The Plastic Menace – When Recycling Just Isn’t Enough

It’s been a long time since I last touched on the issue of recycling. Not that this is surprising really (what is there to talk about?!).
In the early days of this blog, I wrote a now-deleted post titled Fake Cycling, a rant spawned by my discovery that my workplace was throwing cans and glass bottles collected as recycling into the trash. In another post, I explored the ethicacy of fast food restaurants (and corporations in general) dumping enormous amounts of non-recyclable garbage onto communities everywhere. Unfortunately, I am such a tangential writer though that finding these quotes years on is very akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Or alternatively . . looking for a clear plastic straw in a bale of clear PET plastic? 

Bale? PET Plastic?
What the hell are you on about now?!

The topic of discussion for this post is one that almost every single one of us likely doesn’t give a second thought to. That topic is recycling. Or more accurately, plastic recycling.
Or to be perfectly pointed, the genuine PAIN IN THE ASS that is maneuvering the recyclability maze that has always dogged plastic. Whether it’s plastic packaging or some worn out plastic THING you purchased at some point at the dollar store, should it be blue binned or black bagged? 

For many people, the answer to this conundrum is simple. Just dump it all in the blue bin and let the sorters decide. Out of sight is out of mind, off to the store for more plastic STUFF. 
So common is this phenomenon that the industry has coined a term for it. Aspirational Recycling.

Having always wanted to be a good contributor, this has generally not been an issue for me. The ground rules for me have always been relatively simple.  Grease and food contaminants are an obvious No No (no pizza boxes!). Dirty is a No No.  Weird, unidentifiable resins are a No No (Hello old Tupperware juice jug!). And styrofoam is a DEFINITE No NO, being the lack of desire for it pretty much anywhere in North America. 

I do this to make things easier for the workers downstream from me. Many people don’t (maybe not realizing the grief caused by non-recyclables upstream).
However, while it’s easy to point the finger at your average consumer for engaging in this bad recycling etiquette, one ought to consider what the consumer has to deal with. 

I will agree with the VOX  video in obvious cases.

Paper towel. Diapers. Bowling balls. Best just to black bag anything in such an ambiguous category and move on.

However, items like paper-based coffee cups do pose somewhat of a challenge. They look reminiscent to a typical milk carton. While the lids are generally made from polystyrene (recycling code #6), these lids come with a recycling symbol.
It SAYS it’s recyclable. And technically speaking, given the right equipment, it is. However though, in most of North America, that resin isn’t accepted.
Styrofoam and polystyrene are widely distributed (egg cartons, meat trays, takeout packaging, cups, lids). And most of these items even carry a recycling symbol (#6 in this case). However, none of it is actually collected FOR recycling in North America.

Not unlike the increasingly expensive public awareness dilemma that is flushable wipes . . . mixed messages much?!

The dilemma (the illusion, really) doesn’t just end with styrene though (many do know not to recycle it, after all). In fact, I need not even leave my house in order to showcase the minefield that is end-user consumer packaging disposal.

Let’s start in the refrigerator.

I suspect that my little fridge is not unlike many others like it. Not unlike many other fridges out there, it is filled with plastic. You have your #1 (Polyethylene Teraphalate) and your #2 (High Density Poly Ethylene) plastic bottles and containers. And of course a bit of styrofoam and plastic wrap to round it all out.

Seemingly, an obvious batch to sort. Plastic wrap and Styrofoam in the black, everything else in the blue.

But what about the lids?

Every single bottle you see here is capped with a different plastic resin than it’s partnering container. And of all of those, only one (the yogourt lid) tells you it’s resin type (#2 HDPE).

Maybe not a big issue at first glance.
You can (like me) separate the lids from the bottles before recycling. Or let the shredder at the recycling plant do the separating for you.
Whilst lids (and accompanied plastic rings, where applicable) may not seem like a big deal, in the realm of plastic pollution, the smallest objects tend to be the most hazardous.

While you may not have a whole lot of say in the type of packaging companies choose to use, one can presumably help ensure that their lid gets responsibly disposed of by putting it in the trash yourself. No matter where the bottle ends up downstream from my home, the lid won’t be in the ocean.

Staying in the kitchen but moving onto the pantry, I will showcase one other common recycling enigma for the average consumer. And really, an example that is not all that different from a paper coffee cup or a milk carton.

Yes. The cardboard-esk canister. In my kitchen alone, such packaging stores coffee, hot chocolate and sea salt.
Just a few short years ago, the decision was easy. The can was steel, the lid was plastic. One rinse, 2 simple categories, and off to the curb.
But now . . . it is paper. It is plastic. It is Metal. And it is all bonded and glued so tightly together that one practically needs a chainsaw to separate the materials.

It says it’s recyclable. Well, sort of.

I have to give props here to Tim Hortons for not including any information regarding recyclability on their container. Though one can’t say the same about the lids of their in store coffee cups, they aren’t blowing smoke up our asses here.

So . . .where does it go?

Consumer recycling confusion does not end there. Oh no . . .

How about mixed plastic packaging? Not just lids to containers, but additional plastics as part of the containers themselves?

One resin in combination with one other resin likely isn’t the end of the world. But as noted, some of these packages incorporate 2, 3, even 4 different resins in the packaging. All of which must be sorted due to the various melting points of different resins of plastic.

Having completed my little analysis of what menace lives within my 4 walls, one thing is easy to see. There is far more onus here to share than just on the consumer alone.
In fact, the problem of aspirational recycling is in a sense, a good problem to have. Governments have been trying to increase recycling rates for years, and it looks like it’s finally happened. The only problem being, this seems to have occurred concurrently to a drastic change in the lifestyle and consumption patterns of most in the first world. As the ubiquity of materials like paper increasingly dwindle due to our new and evolving digital existence, manufacturers are now pumping out more plastic packaged products than ever before. With the end result being that recycling depots have to deal with ever larger volumes of plastic materials. Plastic material which is not of much value, but none the less has to be sorted according to type, colour, grade and ever more catagories.

The vast majority of this first world plastic waste used to go primarily to China for processing and recycling into (presumably) new consumer goods. For example, patio chairs or reusable shopping bags. However, as of late 2017, this decades long predictable market has drastically ground to a halt.

Having been caught completely unprepared, the entire first world was (pardon the pun) caught holding the bag.–pmZ0

Why China choose to go this route, I am not sure. Some speculate that the chinese grew fed up with continuously having to sort though the first worlds carelessly sorted low grade recycling materials. This would make sense, given the number of single stream recycling programs deployed world wide (such programs tend to increase contamination rates).
Others claim that since China is going though a sort of reinvention of itself, this action is just part of the process. Part of the old image was, frankly, that of sometimes entire villages devoted to the sorting and repurposing of discarded western junk.
In short, China is no longer the garbage can to the western world.

Whilst I don’t doubt that all of the above play a role, I also suspect that it could be the fact that China is also dealing with its own plastic menace. It’s a nation of billions of increasingly economically mobile people with disposable income. And disposable income (in combination with post WW2 consumption, of course) comes a disposable lifestyle. No matter where you exist on the economic hierarchy, you generally are creating plastic trash.

The History Channel used to have a show called Trashopolis, which explored how various cities worldwide have dealt with their refuse throughout millennia. No matter how they dealt with it THEN, the story is almost universal come the modern era. A whole lot crap (much of it plastic!) that planners were generally unprepared for.

In this regard, one would be tempted into thinking that we have since solved this problem. In the developed world, one is hard pressed not to bump into a recycling receptacle of some sort no matter where they happen to be. Even in comparison to 5 to 8 years ago, we’re reclaiming more materials than ever before. Whilst contamination issues and sorting problems manifest themselves when aspirational recycling meets single stream systems, AGAIN, the recyclability maze is a doozy for the best of us.
The problems begin further down the line. Not unlike pretty much everything else that capitalism touches, recycling (in particular, plastics recycling) runs into many problems when it contacts this system.

Judging by the fact that pretty much every developed nation on earth got caught with its pants down on account to China’s Operation National Sword, there is one thing we all have to face. We don’t like dealing with our refuse. It is all about out of sight, out of mind.
A sentiment that would seem to permeate the entire system on the western side. From initial recycler to final exporter.
I put it in the bin. My city collects it all and sells it to the highest exporting bidder (or hands this part off to the private sector). And all of this material heads out of the country . . . somewhere.

At one time, it went to China (mostly). After China enacted Operation Green Fence back in 2013 (an attempt to clean up the often overly contaminated materials coming into the nation), exporting nations were forced to clean up their act A LOT, but the dynamic stayed mostly the same (with a few nations choosing to ship their materials to places like Malaysia for processing into Chinese-acceptable materials). Now, however, a good chunk of this waste (particularly plastics) is going NO WHERE.
Dotted all over the planet, consumer plastic refuse (or scrap, as the industry calls it) sits in bales outside of recycling facilities, exporters, and anywhere else that has a hand in the current consumer recycling paradigm.
Since plastic waste in modern society has now become a never-ending wave, the obvious issue of space limitations come in when recyclers run out of storage space and have to begin landfilling (or incinerating) otherwise usable material. A process that is further compounded by the fact that recyclables can only sit in the open environment for around 6 months before they become too degraded to be usable (aka salable).

In which case . . . you guessed it!

And if that were not bad enough, even jurisdictions that manage to find buyers for their plastic refuse in the post-Operation National Sword era are not immune to contributing to problems. Though I suspect illegal recycling rackets existed as long as recycling has been a business (yes, there is such a thing), they have exploded in the past 2 years. Particularly in nations like Malaysia, which now are having problems getting a grip on law enforcement. Because there is a glut of plastic to buy worldwide, and getting in on the action is a relatively simple process. You just need some land and employees desperate for ANY work they can get.

The above link brings to light another (the other?) huge problem of Western garbage disposal.


Another case in which even doing things the RIGHT way does not always seem to achieve a desirable result.

The world is dumping its trash on the global south. Right now it’s Asia and Indonesia. In future years, it could be Africa. Anyone in any nation that is willing to take it.

When it comes to the path forward (“What can we do?!”), the first thing we ought to do is bring recycling off of the back burner. For the vast majority of us, recycling is an almost religious experience. Putting the plastic bottle or tub in the blue bin is almost akin to prayer. It takes little time and effort, yet provides a feeling of self-satisfaction that is desirable.

What can one do?

I would say that the obvious first step would be in Activism. While practising and advocating for careful consumption is part of the solution (buying less plastic), that can only go so far. Plastic is cheap, and given the state of the world economy, sometimes that is the biggest factor.

Instead, one should focus on 2 areas:

1.) Giving the average consumer a choice

2.) Putting the responsibility of plastics disposal on the product manufacturers and distributors, NOT consumers

Depending on where you live, paying an environmental leavy on various bottles and cans might be a reality. Some jurisdictions refund the fee upon returning the empty container, others put the fee towards maintaining the recycling system. Or maybe no such fee is charged and the whole of the task falls onto the taxpayer funded solid waste collection system.

Either way, it’s completely backwards. Whether one can get the money deposited back or not is irreverent. If it was dependant on a choice (you pay a deposit on plastic, but not glass or aluminum, for example), it is one thing. But for a good 95% of the products we purchase in plastic packaging, there IS NO ALTERNATIVE.
I can buy powdered laundry detergent in boxes (also likely not recyclable, but at least not plastic!), but not bleach. Or even dish soap.

People passionate about this problem like to primarily point the finger at consumers. Whilst some fault DOES indeed lie with us, we are also at the mercy of manufacturers.
For example, I didn’t have any control over the ice tea maker Snapple very recently switching to plastic bottles over their previous choice (glass). A good bet is that the deciding factor for that was cost. Plastic is cheaper to purchase wholesale than glass. They don’t have to worry about the costs associated with the disposal of this packaging because WE allow it!

Step one is activism. Bring recycling out of the realm of out of sight is out of mind.

Step 2 is up to you.

For me, it means employing new habits that are antithetical to everything that I have been taught from a VERY young age. It means a drastic change in the way I both view AND participate in recycling.

My first step was a decision to quit recycling plastics, PERIOD. Not just the weird resins that are too ambiguous to fit either option. I’m talking EVERYTHING.
Bottles, tubs, etc.
I don’t like to do this. But until it seems that the first world has figured out a better way of dealing with this plastic menace than dumping it on the undeveloped world, it seems the most obvious way to not contribute to the problem.

And yes, this IS your problem too. The reason why I sourced documentaries filmed by news agencies based in all of the developed world’s largest contributors to the problem was to hammer home this point. No one is immune.

Am I saying that everyone should stop recycling plastic (or stop recycling, period)? Of course not.
For one thing, I still recycle other materials like paper, metals and glass. And I don’t deal in the business of talking down to people. I let people make their own decisions.

All I want is for people to know. Knowledge is power.

Alone, none of us can achieve much headway in pushing for plastic alternatives (whatever form that may take). But we are much harder to ignore in unison.

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