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What is the Best Way to Recycle All the Plastic
that is Collected at the Curbside?

PAUL GOETTLICH / mindfully.org 16dec01

[More by Paul Goettlich]


For real solutions to the problem of plastics recycling, the appropriate question(s) must be asked.

What does it means to recycle?
First, one must understand that the term "recycling plastics" is an oxymoron. There are NO plastics being recycled anywhere on Earth, and it shouldn't be expected at any time in the near future. While the curbside collection rate for plastics keeps diminishing, the production rates keep rising. And even the insignificant amounts of the plastic that are collected are NOT recycled--not in the true sense of the word, which involves a "closed loop" process--it ends where it started, in an unbroken lifecycle. Curbside collection of plastic gives citizens the incorrect impression that it is being recycled, which then allows them to feel comfortable with purchasing more plastic products. [ See definition ]

hdpe plastic milk jug

Not one type of plastic is being recycled
HDPE plastic milk jugs are an example of one plastic that is not recycled. NOT ONE of the billions of plastic milk jugs picked up at the curbside is made into a new plastic milk jug... not one! They are not being remanufactured, let alone being recycled, into new milk jugs because of the deterioration or downgrading caused by heat, AND (here's a real Catch-22) Industry states that those plastic milk jugs have been contaminated and are unfit for reuse. 

A more appropriate question
Should plastic be made in the first place? In a word, no. The environmental damage,  long- and short-term human health effects, and social harm caused by plastic greatly outweighs its advantages. There is no reasonable justification for the continued manufacture and use of plastic. 

Mindfully.org advocates the banning of plastics, beginning with an end its incineration, and promotion in all forms of media, similar to the banning of cigarette advertising. This would also be aided and accomplished by a national reduction plan, the goal being complete elimination of plastic.

It's an ambitious goal, however, the first part of the plan is to reduce the amount of plastic one buys by substituting nonplastic products wherever possible. Don't purchase those items that are made of plastic or wrapped in plastic. This is not easy for consumers who were born after the advent of plastic, and find it indispensable--actually addicted to it. We lived quite well before plastic, and we can do so after plastic has been eliminated.

Begin by omitting one plastic product from our households on a regular schedule, until all are banished. Store all food in glass or ceramic, not plastic containers or wrap. Ask your supermarket to stop wrapping foods, especially fatty foods like meats and cheeses, in PVC. Demand that corporations such as Coke and Pepsi actually reuse their plastic containers. There are so many ways to accomplish this reduction plan.

Educate people to the fact that there is no recycling of plastic. A more appropriate definition of what is being done with discarded plastic is "extremely limited reuse" before it finds its way to the landfill, incinerator, or less developed nations such as India where the same thing happens with it. If consumers were made aware of this fact, they would see that plastic is an environmentally unsustainable material and not a wise selection. A good way to begin this education is to let them know that NOT ONE of the thousands of plastic milk jugs they dutifully place in the "recycling" bin each week is made into a new plastic milk jug.

To approach the problem of plastic recycling from the other end--the cause--have Industry assume its fair share of product responsibility by legislating the elimination of all externalized production costs. This must include the full environmental damage caused by its production, use, and disposal. And I mean ALL externalized damage associated with it, including the cancers, birth defects, mental disabilities, sexual abnormalities, crime caused by violence, road rage.... and so on. If all the damage associated with plastics were included, and made part of the manufacturers responsibility, it not would be produced, thus ending the world's plastic recycling dilemma in very short time.

Mindfully.org is assembling a list of other ways to reduce the use and production of plastic if people would send their ideas in. Please contribute your ideas and we will add them to the list.

Nonprofits don't all lose money on recycling
The Ecology Center Curbside Recycling Program in Berkeley, CA, makes both a profit and a conscious effort to send the mountains of plastic waste to the best destination. Our program was one of the first in the US to start a recycling program. We fought picking up plastic since the beginning. For years it was not picked up. Then recently, the City of Berkeley, who contracts the work out, ordered the Ecology Center to pick it up. So, we complied with great reservation. There may be reason to believe that this situation could change in the future. One can only hope.

The reason for the reservation is mostly that since it is not really recycled--none of it--consumers get the false impression that it is environmentally benign, or environmentally friendly, as the saying goes. Once they get this misinformation into their heads, it is not only difficult to correct, but they feel they can purchase plastic without getting a bad conscience. So, in general, the production statistics rise steadily, and still, none is truly recycled.

One may say, "but by not collecting it, you send it directly to the landfill."

The response would be that it will go there anyway, even if it is collected at the curbside. It may not be the first trip from the curbside that goes to the landfill. But within a few short reuses of this waste, it will go there... hopefully, instead of the alternatives like incineration in this country or some other that is out of sight.

Go to this page for more: http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Berkeley-Plastics-Task-Force.htm 

Off to the landfill!
It may not be the first trip from the curbside that goes to the landfill. But within a few short reuses of this waste, it will go there... hopefully, instead of the alternatives like incineration in this country or some other that is out of sight.

It would be a degradation of a fine word (recycling) to call what is being done with plastic recycling. The present degradation rate of the English language is far too great already.

Can it be tasted or smelled it in the water and food you and your family consume?
Recycling of plastics is not only an oxymoron, it is a hoax perpetrated and orchestrated by the virgin plastics industries to get consumers to feel warm and cozy about plastics being the savior of the world. The American Plastics Council has an excellent slogan about plastics; "Think of it as the 6th basic food group." In truth, it should be thought of in such a way because food stored in plastic absorbs the chemicals of that plastic. Sometimes the the rate of migration from the plastic is quite small, and other times is quite large. When you taste it or smell it in your food or water, then you know that the chemicals have, without question, migrated into that food or water.

We need to be asking the right question. The way to reduce solid waste is to extract the mad consumerism from the collective mind of America. Now, THAT would be a patriotic cause. The question again, should be how do we reduce the consumption? Not--what the hec do we do with all this stuff now that we made it???!

Comparisons of asking the wrong questions abound. Here's the latest that everyone can relate to:

Will genetically engineered crops feed the millions of starving people in the world?

The correct question is:

Why are so many starving when so many have more than enough?
In fact, there are 6 billion people on Earth and enough to feed 9 billion.

So, start by to telling the truth, at least to ourselves, we must ask the correct questions before finding a question for the answer we've manufactured.

Reduction of solid waste
While a great number of professionals dealing with the problem of reducing the weight and volume of the waste stream by promoting what is misrepresented as recycling, much more serious solutions should occupy their minds. The problem is in the material itself. And no matter how much they "manage" it, plastics will remain un-recyclable--the loop will remain broken.

Mindfully.org believes that the reuse and/or remanufacturing of the billions of tons of plastic waste is a desirable thing--as long as it is not used in contact with food, people, within places were people or animals spend a lot of time. This should have a significantly limiting effect on its reuse. Its production must be halted immediately. While sympathizing with the waste stream managers, we cannot change our view that it should not be made in the first place. The "complex issue" must be made more complex by including the costs of health effects, and the environmental damage.

Manufacturers must be made responsible for all aspects of products they manufacture. It is not reasonable to produce anything and not be responsible for what is knowingly produced as a byproduct or cost. It is also not reasonable to externalize those costs to the taxpayers.

Applying the precautionary principle to the term "knowingly produced" must be done as well. After decades of research on dioxin, the evidence keeps coming in against it, and Industry keeps complaining that there isn't enough "scientific proof" of its toxicity. They must be overruled and even ignored. This evidence condemns all uses of PVC in construction, hospital, food contact, or any other use.

It is only a matter of time and money before many plastics in common use today are condemned as well. Given the political climate of the Bush administration, one should not expect much in the way of truth on any level. And even when the facts are made known, the Bush mob will strike it down, contending that the facts will endanger national security. The point here is that the regulations and regulatory agencies do not protect us from these products.

Industry saying they meet all current regulations for the health of humans and the environment, or that they will not use any "known" carcinogen has little meaning. Who has to "know" it (in the sense that Industry uses the term) before it is known (in the sense that would benefit our health)?

The concentrations of toxins allowed by the regulatory process fall many orders of magnitude short of being protective. At present, dioxin has been shown to have hormonal activity at 1ppt. And its threshold level (the lowest level at which the activity is observed) has not been found. I anticipate that hormonal activity will be shown at 1/10th ppt in the near future. And the threshold will still not have been found.

Regulatory Agencies
The regulatory agencies (and academia) are paralyzed by industry dominance. An excellent example of industry dominance of the EPA is that they have known since the 1980's, that dioxin is an unavoidable byproduct created during the production and heating or incineration of many materials containing chlorine such as PVC and paper. One can be fairly safe in assuming that the PVC industry's knowledge of dioxin being created by the manufacture of was prior to that of the EPA. Since they continued to manufacture PVC even after knowing this, it is therefore an intentional action placing profits above people. Industry also knows that PCBs are an unavoidable byproduct of PVC production.

Another example of industry dominance in the words of past USDA Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman:

"What I saw generically on the pro-biotech side was the attitude that the technology was good and that it was almost immoral to say that it wasn't good because it was going to solve the problems of the human race and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And there was a lot of money that had been invested in this, and if you're against it, you're Luddites, you're stupid. There was rhetoric like that even here in this department. You felt like you were almost an alien, disloyal, by trying to present an open-minded view on some of the issues being raised. So I pretty much spouted the rhetoric that everybody else around here spouted; it was written into my speeches" - Outgoing Secretary Says Agency's Top Issue is Genetically Modified Food. St. Louis Post-Dispatch 25jan01.

If common sense prevailed, there would be no more plastics produced. The same goes for petroleum and nuclear materials. All the tools to bypass these toxic elements are available right now. Sustainable products and energy would cost less, if a complete cost analysis were made public. They would be far less hazardous to the health of all the creatures on Earth. Finally, federal subsidies need to be transferred from the unsustainable to the sustainable.

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