We have an ongoing problem in our household: Its become complex, difficult, or downright impossible to recycle plastic. For those of you who have never struggled with this puzzle and just throw it all into a receptacle headed for a landfill, know that many of us recycling addicts are going to be joining you in just throwing it away. Away doesnt exist, according to R. Buckminster Fuller, who reminded people that until space travel facilitates trash disposal in outer space, everything is pretty much stuck here on Earth.
Away has meant China, where we Americans have been sending a portion of our trash to be turned into something useful. A portion of that portion has been plastics of all sorts, including plastic bags, yogurt and margarine tubs, old kids toys, and the ubiquitous water bottle. Now the Chinese have had enough! In response to a new Chinese policy, Operation Green Fence, the recycling center where I live also made a radical policy change. Many plastic items cant be recycled now because there is nowhere to send them to be remanufactured.
Our recycling center operates a transfer station, a re-sale store for discarded items including building components, and a source-separated recycling depot. This means diligent households put plastic items into bins based on what numbers are on the items, the nearly illegible numbers indicating what kind of plastic composes each thing. Compounding the issue is that some types of plastic can be recycled now only if they are a bottle with a neck. (I heard many years ago that the neck allowed a robot on an assembly line to grasp the bottle and hold it up to a spectrometer to determine the plastic composition exactly.)
When you go through the laborious process of sorting every bit of plastic that comes into your household, you realize that the petrochemical industry has had a field day creating a plethora of plastic types, and at the same time disposing of some of the industrys toxic waste. Yes, a useless by-product of the refining process is turned into a useful object useful temporarily at least. It is ironic that the tougher, harder the plastic is, the less valuable for remanufacturing. Our recycling center can no longer accept rigid plastic items (e.g. laundry baskets, five-gallon buckets) and when it did, the revenue barely offset the cost of shipping the stuff to the clearinghouse where it could be passed along.
Now we havent had that many broken five-gallon buckets to send to recycling, but we have had a wide variety of peanut butter jars, yogurt tubs, take out containers, and plastic bags. I re-use plastic bags, but washing and drying them is an onerous chore that I dont have the discipline to practice. When a bag had lettuce residue or fish slime inside, Id just rinse and recycle it, with the belief that some Chinese factory was going to shred it and turn it into filling for a parka or sleeping bag.
Right there, we see the problem that triggered the Chinese policy change: contamination. According to the Tillamook County Solid Waste Newsletter, Operation Green Fence bans the import of substandard recyclables, including bales of plastic contaminated with other materials. While other materials may not be as yucky as food residue, it can also mean paper, aluminum foil, or merely the wrong type of plastic.
This new Chinese policy presents a conundrum to the whole recycling industry. We know that more people will recycle if the process is really simple: glass in one bin, yard debris in one cart, and everything else recyclable (newspaper, aluminum and all plastics) in one big receptacle. When this system was implemented in Portland, the rate of recycling shot up. You didnt have to practice a stoic adherence to arcane distinctions just throw the stuff in a bin, almost like throwing it away.
I dont know yet how the Chinese policy will impact Portlands system, but I sure know how its impacting my household: Were far more conscious of the packaging we bring home as a side effect of our purchases: Mayo in a plastic jar or glass? Plastic bag for produce or paper?
Recycling programs have given us an easy out, low hanging fruit on the environmentally sensitive tree. The Chinese have upped the game. The challenge to us, notoriously wasteful Americans, is to change our buying habits, pressure industry to alter packaging practices, or build more landfills. Otherwise, the plastic gyre out in the Pacific will undoubtedly get more stuff. Thats away, isnt it?
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who wonders if there is a 12-step program for recycling and re-use addicts. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.