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On recycling: Why is doing the right thing so damn hard?

recycling bin in a maze
A couple of months ago, plastics engineer Eric Larson began monitoring his use of PE film and documenting his effort to recycle as much of it as he could in a series of articles in PlasticsToday. The experience, he confesses, has been a royal pain in the ass.

Several years ago, I attended a presentation by William McDonough, an architect and designer who has written extensively on design and materials. His 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, is a seminal work in sustainability.

In his presentation, he used the word fecundity several times. I love that word. It is one of my favorites. It is derived from the Latin word fecundus, meaning fertile, fruitful and abundant. Not just in terms of biological reproduction, but also in regard to being prolific, productive, imaginative. I equate it to the concept of peak experiences—those magical, mystical moments of being in the zone. Moments when time stands still, where every hair follicle in your body is vibrating with aliveness, and anything is possible.

A couple of months ago, I made a commitment. I was going to monitor my use of PE film, and recycle as much as I could. I was going to document my activities, and write about my experiences. I have learned much in the process. When I started, I thought I was doing a good thing. While I was not expecting a peak experience, I thought I would feel good as I was doing it. That has not been the case.

The exercise has been slow and tedious. In fact, it has been a royal pain in the ass. Cleaning (and then drying) used plastic film can be difficult. Sorting the film into the right category for processing is even harder. Then I learned that collection centers—when I can find one—want me to remove any stamps or labels. Like I have the tools and equipment (or time) to remove all the stamps and labels.

Have you ever tried removing a label from a package? One attached with a high-tech adhesive? One that was engineered to stay attached through hot and cold, rain and sun, sleet and snow, and who knows what else?

During this process, I have been upset and disturbed by what I have learned. Recycling rates for plastic bags are pathetic, and I can understand the reasons why. It often seems the infrastructure for recycling plastic film is non-existent.

Plastic trash is one of the great issues of our times. I don’t know what the answers are. Sometimes, I don’t even know the right questions to ask.

I do think the plastics industry needs some out-of-the-box thinking to come up with solutions. Along with some fecundity.

That wraps up Eric Larson’s eight-part series documenting his consumption of PE film and quest for sustainability. You can read part one here; each chapter includes a link to the next article in the series.

Image: Talaj/Adobe Stock

Eric R. Larson is a mechanical engineer with over 30 years' experience in designing products made from plastics. He is the owner of Art of Mass Production, an engineering consulting company based in San Diego, CA. Products he has worked on have been used by millions of people around the world.

Larson is also moderator of the blog site plasticsguy.com, where he writes about the effective use of plastics. His most recent book is Poly and the Poopy Heads, a children’s book about plastics and the environment. It is available on Amazon.

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