Solution to the plastic problem? Use less of it

Plastic recycling is, for many of us, a guilt provoking topic. I try to be careful of what I toss into my recycling bin, even so, I do not believe that all of it is recycled.

Contrary to what the waste management websites say, I know there is no recycling market for most plastics, and many items are likely to end up in the trash. Plastic recycling is complicated. Many communities consider it a service, a service their citizens expect. They do not want to tell us that most plastic is not recyclable. It’s a challenging business whose effectiveness is dictated by market demand, price and local regulations.

We may not like to hear it, but it is an illusion to think that once we toss it in the bin, we have done our part. We may forget about it, but it never goes away. Since most is not recycled, it slowly breaks down in smaller pieces, then micro particles, then nanoparticles. Not only does this slow process release methane, but it is also a medical hazard. Research now tells us the nanoparticles are now linked to disturbing hormonal growth, heart disease and carcinogens.

In many parts of the country only those bottles and jugs labelled No. 1 or No. 2 are recyclable. And often the labelling has been inaccurate. California now has a law that will prohibit companies from erroneous labeling. According to Susan Shain, writing for the New York Times, the little arrows and numbers on plastic were a gimmick that plastic producers lobbied for in the 80s. They got some 40 states to require those labels. To the consumer those little labels meant the plastic was recyclable. The industry knew that in most cases it was not.

In recent years, groups like How2Recycle have promoted more accurate labeling. Even with more accurate labelling recycling does not work unless there are reprocessing facilities nearby that can handle the waste volume. The success of those facilities depends on whether there is a market for the product.

Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics, explains that while recycling centers can accept all kinds of plastic, the sorting, cleaning, and refashioning of most plastics is just too costly. We know there is a market for most items labeled No. 1 and No 2. Some recycled plastics are now even being made into road surfaces. “Plastic recycling only exists in the minds of public relations agencies that are promoting plastics,“ Enck says.

Beyond No. 1 and No 2, it gets expensive. Part of this has to do with the chemistry involved. There are thousands of types of plastic and each has its own mix of resins, colors, and toxic chemicals. “A hard-plastic orange laundry detergent jug and a clear squeezable ketchup bottle cannot be recycled together,” Enck says. “Even green No. 1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear No. 1 bottles.”

But there are other problems inherent in plastic recycling. It is cheap to make new plastics. And as demands for new plastic are going up, the production costs are going down.

However, it is not all bad news. The labelling law will make a difference and Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California have passed legislation that makes producers responsible for the recycling of their packaging. These laws, which will be effective in a few years, require certain types of packaging to be recyclable or compostable and will affect most plastic packaging.

California is expected to cut plastic packaging by 25% in 10 years and requires 65% of all single use plastic packaging to be recycled. “Since California is a large part of the U.S. economy, the combined effect of these laws will be felt across the country,” said Heidi Sanborn, the chair of the state recycling commission. “Companies are already calling and talking to packaging manufacturers, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t think No. 6 is going to work anymore.’” she said. “And they’re not going to do that just for California.”

We presently recycle only 5% to 6% of plastic waste annually in the U.S. In the long run the only viable solution is to use less plastic. It is a slow transition.

Many people try to avoid plastic packaging, but it is difficult. Sending used plastic you cannot recycle locally to companies like Terracycle is expensive. I recently visited a “refill” store where you can bring your containers to fill with household cleaners and personal care products. I wish every community had one. I wish that my recycling bin really worked.

Published on March 18, 2024, in the Albuquerque Journal.

© Judith Polich. All Rights Reserved. May be republished with author’s written consent and proper attribution.

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