A recent article in The Guardian reflects what we have been feeling for reasons of our own within our business. We are not in the first tier of the recycling process. We have been there in the past – actually bringing in bales of minimally sorted plastic bottles and paying our employees to carefully remove the resins that shouldn’t be co-mingled with the #2 HDPE resin that is our predominant feedstock (we can tolerate some #4 LDPE and #5 PP because our process is “forgiving” enough to handle that much variety). At that time, we actually were paying them more in “bounties” than their base rate without the inducement.
It has seemed to us that recycling in general, while happily still continuing to be utilized in many communities (ours included) to reduce transfer costs and the space required in limited landfills, is no longer given very much “public” attention. This has psychological impacts on the individuals who are creating waste. They may feel that their personal effort isn’t really significant or that the “problem” has already been solved without their input. Neither of these perspectives is valid. Waste and the accumulation of it are still an issue we should all be concerned about. Recently the Environmental Protection Agency announced that as of 2013 overall recycling rates were 34.3% of the waste stream and had contracted for the second year in a row.
The article notes – “Falling oil prices, a strong US dollar and a weakened Chinese economy are combining to make the global business of recycling less profitable than ever.” The article goes on to say – “Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise.” This is not good news after so much effort has gone into changing a lot of individual behaviors with curbside programs. In the world as it exists today most enterprises that consistently lose money do eventually fail. David Steiner, Waste Management’s chief executive, stated this directly – “We want to help our customers, but we are a for-profit business. We won’t stay in the industry if we can’t make a profit”. According to Waste Management, and confirmed by other recyclers as well, “more than 2,000 municipalities nationwide are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.”
And it isn’t only municipalities struggling, Waste Management’s recycling division posted a loss of nearly $16 million in the first quarter of the year. The company has shut nearly one in 10 of its biggest recycling facilities. According to Steiner, “An even larger percentage of its plants may go dark in the next 12 months”. Even though environmentalists and conservation advocates question whether the industry is overstating a cyclical slump, a perfect storm of falling oil prices, a strong US dollar and a weakened economy in China have conspired to devastate prices for American recyclables worldwide. Chinese companies have also become pickier about the quality of American materials they purchase.
I remember when we had to do a lot of the work of recycling ourselves BEFORE we ever took our recyclables to the collection center. Everything needed to be sorted and I always made sure it was clean as well. Although our local center does still ask for some pre-sorting by citizens bringing in their recyclables, many centers and especially curbside programs don’t require any sorting at all (but I guarantee you that to make use of it all – it has to be sorted – before it is further processed). We pay a “bag fee” on transfer station non-recyclable trash. Maybe the collection centers for recyclables need to start charging a much lower fee for those items – perhaps half of what the landfilled materials cost to dispose of.
Contamination of the recyclable stream has always been a problem. Glass is a problem in automated sorting facilities because it often breaks and ends up rendering valuable bales of paper or plastic unsaleable. And the reality is – uninformed and untrained curbside program users often contaminate their recyclables with garbage – even if some of the items were placed there with optimistic good intentions that they had a residual value.
And there is an interesting market impact due to changes in the packaging of consumer products. Patty Moore, head of California-based Moore Recycling Associates, notes that “. . . what’s different now is that the material mix has changed”. The once-profitable old newspapers, thick plastic bottles and aluminium cans that could be easily baled and reused make up a far lower percentage of the recyclable stream, replaced by lighter weight alternatives like vacuum-packed bags for coffee and foods like tuna fish. Tin cans and plastic water bottles have become thinner. Many items such as soup and other liquids come in aseptic cartons now. Even the plastic milk jugs we depend on for Yemm & Hart’s Origins product are frequently replaced with that type of packaging.
And in the midst of all the bad news, there is this bright spot – an increase in cardboard turned in for recycling. More people are buying items through online merchants (we certainly do as stores are a long way from home and time consuming to shop at). Because of this trend, cardboard has doubled its volume in the recyclable stream. Also businesses that eventually process sorted plastic bottles continue growing and a processor that feeds an Indiana paper mill churning out 100% recycled cardboard has just recently added capacity with two new facilities coming on line.
Everyone should care about these issues. Anyone can make a more diligent effort to do a good job of recycling ONLY materials that can be utilized and keeping their garbage contamination out of the recyclables system. Like droughts or floods, the current economic situation could change at any time – oil prices could rise (though I’m not wishing for that out of terrible self-interest). The US dollar could weaken and I’m not proficient enough at economics to say whether that would be a good or bad thing for most of us. And one could put some hope in China’s tendency to plan far far ahead for the common good of their own people. Unfortunately, the United States of America does not tend to look beyond the next fickle election cycle and our politicians are unlikely to ever care very much about “trash”.
The danger is that we could lose the momentum built up over several decades with a short-term, profit-driven/loss-adverse mindset or even worse – apathy. The reality is that money still makes the world go round . . . environmentally we would be better off if quality of life and human welfare and protecting the world that sustains us were the values that determined decisions about what should be done and why. I don’t see such a sea change in perspective coming any time soon, not even in my lifetime, and yet I never say never and I don’t give up hope easily.
~ Information Resources
Why the US recycling industry is feeling down in the dumps by Aaron C Davis posted on 06/27/15 and reprinted in The Guardian online from The Washington Post – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/27/recycling-unprofitable-oil-china-dollar
Aseptic packaging details at “FAQs” for Pacific Foods – http://www.pacificfoods.com/about-pages/faqs
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
The sun comes up every morning. If it ever ceases to, we won’t know, we will not have survived that loss. Few concepts in our modern lives are quite so certain. Without a doubt, truth is in the service of an agenda. Data is used to support whatever perspective is desirable. Even the most diligent researcher or professor of higher learning comes into their role with some bias. It is human nature.
Recently, an article in Plastics News caught my attention – “Study: 100 times less plastic than expected polluting ocean surface”. I have long been aware that there are islands of refuse in the ocean. These are not islands as would be properly termed that. Rather, they are gyres, which is a term in oceanography for a ringlike system of ocean currents rotating clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. Five of these are said to have the bulk of the plastic, with the North Pacific “garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex” said to contain 33% of the total – due to its size and to its proximity to the sea coasts of East Asia, where one-third of the world’s coastal populations are located. For a novel experience – visit “A Journey to the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” which follows the journey of a plastic bag from a California city to the ocean with it’s final destination of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”.
I believe that Plastics News seeks to provide quality journalism but it is a plastics professional’s trade journal and it is biased in favor of being supportive of that industry. So this article’s headline was based upon a scientific estimate of how much plastic would be found – before – a study conducted by universities in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Spain working together did find that plastic debris contaminating the ocean was widespread enough to be found in 88% of the over 3,000 water samples taken at 141 different locations.
It seems that the researchers found “an important gap in the size distribution of floating plastic debris as well as a global surface load of plastic well below that expected from production and input rates”. They have determined that an “unknown mechanism” is removing smaller particles at a faster rate than larger particles. The researchers were surprised that the amount of plastic on the surface was not proportionate to the rapid increase in plastic production during recent decades. They were surprised to find that “surface plastic concentration in fixed ocean regions show no significant increasing trend since the 1980s, despite an increase in production and disposal.”
As to theories regarding the effect, they did not believe that more was washing ashore but that “there could be mechanisms to accelerate the breakdown into smaller particles, it could be devoured by marine animals or attach to objects like barnacles, a process called biofouling”. The researchers do feel that “because plastic inputs into the ocean will probably continue, and even increase, resolving the ultimate pathways and fate of these debris is a matter of urgency”.
The headline certainly grabs the attention but the article does not truly relieve concerns about plastic particles concentrating in the ocean. In fact, not long after I read that article, another one that seems to perhaps state the circumstances a bit more strongly than the Plastics News reporting, was printed in the NY Times – “Choking the Oceans With Plastic”. The author, Charles J Moore, is a captain in the US merchant marine and the found of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute in Long Beach, CA.
A less favorable (to the industry) perspective, than the article in Plastics News, was found in a blog posted at Algalita Marine’s website – “Disappearing ocean plastics is nothing to celebrate”, citing the exact same research study source. That blog notes that “land-based sources are responsible for the lion’s share of plastic waste entering the oceans: littering, wind-blown trash escaping from trash cans and landfills, and storm drain runoff when the capacity of water treatment plants is exceeded”. I was already aware of the issue of “spherical plastic microbeads, no more than a half millimeter, that are manufactured into skin care products and designed to be washed down the drain but escape water treatment plants not equipped to capture them”. There have been movements to counter that usage (want to know more ? – see Information Resources at the bottom of this blog). One I had not thought of was plastic microfibers released due to laundering polyester fabrics. Our family does tend to choose 100% Cotton as much as possible (yes, I do read labels obsessively !!).
The Algalita blog, referencing the same study as Plastic News, notes that scientists theorize that “zooplankton-eating fish likely account for the loss in surface microplastics. The missing microplastics are the same size as zooplankton, thus easily mistaken for food. Furthermore, zooplankton eaters that live deep in the ocean rise to the surface at night to feed. This explanation is supported by fact that plastic debris found in the stomachs of the fish that live off zooplankton are the same size as the missing surface debris, and the same size plastics are also commonly found in the stomachs of larger fish that feed on the plankton eaters”. This is not actually reassuring news for those eating fish as a healthier food choice. I do recommended that those most interested read the entire Algalita blog (see Information Resources at the bottom of this blog).
Algalita also notes – “In recent decades, disturbing autopsy images have surfaced in larger creatures – like whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and seabirds – illustrating stomach/intestinal blockage or perforation from ingesting often recognizable plastic items such as plastic bags, fishing line and bottle caps.” – which brings me to my final note for this blog – after long efforts, mostly fended off by the industry which I have been following for some time in Plastics News, Calfornia finally managed to pass a bag ban (though not yet signed by the Governor into law). This would make it the first state level ban in the United States once signed.
“Single-use plastic bags not only litter our beaches, but also our mountains, our deserts, and our rivers, streams and lakes,” said state Senator Alex Padilla, who sponsored the bill. The measure will also “provide money to local plastic bag companies to retool to make heavier, multiple-use bags that customers could buy”. We are the proud owners of quite a few, durable, bags purchased from Whole Foods Markets over the years. In California, there has been a particular concern that the bags, when swept out to sea, could harm ocean life.
Good for him sticking with it. It hasn’t been easy. After the defeat of his earlier bill in part due to opposition from plastic bag makers, Padilla won the support for this measure of some California-based bag makers by including the funding for retooling. However, the backlash has been fierce in recent months, as out-of-state manufacturers campaigned heavily against the bill, even going so far as producing television advertisements targeting Padilla personally, as he campaigns for secretary of state.
~ Information Resources
“Study: 100 times less plastic than expected polluting ocean surface” by Steve Toloken posted 07/23/14 in Plastics News – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140723/NEWS/140729965/study-100-times-less-plastic-than-expected-polluting-ocean-surface
“A Journey to the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – http://motleynews.net/2012/02/09/a-journey-to-the-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch/
“Choking the Oceans With Plastic” by Charles J Moore posted 8/25/14 at NY Times.com – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/opinion/choking-the-oceans-with-plastic.html
“Disappearing ocean plastics is nothing to celebrate” posted in the Algalita Marine Research Blog – http://www.algalita.org/blog/?p=4257
International Campaign Against Microbeads In Cosmetics – http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/
“California Plastic Bag Ban Would Be First Of Its Kind In The Nation” by Aaron Mendelson posted 8/30/2014 in the Huffington Post “Green” – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/30/california-plastic-bag-ban_n_5740332.html
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer