Quantcast
Popular
A worker inspects recycled plastic in a plastics factory. Getty Images

The Plastic Waste Crisis Is an Opportunity to Get Serious About Recycling

By Kate O'Neill

A global plastic waste crisis is building, with major implications for health and the environment. Under its so-called "National Sword" policy, China has sharply reduced imports of foreign scrap materials. As a result, piles of plastic waste are building up in ports and recycling facilities across the U.S.


In response, support is growing nationally and worldwide for banning or restricting single-use consumer plastics, such as straws and grocery bags. These efforts are also spurred by chilling findings about how microplastics travel through oceans and waterways and up the food chain.

I have studied global trade in hazardous wastes for many years and am currently completing a book on the global politics of waste. In my view, today's unprecedented level of public concern is an opportunity to innovate. There is growing interest in improving plastic recycling in the U.S. This means getting consumers to clean and sort recyclables, investing in better technologies for sorting and reusing waste plastics, and creating incentives for producers to buy and use recycled plastic.

Critiques of recycling are not new, and critiques of recycling plastic are many, but I still believe it makes sense to expand, not abandon, the system. This will require large-scale investment and, in the long term, implementing upstream policies, including product bans.

Easy to Use, Hard to Destroy

Plastics make products lighter, cheaper, easier to assemble and more disposable. They also generate waste, both at the start of their life cycles—the petrochemicals industry is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions—and after disposal.

The biggest domestic use by far for plastic resin is packaging (34 percent in 2017), followed by consumer and institutional goods (20 percent) and construction (17 percent). Many products' useful lives can be measured in minutes. Others, especially engineered and industrial plastics, have a longer life—up to 35 years for building and construction products.

After disposal, plastic products take anywhere from five to 600 years to break down. Many degrade into micro-plastic fragments that effectively last forever. Rather like J.R.R. Tolkien's One Ring, plastics can be permanently destroyed only through incineration at extremely high temperatures.

Why the U.S. Recycles So Little Plastic

Less than 10 percent of discarded plastics entered the recycling stream in the U.S. in 2015, compared with 39.1 percent in the European Union and 22 percent in China. Another 15 percent of U.S. plastic waste is burned in waste-to-energy facilities. The remaining 75 percent goes to landfills. These figures do not include any dumping or illegal disposal.

Even the most easily recyclable plastics have a lengthy journey from the recycling bin to their final destinations. Many barriers have become painfully apparent since China, which until recently accepted half of all U.S. plastic scrap, implemented its crackdown on March 1.

First, there are many different types of plastics. Of the seven resin identification codes stamped on the bottom of plastic containers, only 1's and 2's are easily recyclable. Public education campaigns have lagged, particularly with respect to cleaning and preparing plastics for recycling. Getting consumers to commit to more stringent systems is critical. But scolding can backfire, as experience with food waste shows.

Another factor is U.S. reliance on single-stream recycling systems, in which all recyclables are placed in the same receptacle. This approach is easier for consumers but produces a mixed stream of materials that is difficult and expensive to sort and clean at recycling facilities.

The U.S. currently has 633 materials recycling facilities, which can clean, sort and bale a total of 100,000 tons of recyclables per day. Today they are under growing pressure as scrap piles up. Even before China's restrictions went into effect, materials recycling facilities operators threw out around half of what they received because of contamination. Most are not equipped to meet China's stringent new contamination standards, and their processing rates have slowed—but garbage production rates have not.

Finally, since China was the U.S. plastic scrap market's main buyer, its ban has eliminated a key revenue stream for municipal governments. As a result, some waste collection agencies are suspending curbside pickup, while others are raising prices. All 50 states have been affected to some extent.

Over 70 percent of U.S. plastic waste goes to landfills. USEPA

No Silver Bullets

Numerous public and private entities are working to find a more viable solution for plastics recycling. They include plastics producers and recyclers, corporations such as Coca-Cola, colleges and universities, foundations, international organizations, advocacy groups and state governments.

Upgrading materials recycling facilities and expanding domestic markets for plastic scrap is an obvious priority but will require large-scale investments. Increasing waste-to-energy incineration is another option. Sweden relies on this approach to maintain its zero waste model.

But incineration is deeply controversial in the U.S., where it has declined since 2001, partly due to strong opposition from host communities. Zero-waste and anti-incineration advocates have heavily criticized initiatives such as the Hefty EnergyBag Program, a recent pilot initiative in Omaha, Nebraska to divert plastics to energy production. But small companies like Salt Lake City-based Renewlogy are working to develop newer, cleaner ways to convert plastics to energy.

Efforts to cut plastic use in the U.S. and other wealthy countries are focusing on single-use products. Initiatives such as plastic straw and bag bans build awareness, but may not significantly reduce the problem of plastic trash by themselves. For example, plastic straws account for only 0.03 percent of the plastic that is likely to enter the oceans in any given year.

Industry is starting to push back, with corporations like McDonald's resisting straw bans. Some U.S. states have passed measures forbidding plastic bag restrictions.

To stem ocean plastic pollution, better waste management on land is critical, including steps to combat illegal dumping and manage hard-to-recycle plastics. Examples include preventing BPA leaching from discarded products, dechlorinating polyvinyl chloride products, on-site recycling of 3D printer waste, and making virgin-quality plastic out of used polypropylene.

The European Union is developing a circular economy platform that contains a multi-part strategy to increase plastics recycling and control waste. It includes making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and reducing leakage of plastic products into the environment. The U.S. is unlikely to adopt such sweeping policies at the national level. But for cities and states, especially those where support for environmental protection is strong, it could be a more attainable vision.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
U.S. Army member helps clear debris from Tyndall Air Force Base following Hurricane Michael. U.S. Army

Pentagon: Climate Change is Real and a 'National Security Issue'

The Pentagon released a Congressionally mandated report (pdf) that warns flooding, drought and wildfires and other effects of climate change puts U.S. military bases at risk.

The 22-page analysis states plainly: "The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD or the Department) missions, operational plans, and installations."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Protesters interrupt the confirmation hearing for Andrew Wheeler on Capitol Hill Jan. 16 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

5 People Calling Out EPA Acting Head Wheeler for Putting Polluters First

This week, people across the country are joining environmental leaders to speak out against the nomination of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Scott Pruitt's hand-picked successor, Wheeler has continued to put polluters over people, most recently by using the last of his agency's funding before it expired in the government shutdown to announce plans to allow power plants to spew toxic mercury and other hazardous pollution into the air.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Great white shark. Elias Levy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Marine Biologists Raise Flags About Viral Great White Shark Encounter

By now you might have seen Ocean Ramsey's rare and jaw-dropping encounter with a great white shark in waters near Oahu, Hawaii.

Ramsey, a marine biologist, said on the TODAY Show that it was "absolutely breathtaking and heart-melting" to be approached by the massive marine mammal.

Keep reading... Show less
A tree found severed in half in an act of vandalism in Joshua Tree National Park. Gina Ferazzi / Los AngelesTimes / Getty Images

Wall Before Country Takes Mounting Toll on Americans Everywhere

By Rhea Suh

One month on, the longest and most senseless U.S. government shutdown in history is taking a grave and growing toll on the environment and public health.

Food inspectors have been idled or are working without pay, increasing the risk we'll get sick from eating produce, meat and poultry that isn't properly checked. National parks and public wilderness lands are overrun by vandals, overtaken by off-road joyriders, and overflowing with trash. Federal testing of air and water quality, as well as monitoring of pollution levels from factories, incinerators and other sources, is on hold or sharply curtailed. Citizen input on critical environmental issues is being hindered. Vital research and data collection are being sidelined.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
The W. A. Parish Power Plant, owned by NRG Energy, is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Roy Luck / CC BY 2.0

All Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas Found Leaking Toxins Into Groundwater

Power plants across Texas are leaching toxins into groundwater, according to new research. A report released this week from the Environmental Integrity Project found that all of the state's 16 coal-fired power plants are leaching contaminants from coal ash into the ground, and almost none of the plants are properly lining their pits to prevent leakage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. NPS

MLK National Park to Re-Open Despite Shutdown, Thanks to Delta

Hats off to Delta Air Lines. The company's charitable arm awarded the National Park Service an $83,500 grant to help reopen the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta from Jan. 19 through Feb. 3 in honor of Dr. King's legacy.

The Atlanta-based airline was inspired to act after learning that some of the park's sites, including Dr. King's birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Fire Station No. 6 and the visitor center, were closed due to the partial government shutdown, now on its 28th day, according to LinkedIn post from Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Chris So / Toronto Star / Getty Images

Nebraska Lawmakers Want to Ban the Word 'Meat' From Vegetarian Substitutes

By Dan Nosowitz

Nebraska is the country's second-leading producer of beef, and is in the top ten of pork producers.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
A northern cardinal and finch in the snow. Mark Moschell / Flickr

Is Winter Miserable for Wildlife?

By Bridget B. Baker

While the weather outside may indeed get frightful this winter, a parka, knit hat, wool socks, insulated boots and maybe a roaring fire make things bearable for people who live in cold climates. But what about all the wildlife out there? Won't they be freezing?

Anyone who's walked their dog when temperatures are frigid knows that canines will shiver and favor a cold paw—which partly explains the boom in the pet clothing industry. But chipmunks and cardinals don't get fashionable coats or booties.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!