Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Berkeley Granolas Just Say "No" to Recycling Plastic

Tomorrow is the neighborhood trash pick-up day. And like most Wednesday mornings, I will go outside and find the streets littered with milk jugs, plastic wrap, and take-out containers that have fallen out or blown away from household recycling bins. I'd venture to guess that the majority of my neighborhood's litter comes from recycling - it's not as though many people would intentionally throw their organic salad greens containers and cute-little-butter-girl boxes into the gutter. Of course, you know where all that trash is headed next.

We could do a better job of piling heavy stuff on top of our recycling bins so the lighter stuff doesn't blow away. Or better yet, if it's windy out, keeping the recycling inside until the next week.

Or better still - don't recycle plastic. That's the line of action endorsed by Berkeley, California's Ecology Center. Read their Seven Misconceptions About Recycling Plastic on their web site.

Did you know that the triangular chasing-arrows symbol is an invention of the plastics industry? The Ecology Center asserts, "The arrows are meaningless." This isn't entirely true - the numbers do differentiate different types of plastic, from #1 polyester to #5 polypropylene - but the Ecology Center is correct in the sense that the numbers are basically meaningless to recycling centers. No one actually looks at the symbols and sorts the plastics by number. In fact, plastic with a #7 symbol is categorized as "Other," meaning that it's essentially unrecyclable.

Since the plastic all gets mixed together, it can't be re-used as food containers or bottles. Instead, it's typically melted together and re-formed to produce a limited number of products that don't require high-quality materials. You may have seen parking lot bumpers or picnic tables made from a grainy plastic - these are generally made from recycled materials, but they themselves can not be recycled again.

Plus, there just isn't enough demand for cheap picnic tables to use all of the plastic that Americans put out in their recycling bins. In most West Coast cities, then, a lot of plastic recycling gets shipped to China on barges. Once it gets there, Chinese factories use some of it to produce low-grade plastic containers. But much of it just ends up going into Chinese rivers or landfills.

It's less clear what East Coast cities do with their excess plastic (we have a sort of social agreement with the waste industry where we don't want to know what happens to our garbage, and they don't tell us), but it's a safe bet that a lot of it goes to landfills. Even if that's the case, at least we're not shipping it to China first.

Please read Elizabeth Royte's Garbageland, linked at right, for a much more in-depth look at where plastic goes after we "recycle" it.

But long story short, plastics can generally be recycled only once, and a lot of it doesn't get recycled at all. The Ecology Center has actually campaigned for years to prevent recycling trucks from collecting plastic: "There is a likelihood that establishing plastics collection might increase consumption by making plastic appear more ecologically friendly both to consumers and retailers. Collecting plastics at curbside could legitimize the production and marketing of packaging made from virgin plastic." They also point out that legitimizing plastics contributes to the declining viability of glass containers - and glass, unlike plastic, is an unambiguously recyclable material.

This is essentially the source of my unease about most "green" consumption, from carbon offsets to glitzy suburban land trusts. On one hand, it's great that people want to recycle, or generate less carbon per mile, or save a forest. But if that warm and fuzzy feeling they get induces them to use more plastic, or drive more, or build a bigger McMansion, then what good does it do any of us?

So reduce the amount of plastic you acquire. Reuse the stuff you can't avoid picking up. But when you think of throwing any of it away, remember that there are good reasons to send it straight to the landfill, instead of sending it on a temporary detour through the recycling center.


Jessica said...

I think about this whenever I go to Central Market or WhoFooMa or wherever and buy bulk items in those reuseable plastic tubs. They use a lot more plastic than one of those flimsy bags, (and a whole lot more than a reused container), and end up in a landfill anyway.

Paul Burdick said...

Thanks, Christian, I actually had no idea.