Plastics.. Part 3

April 25, 2018 at 6:54 pm Leave a comment

Image result for plastic recycling in boise


In my first two musings on the problems with plastics, I noted the scope of the problem (which is global and huge) and the touched on the supposed solution — recycling. The western countries started recycling programs in large part to address the problems of landfills.  Specifically, the large cities in Europe on the Eastern Seaboard of the US were running out of places to put their refuse.  I vividly recall the political fight when the state leaders of New Jersey attempted to stop shipments of solid waste from New York City. It was as if the good citizens of the Big Apple couldn’t think of any reason why such a thing could happen.  I mean, if we can’t throw our s**t out in New Jersey, then where else could we possibly put it?

As it turns out, the lawyers intervened and NYC won, due to the pesky US Constitution (see: Interstate Commerce Clause).  Actually, the history of solid waste management in New York City makes fascinating reading since it sheds light on the fact that recycling is not new and US cities have been contributing to ocean dumping for decades. Many thanks to Professor Samantha McBride of City University of New York for this informative summary of that history.

Enough about history, let’s talk about recent developments.  Let’s start with the US.  Between EPA regulations on landfills (making them much more expensive to create, operate and close) and the overall growth of our urban centers, more and more municipalities turned to recycling as a pragmatic solution to the problem, the green-washing potential being secondary. The math was simple, the more material you divert to other streams (like paper and plastic recycling), the less you have to bury.

But here’s the rub — you need to find a customer for that supposedly valuable material that we’re so righteously  recycling instead of throwing away.

Enter China, in whose burgeoning middle class we found the entrepreneurs who could see the potential of this rapidly growing market (US cities looking for places to send their recycled waste materials) as a likely complement to their expanding manufacturing enterprises.  These enterprises need more raw materials to make goods that were loaded on to huge container ships to supply inexpensive goods to the BestBuy, Target, and Walmart (oh yes, let’s not forget Amazon). Container ships that came back to China empty.  Now there’s an opportunity!  Waste processors in China could take advantage of the nearly free transportation of waste from the North American to Asia, and the inexpensive labor in China to take immense shipments of unsorted paper, plastic, and metal, sort it into proccessable feedstocks and provide input to their own manufacturing (which filled container ships bound for America with goods to be sold in Big Buy, Target… well you get the idea).

And the system worked terrifically… for a while.

Last year, China upended the recycling industry by announcing strict limits to “foreign garbage” that will be accepted into their country.  (Sounds a little like New Jersey and NYC, doesn’t it?)  The reasons for this are complex, and the actual policy is still playing out, it seems clear that the solution of shipping everything to China is not a sustainable answer.  For a very good discussion on this development, I recommend this piece by Professor Kate O’Neill of UC Berkeley

This brings me to an important point about the issue. It’s high time we stopped spending so much time and energy in trying to deal with our refuse and address the formation of waste in the first place.  From plastic clamshell packaging (does anybody like that?) to bottled water to the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag, we need an entirely new mindset for how we package, distribute, purchase and consume goods and services.

Once again, I refer to the landmark book by McDonough and Baumgart, Cradle to Cradle, which argues that we should consider all material in society as part of the “industrial ecology”. Think of the forest. When the leaves fall to the forest floor, or the deer dies of old age, no one calls the forest services to haul the materials away.  Everything is re-purposed, mostly as nutrient for the cycle that produced the tree and fed the deer.  This is the very definition of sustainability.

I’m heartened to see that this approach is catching in, as evidenced by the Cradle to Cradle Products Initiative Institute.

If we, as a society and species are to be serious about the concept of sustainability, we have to be clear on this issue — how we consume (goods, services and yes, food) is an essential part of that discussion.

Entry filed under: Energy, Energy Efficiency, Green Living, Minimalism.

The Problem with Plastics… Some (almost) Final Thoughts on Plastics

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April 2018

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