to protect the country’s environmental interests.
India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are also refusing U.S. garbage. CNN eported in April 2019, “China’s Recycling Ban Has Sent America’s Plastic to Malaysia. Now they Don’t Want It – So What Next?”
“Malaysia resident Lay Peng Pua has a very simple message for the West. ‘The countries that send their rubbish to my country, please stop!’ Lay says. ‘Try to manage your own waste in your own country on your own land.””
Good idea. The western United States has thousands upon thousands of miles of unoccupied desert land. Why not find a way to bury our waste in these areas far from our towns and cities?
UC Santa Barbara researcher Sanwon Suh looked at the amount of carbon released into the environment during production and after it was used and found that in 2015, carbon dioxide emissions from plastics were equivalent to nearly 1.8 billion metric tons.
A 2018 study, “Production of Methane and Ethylene from Plastic in the Environment,” published in PLOS ONE by researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, discovered that several greenhouse gases are emitted as common plastics degrade in the environment.
They found that two greenhouse gases–methane and ethylene–are released when plastics are exposed to sunlight.
According to the L.A. Times story, there is still a strong market for goods such as paper, cardboard and aluminum, “But there’s a growing volume of plastics and mixed plastics – things like plastic-coated cartons or potato chip bags – that no longer have a recycling value or never had one in the first place.”
In a Vox April 2019 story, “America’s New Recycling Crisis, Explained by an Expert,” Kate O’Neill, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley was interviewed.
“There’s an interesting debate warming up about if we should focus on improving our recycling or if that is going to enable our continued consumption of plastics. In other words, let’s not focus on recycling, let’s just focus on not using plastics,” O’Neill said. “I personally think that we need to do both, and I’m concerned about this argument that we shouldn’t even be improving recycling, that we just need to focus on not using plastic, because that seems like a lot harder of a goal to reach.”