Government Watch / Keeping America Safe

Reduce, Reuse, Recover, and Recycle

By Greg Walcher

Plastic is a relatively new product, though it is used everywhere and in almost everything. It started with Bakelite, invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907 and used for electric insulators like distributor caps and light switches, and in molded products like cigarette holders and the original black telephones. By about 1950 improvements in the chemical process made plastic cheaper to mass produce, and virtually every major industry, and consumers, fell in love with it. The growth has been phenomenal and has never slowed. By 1960, 390 thousand tons of plastic were being produced annually, and today 380 million tons. It is used in every corner of the world – usually only once.

Last month regular listeners of All Things Considered on National Public Radio were treated to an in-depth story about the tragedy of recycling, namely, that it isn’t working. The story reached the ominous conclusion that “Recycling plastic is practically impossible — and the problem is getting worse.”

That may sound astonishing, because the Internet is filled with hundreds of articles and videos asserting that “most plastics can be recycled and reused again and again.” Sadly, that just isn’t true. The vast majority is not recycled, and much of it cannot be. We have been told to recycle plastic for decades, and recycling has become a badge of good citizenship for millions. The EPA has simple advice on how to handle the explosion of plastics, “Reduce, Reuse, Recover, and Recycle.” Sounds great.

Almost every significant population center in America has recycling processes built into their waste disposal systems, many actually requiring it. That began in 1989 with a California law requiring waste management agencies to divert 25 percent of solid waste to recycling facilities by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. The goal has since been raised to 75 percent, though California has never come close to meeting the goal – nor has any other state. Twenty-five states now have mandatory recycling, as do dozens of cities. But what do their recycling facilities do with the mountains of plastic they receive? They
send most of it to the landfills.

Officials estimate that plastic straws take 200 years to degrade and water bottles 450 years, and Solo cups over 500 years. These were all invented in my lifetime so I’m not sure how they know that, but either way plastics are obviously a disposal problem.

The main problem is that there are many kinds of plastics and because they have different chemical compositions, they cannot simply be melted together like aluminum or steel. Clear plastic water bottles (called PET) are different than opaque milk jugs (called HDPE). At least three types (PVC, polystyrene, and polycarbonate) are not recyclable at all. Polypropylene, from which much packaging is made, can be recycled, but at much higher cost than making it new. Plastic grocery bags are easy to recycle, but new ones are so cheap to make that there is no market for recycled bags, so most municipalities won’t accept them in recycle bins.

Plastic bags are now banned in California and Hawaii, and in cities from Seattle to Nantucket. In Colorado,
Crested Butte, Avon, Nederland, Breckenridge, Boulder, Aspen, Carbondale, and Telluride either ban or tax plastic bags. Consumers are expected not only to sort out recyclables, but now to sort different kinds of plastic. Most consumers don’t. The result is an enormously expensive and labor intense sorting process at the recycle facility, which many jurisdictions just cannot afford. So, while consumers think they are recycling, much of the waste is headed to the same landfill as the regular trash.

A new Greenpeace paper scolds that the amount of plastic being turned into new products has fallen, now barely 5 percent nationwide. A Greenpeace activist says, “The crisis just gets worse and worse, and without drastic change will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.” How awful. “The industry” is a great boogey-man but could only contemplate such production if there is a good market for it. What must we do?

Much of the nation has followed California’s lead on this for years, so what is California doing? Blaming oil companies. Remember a couple years ago a group of state attorneys general tried to sue oil companies for climate change, claiming executives knew their products were destroying the planet but tried to cover it up. That legal theory, using racketeering laws, worked against tobacco companies in the 1980s, and now it has a new iteration. California Attorney General Rob Bonta is investigating oil companies, claiming they always knew plastics were not recyclable, and deceived the public into buying more by claiming it could be recycled.

“For more than half a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis,” Bonta said. “The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled.”

That is rich, since his State not only started a national recycling frenzy, but perpetuated it through strong laws, right up to this day. As the public is just beginning to realize how little plastic is recycled, even in California, no wonder officials there want someone else to blame.

Government officials never consider their own complicity in policies that make matters worse. For example, Denver area collectors will pick up leaves and grass clippings, which are 100 percent biodegradable – but only if they’re in plastic bags, which are not.

As the NPR story asked, after decades of supporting plastic recycling, must we just consider it trash like any other, or are there better choices? Personally, I don’t require government intervention. I just prefer glass, wood, paper, stone, leather, cotton, and wool. That’s my choice, not the mayor’s.

An edited version of this column first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out:
The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back,” now in its second printing.
He is a former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and former President of Club 20.

More information: www.GregWalcher.com


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Arlene
1 month ago

what you do not hear about are the small incinerators that not only will burn anything cleanly and safely, but after they are powered up, they also provide their own power and can sell that power back to The grid. One company that I researched is called Covanta Energy. They are more prevalent in Europe than here. When asked why I was told that our government regulations make it almost impossible for them to get anything started in this country; perhaps you could do a story on them or incineration as a possible solution to our trash problem 

Phil
1 month ago

There is a way to burn plastics that does not harm the environment; why are we not doing that?

Pauly
1 month ago

I’ m surprised that Greenpeace (and friends) have wanted any plastic recycling, just think of all that carbon trapped in solids that won’t go to CO2.

Michael J
1 month ago

Only in CA can they have two identical plastic bottles for which one is recyclable and the other is not. What determines this is the bottle’s contents. California’s recycle fee or (CRV) is determined by one of the States taxing bureaucracies, the board of equalization. The convoluted process of which bottled item gets the fee accessed is confusing at best. The real slight of hand is banning once free plastic or paper grocery bags and charging patrons a fee for a heavier plastic bag or the same paper one. Clearly everything the government touches turns to landfill stench.

Dave
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael J

States taxing bureaucracies, the board of equalization

I’ll take ‘Oxy-Moron’ for $10, Art…

PaulE
1 month ago

Well so now I guess AMAC is buying into the green agenda and is relying on propaganda from NPR and enviromental groups that want to blame the United States for all that is bad in the world. Here’s the reality: While the United States, Canada and the Western European countries are all recycling, reusing and doing everything else the enviromental groups demand we must do to save the planet, countries like China, India, most of South America and almost all of Africa continue to hawl their plastic garbage out to sea aboard huge barages and freighters and dump it all into the ocean. Here is the United States, we actually pay Chinese waste disposal firms to take our plastic garbage to China where it is supposed to be re-cycled and then re-used in new products. What do the Chinese do with this stuff? They take this stuff off one ship, load it on another and sail out into the Pacific and dump the loads at sea. Then when some plastic washes up on the beaches here in the United States, we get lectured yet again by the green movement to end all use of plastics of all kinds. Meanwhile the likes of China, India and the other countries I’ve mentioned continue to do as they please, make as much plastic products as ever, and view the West as suckers.

Dave
1 month ago
Reply to  PaulE

…and view the West as suckers

It isn’t just ‘optics’, it’s fact!

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