By Brian J. Love and Julie Rieland
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the U.S. recycling industry. Waste sources, quantities and destinations are all in flux, and shutdowns have devastated an industry that was already struggling.
Goodwill's Canton, Mich. site looks overwhelmed on June 16, with an oversupply of donations and little immediate chance for resale. Brian Love / CC BY-ND
Recyclers Under Pressure<p>Since March 2020, when most shelter-in-place orders began, sanitation workers have noted massive increases in municipal garbage and recyclables. For example, in cities like Chicago, workers have seen up to <a href="https://chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2020/4/7/21212543/coronavirus-chicago-garbage-pickup-streets-sanitation-masks" target="_blank">50% more waste</a>.</p><p>According to the <a href="https://swana.org/" target="_blank">Solid Waste Association of North America</a>, U.S. cities saw a <a href="https://swana.org/news/swana-news/article/2020/06/17/swana-submits-statement-on-recycling-challenges-for-u.s.-senate-hearing" target="_blank">20% average increase</a> in municipal solid waste and recycling collection from March into April 2020. Increased trash can be attributed partly to spring cleaning, but most of it is due to people spending greater time at home. Restaurants struggling to survive under COVID-19 restrictions are contributing to the rise in plastic and paper waste with <a href="https://theconversation.com/using-lots-of-plastic-packaging-during-the-coronavirus-crisis-youre-not-alone-135553" target="_blank">takeout packaging</a>.</p><p>Although higher volumes of recyclables are being set on the curb, budget deficits are squeezing recycling programs. Many municipalities are struggling with <a href="https://www.ketv.com/article/omaha-mayor-health-officials-to-provide-covid-19-update-friday-afternoon/32498068#" target="_blank">multimillion-dollar shortfalls</a>. Some communities, such as Rock Springs, Wyoming, and East Peoria, Illinois, <a href="https://resource-recycling.com/recycling/2020/05/27/budget-shortfalls-threaten-local-recycling-programs/" target="_blank">have cut recycling programs</a>.</p><p>And these stresses are testing a business already faced uncertainty.</p>
While bottle deposit stations remain closed, recyclables pile up in basements and garages. David Rieland / CC BY-ND
Turmoil in Scrap Markets<p>The global recycling economy has suffered since 2018 as first China and then other Asian nations <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-more-developing-countries-reject-plastic-waste-exports-wealthy-nations-seek-solutions-at-home-117163" target="_blank">banned imports of low-quality scrap</a> — often meaning improperly cleaned food packaging and poorly sorted recyclable materials. As in any business, the value of raw recyclables is linked to supply and demand. Without demand from nations like China, which formerly took up to 700,000 tons of U.S. scrap annually, recyclers have scrambled to stay in business.</p><p>The pandemic has boosted prices for some materials. One industry leader told us that between February and May 2020, prices doubled for recycled paper and tripled for recycled cardboard. These shifts reflect higher demand for tissue products and shipping packaging under shelter-in-place orders.</p><p>However, he also reported that prices for the most-recycled categories of reclaimed plastics — PET (#1) and PE (#2 and #4) – were at 10-year lows. An influx of cheap oil has driven the raw material cost of oil-derived virgin plastics to their lowest levels in decades, <a href="https://millerrecycling.com/oil-prices-recycling#:%7E:text=Higher%20oil%20prices%20can%20also,robust%20market%20for%20recycled%20plastic." target="_blank">outcompeting recycled feedstocks</a>.</p>
Difficult Economics<p>Ideally, revenues from recycling offset municipalities' costs for collecting and disposing of solid wastes. However, given worker safety concerns, low market prices for scrap materials, a slowed economy and cheaper alternatives for disposal, many communities and businesses across the U.S. have <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/recycling-mrfs-prison-labor-suspensions-coronavirus-covid-19/574301/" target="_blank">temporarily suspended</a> collection of recyclables and bottle deposits.</p><p>Meanwhile, as the commercial sector slowed, the distribution of waste generation changed. As people have spent more time producing waste at home, waste collectors implemented <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/coronavirus-covid-waste-recycling-safety-collection-mrf/574359/" target="_blank">new procedures</a> to protect their employees from infection.</p><p>Recycling is a very hands-on process that requires workers to manually sort out items from the collection stream that are unsuitable for mechanical processing. Workers and waste collection companies have <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/coronavirus-covid-waste-recycling-safety-collection-mrf/574359/" target="_blank">raised many safety questions</a> about recycling during the pandemic.</p><p>Precautions like social distancing and use of personal protective equipment have become commonplace among waste collectors and sorters, though concerns remain. Sorters are increasingly relying on automation, but implementation can be costly and takes time.</p>
Collections on Pause<p>Based on monitoring since 2017 by the trade publication <a href="https://www.wastedive.com/news/curbside-recycling-cancellation-tracker/569250/" target="_blank">Waste Dive</a>, nearly 90 curbside recycling programs had experienced or continue to experience a prolonged suspension over the past several years. About 30 of these suspensions have occurred since January 2020.</p>
Like many bottle deposit programs, Kroger's Ann Arbor, Mich. drop-off center shut down on March 23. Michigan bottle deposits across the state resumed on June 15, 2020 with new safety protocols. Brian Love / CC BY-ND<p>On a broader scale, it's not clear how much more waste Americans are currently producing during shutdowns. Commercial and residential waste aren't directly comparable. For example, a granola bar wrapper thrown away at the office is tallied differently than if discarded at home.</p><p>It is also challenging to quantify the effects of the pandemic while it is still unfolding. Historically, waste output from the commercial and industrial sectors has far outweighed the municipal stream. With many offices and business closed or operating at low levels, total U.S. waste production could actually be at a record low during this time. However, data on commercial and industrial wastes are not readily available.</p><p>At the California-based <a href="https://resource-recycling.com/recycling/2020/04/28/city-data-shows-covid-19-impacts-on-recycling-tonnages/" target="_blank">Peninsula Sanitary Service</a>, which serves the Stanford University community, total tonnage was down 60% in March. The company attributes this drop to reduced commercial waste, particularly from construction. Similarly, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, noted a <a href="https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/metro-vancouver-garbage-decrease-covdi-19-1.5544942" target="_blank">10% decrease</a> year over year of waste collection levels for April.</p>
Expected sectors of plastic waste increase due to COVID-19, based on 2018 plastic usage distribution data from PlasticsEurope and Klemes et al., 2020. Brian Love and Julie Rieland / CC BY-ND
More Plastic Trash<p>As cities and industries reopen in the coming months, new data will show the pandemic's effects on consumer habits and waste generation. But regardless of total volume, the mix of materials in household wastes has shifted given the new ubiquity of single-use plastic containers, online shopping packaging and disposable gloves, wipes and face masks. Many of these new staples of pandemic life are made from plastics that are simply not worth recycling if there are any other disposal options.</p><p>Today Americans are trying to balance their physical well-being against ever-mounting piles of plastic waste. At a time when reducing and reusing could be dangerous, and recycling economics are unfavorable, we see a need for better options, such as more <a href="https://theconversation.com/bio-based-plastics-can-reduce-waste-but-only-if-we-invest-in-both-making-and-getting-rid-of-them-98282" target="_blank">compostable packaging</a> that is both safer and more sustainable.</p>
By Meg Wilcox
As U.S. food assistance programs grapple with overwhelming demand during the coronavirus pandemic, some in New England are finding support from unusual partners—renewable energy companies.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Kaya Bulbul
The ocean is our lifeline - we rely on it for the food we eat, the air we breathe, as well as for millions for jobs worldwide.
As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations, many of which unidentified or insufficiently supported.
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By Jared Kaufman
Upcycled food is now an officially defined term, which advocates say will encourage broader consumer and industry support for products that help reduce food waste. Upcycling—transforming ingredients that would have been wasted into edible food products—has been gaining ground in alternative food movements for several years but had never been officially defined.
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By Jeannette Cwienk
When it comes to recycling and recyclability, very little, it seems is straightforward — even something as seemingly simple as orange juice can present a conundrum. In Germany, many smaller shops sell drinks in cartons or plastic bottles, both of which will end up in the yellow recycling bin. But how do their recycling credentials stack up?
More and More Multilayer Packaging<p>How easy is it to recognize multilayer packaging? With drink cartons, it's usually obvious that they're made from a combination of different materials, but with other products, such as candy wrappers, it's a different story.</p><p>Such packaging can be made from a complex mix of up to 10 different films of plastic, which as Joachim Christiani, managing director of German recycling institute cyclos-HTP, explains, is <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germany-produces-record-amount-of-packaging-waste/a-51293541" target="_blank">invisible to consumers</a>.</p><p>"In recent years there's been a trend toward so-called multilayer packaging, which is extremely light and thin. It saves material as well as CO2 emissions during transport, but can't be recycled," Christiani says.</p><p>Because it is not possible to melt the different plastics together, or — at least for now — to separate the individual films from one another at recycling plants.</p>
Lack of Recycled Plastic<p>A 2017 cyclos-HTP study into the recyclability of conventional packaging waste concluded that a third of it was not recyclable, and only 40% of the remaining two-thirds was made into plastic recyclate. The rest was used as fuel <em>—</em> in other words it was incinerated.</p><p>"There was no economic or political pressure to recycle more than this amount," Christiani says. "The prescribed recycling quotas were met, and there were not nearly enough recycling plants."</p>
Room for Greenwashing<p>According to a 2018 survey by Germany's vzbv consumer protection association, most consumers would like to see more plastic recycling, especially when it comes to packaging.</p><p>Although some products come in packaging that is advertised as being "made from recycled material," Elke Salzmann, a resource protection officer with vzbv, says that can be misleading.</p><p>"It says nothing about how much recycled material the packaging actually contains," according to Salzmann. "And it also doesn't mean that the recycled plastic comes from collected plastic waste. It could just as well come from plastic leftovers created during the production of primary plastic."</p><p>The term "ocean plastic," which some textile and shoe manufacturers use to advertise the recycled plastic in their product lines, can also be misleading, Salzmann says.</p><p><span></span>"Plastic waste from the ocean is in much too bad a state to be recycled. Instead, they use plastic waste from beaches or riverbanks."</p>
Laws Against Plastic<p>Images of garbage choking our waters and <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/eurythenes-plasticus-a-deep-sea-crustacean-full-of-plastic/a-52663559" target="_blank">killing marine wildlife</a> have played a key role in giving plastic a negative reputation among the public, and politicians have started to act.</p><p>Many countries worldwide have introduced bans on single-use items, and in Germany, a 2019 packaging law stipulates a plastics recycling quota of 90% from 2022, up from 36%. That said, the quota only refers to how much material has to be fed into the recycling system, not how much ultimately needs to be recycled.</p>
Rethinking the Whole System<p>Although plastic is a very useful material, at the end of its life it causes many problems, EASAC environmental program director Michael Norton tells DW, adding that we have to rethink the whole system and completely change the way we use plastic.</p><p>Joachim Christiani says the packaging industry is starting to catch on. Around 70% of recycled mass can currently be generated from packaging, but that figure is expected to rise in the future.</p><p>"95% is quite feasible," says the engineer, adding that sorting facilities are currently undergoing improvements, while packaging design is also changing.</p>
Clear Plastics Are Easiest to Recycle<p>As things stand, PET bottles are easiest to recycle because they're not mixed with other materials. New bottles can therefore easily be made from the old ones and the recycling rate is high. But the color of the bottle can pose a problem.</p><p>Because plastic is sorted by type rather than color, if different colors of plastic are mixed, the resulting recyclate cannot be used for light-colored packaging, which many manufacturers want. The upshot is the introduction of new plastic instead.</p><p>Consumer and environmental associations have long called for recyclability, greater sorting purity and better sorting facilities, but their most important demand remains waste avoidance through reusable systems.</p><p>"Why melt down disposable bottles to make new disposable bottles when you can refill them up to 20 times?" Buschmann asks.</p>
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By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim
The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.
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By Brigitte Osterath
Yogurt pots, shampoo bottles, coffee-to-go lids, bubble wrap — plastic products are all composed of the same building blocks: long carbon chains.
Heating them to high temperatures makes the carbon chains crack into a mixture of shorter molecules, ultimately converting them back into crude oil, the resource from which the majority of plastic products were originally made.
Big Business<p>Several companies have made significant investments in chemical recycling, building facilities to test various ways of making what is allegedly more environmentally friendly oil. So far, it's still in the development and test stage.</p><p>In 2018, multinational chemistry giant BASF launched ChemCycling — a project that aims to generate a so-called pyrolysis oil from plastic waste. The company claims it can be used in the production of new polymers, which it says will save fossil fuel resources.</p><p>Austrian oil and gas company OMV has built a pilot plant which it says can process all common packaging material such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.</p><p>The plastics are chopped down, mixed with a high-boiling solvent and heated in a furnace at over 300 degrees Celcius (572 degrees Fahrenheit). Once the product has been distilled and the solvent filtered off, the company is left with synthetic crude oil, which it claims is "free of sulfur, lighter than fossil crude oil and with a higher hydrogen content — therefore of higher quality."</p><p>The product can be refined to make fuels such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel or petrochemical products.</p><p>The plant has the capacity to convert 100 kilos of waste each hour, OMV told DW. But a planned successor facility would be able to process 2,000 kilos hourly.</p><p>Similar pilot plants are being constructed in other countries across Europe.</p>
Behind the Hype<p>So, can chemical recycling solve our waste problem through the creation of fuels?</p><p>Roman Maletz, a researcher at the Institute of Waste Management and Circular Economy at the Technical University in Dresden, is not convinced.</p><p>The idea of recycling plastic trash by cracking it, he says, is neither new nor revolutionary. It has just never worked before.</p><p>"In the past, such plants always ran into problems when in continuous operation," Maletz said. "I don't see how these issues could suddenly be resolved."</p><p>Problems arise when the trash contains too many different materials or when it is too dirty.</p><p>"In that case, the quality of the product is lowered, and the whole process becomes economically unviable."</p>
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Factories and power plants often release a lot of carbon pollution. And without a government tax on that pollution, there's not always a clear financial incentive for companies to reduce their emissions.
By Courtney Lindwall
If you're one of those people cooped up safely at home, with creative energy and free time to spare—count yourself lucky. Here, we've rounded up a list of two dozen environmental projects that can make your time indoors, or right outside, a little brighter. Whether you're ready to start rescuing more of your kitchen scraps, sewing your own cloth napkins, or documenting those backyard butterflies, we hope these simple green ideas will provide a calming means of coping during these unprecedented times. Have fun and stay safe.
Experiment in the Kitchen<p><strong>Spice up mealtime with recipes from </strong><a href="https://savethefood.com/recipes/" target="_blank">Save the Food</a> that will also help prevent your food from going to waste. Make a fromage fort to spread on your crackers, or "scraps falafel" to use up wrinkly onions and wilted herbs. And for dessert, how about some <a href="https://savethefood.com/recipes/leftover-mashed-potato-apple-cider-donuts" target="_blank">leftover mashed potato apple cider donuts</a>? </p><p><strong>Rescue wilting herbs.</strong> Make <a href="https://savethefood.com/storage" target="_blank">herb oil ice cubes</a><a href="https://savethefood.com/storage" target="_blank"> by </a>packing diced herbs into an ice cube tray, covering with olive oil, and freezing. Thaw for ready-made flavor in your next dish. You can also transform less-than-fresh herbs into sauces, like chimichurri or pesto, or roast them and mix with salt to create longer-lasting seasonings. </p><p><strong>Start a windowsill herb garden. </strong>You'll need some seeds or a small plant, an upcycled container like a coffee canister that leaves room for growth and drainage, and a sunny ledge. (The Herb Society of America can help you determine <a href="https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/intro-to-herbs/hsa-gardening-for-kids/light-indoor-gardens.html" target="_blank">the right dose of light and water for each species</a>.) In a few weeks' time, you'll be ready to add a sprig of fresh basil to your bowl of pasta or diced cilantro to your batch of guac.</p><p><strong>Arrange a plant-based recipe swap</strong> with friends and family, which will reduce your diet's climate impacts while creating some virtual community. (Remember: If <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sujatha-bergen/saving-planet-starts-our-plates" target="_blank">every American cut just one hamburger</a> or about a quarter pound of beef out of their diet each week, we could reduce emissions by as much as taking about 10 million cars off the road each year.)</p>
Enjoy a Dose of Nature<p><strong></strong><strong>Make your own basic bird feeder</strong> using pine cones, twine, nut butter, and birdseed. <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/B-rxsVfAvaa/" target="_blank">This video from the Feminist Bird Club shows you one way to do it.</a> Hang it on a nearby tree you can spot through your window, then grab a pair of binoculars and do some armchair birding!</p><p><a href="https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-and-why-be-seed-savior" target="_blank"><strong>Create an herbarium</strong></a>—a scrapbook of pressed, dried flowers or other plants. To prepare your samples, press the plant matter in a large book or between sheets of newspaper and place a weight on top. When the leaves are dry, mount them on acid-free paper to preserve them, and label each specimen on the page. You can also include illustrations, photographs, seed packets, and notes.</p><p><strong>Sharpen your naturalist ID skills.</strong> Try to identify every species of plant in your backyard or on a neighborhood walk. You can do the same for wildlife—and share your findings through <a href="https://www.projectnoah.org/" target="_blank">Project Noah</a>, a citizen science platform to discover, share, and identify wildlife.</p><p><strong>Grow new indoor plants</strong> with the use of stems and leaves, rather than seeds. Though it <a href="https://www.bbg.org/gardening/article/how_to_propagate_houseplants" target="_blank">depends on your individual plant</a> species, propagating houseplants is often as easy as cutting off a stem or leaf from an existing plant and sticking it in soil or fresh water. If it takes, a new root system should form within a few weeks—leaving you with a hearty second plant within a few more months. (Pro tip: This works for green onions too! Nearly submerge their sliced-off roots, end down, into a glass of water that you change every few days. Voilà: a nearly endless supply of scallions.)</p><p><strong>Observe monarch butterflies</strong> in your backyard and share your findings with Monarch Watch, an organization devoted to their <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/stories/monarch-butterflies-get-head-start-schoolyard" target="_blank">conservation</a>. Each year, monarchs make a remarkable 3,000-mile trek from as far north as the southern parts of Canada to the mountains of Mexico and back—but these pollinators are <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sylvia-fallon/monarch-butterfly-numbers-fall-again" target="_blank">in danger</a>. Register as one of Monarch Watch's citizen scientists to <a href="https://monarchwatch.org/calendar/?fbclid=IwAR1bawlAoraeMokwdiZa_GVONQqtDnqQxc_EM_UwzbO0zhq733PT6CQIgLc" target="_blank">help track the population's health</a>.</p><p><strong><a href="https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-turn-your-patch-earth-barren-bountiful" target="_blank">Boost your backyard biodiversity</a>. </strong>Plant some milkweed—the main food source for monarch caterpillars and egg-laying habitat for the butterflies. Hang a bee nesting box somewhere it can get sunlight and warmth. Add a barn owl box or attach a simple roosting perch to a pole. For reptile enthusiasts, set up a small wood pile, using brush or old logs as shelter for lizards and snakes (plus fungi).</p>
Do Some Handiwork and Art Projects<p><strong>Make face masks </strong>for your friends, family, and workers on the frontlines. This <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/DIY-cloth-face-covering-instructions.pdf" target="_blank">Center for Disease Control guide</a> breaks down different techniques. If you're comfortable sewing, you'll just need two 10-by-6-inch rectangles of fabric, two pieces of elastic, and a needle and thread for each mask. The no-sew option only requires a T-shirt and scissors. Remember: Cloth masks should be cleaned regularly (the CDC says a washing machine is sufficient) in order to remain effective.<strong></strong></p><p><strong>Get your crayons out </strong>and do some therapeutic coloring. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and as part of a collaboration with NRDC, Studio Number One and its creative director, artist Shepard Fairey, have converted some of its archival activist artwork into <a href="http://www.studionumberone.com/free-downloads" target="_blank">black-and-white printouts for at-home coloring.</a></p><p><strong>Tackle your plastic bag stash</strong>, especially if your city or town is among those that recently banned the bag. Since current conditions may eliminate collection and recycling programs for plastic bags in your area, consider upcycling them instead. There are plenty of online tutorials for how to make outdoor pillow cushions stuffed with plastic bags, weave bags into <a href="https://www.instructables.com/id/Make-a-basket-out-of-plastic-bags/" target="_blank">sturdy baskets</a>, or wind them into jump ropes.</p>
Build Your Community<p><strong></strong><strong>Start an environmental movie club.</strong> Various apps let you host movie nights with friends online, so you can chat while you watch. You can find our recs for standout environmental films on <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/B-QNBxqJAUR/" target="_blank">Instagram</a>—including <em>Poisoning Paradise</em>, <em>Virunga</em>, and <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-turn-your-patch-earth-barren-bountiful" target="_blank"><em>The Biggest Little Farm</em></a>—with short summaries and tips on where you can find them online.</p><p>Document the environmental changes in your community<strong>, as they relate to climate change, through the </strong><a href="https://earthchallenge2020.earthday.org/" target="_blank"><strong>Earth Challenge </strong>2020's online portal</a>. The project will collect billions of observations in air quality, plastic pollution, and insect populations, and your insights will help promote policy change to address our warming world.</p><p><strong>Tune in to a new podcast</strong>. We recommend <a href="https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/range/hot-take-4#/" target="_blank"><em>Hot Take</em></a>, featuring NRDC's own Mary Heglar and her cohost Amy Westervelt, which takes a critical but constructive, intersectional look at how climates issues are being covered in the media. And despite the weighty content of the podcast, laughter is one of its defining sounds.</p><p><strong>Connect with climate justice activists</strong> by following along with <a href="http://thisiszerohour.org/our-actions/#actions" target="_blank">Zero Hour's Getting to the Roots digital series</a>. Each week, it focuses on a different theme that is a root cause of the climate crisis as well as ways to solve it—through digital leadership training, webinars, virtual open mics on Instagram and Twitter, art competitions, and podcast releases.</p><p><strong>Write a </strong><a href="https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-write-successful-letter-editor" target="_blank"><strong>letter to the editor</strong></a> that tackles one of the environmental issues facing your community that's close to your heart. The letter can be written in response to a piece that's already been published by a given media outlet, or it can be a proactive statement of support for or opposition against a particular issue that affects fellow readers. It's the perfect way to reach thousands of individuals and still remain publicly engaged without having to leave the comfort of your home.</p>
The plastics industry is asking the federal government for a $1 billion bailout to help recycling during the pandemic.
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A garbage yard in Lucknow, India where plastic bottles are dumped before being sent to recycling. Abhimanyu Kumar Sharma / Moment / Getty Images
Scientists have engineered a mutant enzyme that converts 90 percent of plastic bottles back to pristine starting materials that can then be used to produce new high-quality bottles in just hours. The discovery could revolutionize the recycling industry, which currently saves about 30 percent of PET plastics from landfills, reported Science Magazine.
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