Plastics – part 2: Why recycling is not the answer

5 05 2010

In Plastics, Part 1 (last week’s post; click here to read it) I tried to give a summary of why plastics are not such a good thing.  The Plastic Pollution coalition has a list of basic concepts about plastic.  Click here to read the expanded version:

  • Plastic is forever
  • Plastic is poisoning our food chain
  • Plastic affects human health
  • Recycling is not a sustainable solution

Yet there seems to be no end to our demand for plastics.   In one year alone, from 1995 – 96, plastic packaging increased by 1,000,000,000 lbs.  And despite recycling efforts, for every 1 ton increase in plastic recycling, there was a 14 ton increase in new plastic production.

I tried to explain some of the roadblocks to plastic recycling efforts.   We have all heard that recycling is good for the environment,  and it’s hard to argue with the intuitively correct reasoning that if we recycle we reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we conserve energy and emissions and we keep bottles out of the landfills.

And what about the lighter weight of plastic bottles?  Surely there are benefits in shipping lighter weight bottles  – giving plastic bottles a lower overall carbon footprint?  Well, here’s the thing:  there are environmental trade offs, just like in life.  Even if we accept that plastics are more carbon efficient than alternative materials (glass) in transportation, we’re still talking about vast amounts of carbon emissions.  Plastics use releases at least 100 million tons of CO2 – some say as much as 500 million tons – into the atmosphere each year.  That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from 10 – 45% of all U.S. drivers.  Plastic manufacturing also contributes 14% of the national total of toxic (i.e., other than CO2) releases to our atmosphere; producing a 16 oz PET bottle generates more than 100 times the amount of toxic emissions than does making the same size in glass.  But the critical point is that it’s definitely cheaper to ship liquids in plastic rather than in glass.  And it’s also cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin plastic than a recycled plastic.

These rather alarming CO2 numbers could be much lower, we understand, if only Americans recycled more than the paltry 7% of plastic which is recycled today.  We could cut our usage of virgin material by one third – and that means an annual savings of 30 to 150 million tons of CO2.

So why aren’t Americans recycling more?  Although our plastic consumption has grown by a factor of 30 since the 1960s, recycling has grown by a factor of just two.  Is this just because we don’t take the time to separate recyclable plastics from general waste, or because we don’t take the time to throw the bottle into the proper recycling bin?  What about companies that use the plastic – they are not clamoring to spend more to use recycled plastic (again that bugaboo “cost”) so they continue to demand virgin plastic.

When Rhode Island enacted comprehensive recycling legislation in 1986, including bans on plastic bottles – the plastic industry responded by introducing their resin codes, in part (some say) to deflect attention from the virgin polyester production and encourage an environmental spin on the plastics.  The plastics industry’s  “chasing arrows” symbol surrounding a number (those resin codes) were “deliberately misleading” according to Daniel Knapp, director of Berkeley’s Urban Ore.  “The plastics industry has wrought intentional confusion with that symbol”, said Bill Sheehan, director of GrassRoots Recycling Network.  Unlike glass and aluminum, plastic has no system for recycling – no infrastructure to sell it, no markets to buy it, no facilities to make it.  “In short, the arrows led nowhere.”(1)

According to many, these codes just gave plastic an environmental patina, which the industry was quick to use.  “Several states have postponed or backed off from restrictive packaging legislation as a result of the voluntary coding system” – this gleeful statement from a 1988 newsletter of the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment.

The industry’s critics say that it won’t do anything to support recycling.  Mel Weiss, an independent plastics broker, sees the industry focused on PR and not at all interested in recycling.  He says:  “the American Plastics Council (APC), a trade group representing virgin-resin producers, won’t do anything to support recycling. If they had a choice between selling one pound of virgin and 22 tons of recycled, they’d sell the virgin. All they’re doing is masking what they’re doing with an expensive ad campaign.”

Here’s the irony:  it was the veneer of recyclability – cultivated by the plastics industry – that led to this explosion of plastic use.

The plastics industry, spearheaded by the American Plastics Council (APC), has sponsored campaigns to convince the public that recycling is easy, economical and a big success.  They are a “responsible choice in a more environmentally conscious world”, according to the APC.  Between November 1992 and July 1993, the APC spent $18 million in a national advertising campaign to “Take Another Look at Plastics.” (Environmental Defense Fund, October 21, 1997, “Something to hide: The sorry state of plastics recycling.”)  Examples of how plastics “leave a lighter footprint on the planet” include the argument that plastic grocery bags are lighter and create less waste by volume than paper sacks, the industry said. And the fact that plastics are so lightweight and durable enables manufacturers to use less energy and generate less waste in production processes, plastic promoters said.

In addition to the American Plastics Council, the American Chemical Council (ACC) also spends millions to defend the chemicals produced by their members to make plastics. – including lobbying against any bills that would add a few cents to each bag or bottle to encourage returns and recycling efforts.    According to Lisa Kaas Boyle, Board Member of Heal the Bay, the ACC has hired the same advisors who defended the tobacco industry to formulate a strategy to promote and defend the petrochemical industry.  That strategy is based on preventing legislation to curtail single use plastics  (SUPs – i.e., soda bottles etc.) and to generate positive press on the promotion of recycling as the solution to plastic pollution.  This approach makes the industry look environmental while continuing with business as usual.

Because most manufacturers don’t take back their products, there’s often little opportunity to sell collected plastic. It is true that the West Coast  is blessed with domestic and overseas markets that have made recycling of #1 and #2 plastics – soda bottles and milk jugs – somewhat easier. But even here, metals and paper are the real money-makers.

“Plastics is the least profitable part of the business,” said Kevin McCarthy, regional recycling manager at Waste Management Inc.,  “and it may not even be fair to say that it is profitable at all.”

Like McCarthy’s operation, many recyclers will collect plastic only to meet contractual requirements from government agencies. The impetus to collect certain types of plastic comes from residents. But these plastics often have no market for reuse. Recyclers call it “junk plastic,”  – stuff that gets collected only “because residents wanted it collected because they watched the commercials on TV extolling the recyclability of plastic,” said one recycling official who insisted on anonymity.

In Europe, plastic recycling rates hover around 16.5%, largely because there are strict regulations from Europe’s “End of Life Directive”, in which manufacturers must take more responsibility for the processing of waste from their products.  In the U.S., efforts come largely from voluntary programs within companies, such as Wal Mart’s campaign to reduce the size of packages and increase their use of recycled materials.   The  U.S. government is highly unlikely to enact recycling legislation.  We in Seattle  voted last summer on a citizen sponsored plastic bag tax (we called it a fee)  of $0.20 per disposable bag coupled with a ban on Styrofoam.  The American Chemistry Council spent more than $1.4 million to defeat the bill – and they succeeded.

One aspect of recycling which is little known to consumers is the fact that almost all of the plastics we recycle, regardless of type, end up in China, where worker safety standards are virtually nonexistent and materials are sorted and processed under dirty, primitive conditions. The economics surrounding plastic recycling — unlike those for glass and aluminum — make it a dubious venture for U.S. companies.

(1)  Dan Rademacher, “Manufacturing a Myth: The plastics recycling ploy”, Terrain Magazine, Winter 1999

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