The recycling industry is slowly being starved to death by a public that marches to the beat of a misguided drummer.
Back on Aug. 31, lawmakers in California rejected a bill to ban plastic bags in that state. In fact, the bill received only 14 votes, seven votes short of the majority it needed. According to one report, supporters of the statewide ban said that the 19 billion plastic bags residents use every year harm the environment and cost the state $25 million each year to collect and transport them to landfills.
While a statewide ban didn’t make it, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Malibu, Fairfax (Marin County), and, most recently, Los Angeles County have all banned plastic bags.
I find it hard to believe that the environmentally conscious population of California actually collects and transports plastic bags to landfills when they are such a valuable commodity in the recycling stream. And particularly when there is such a shortage of good, clean post-consumer plastic for recycling.
As I’ve heard recently in several industry presentations, until people see the real value in plastic they won’t see any reason to do anything but throw it away as useless trash. Hence the need for biodegradability, which is the least viable option for the disposal of plastics.
While OEMs are looking to put more recycled content in their products, and molders and thermoformers try to accommodate that need, the availability of post-consumer recycled materials isn’t enough to meet demand.
At the SPE Thermoforming Conference in September, many of the formers I spoke with about availability of RPET—particularly post-consumer resin (PCR)—said that it was difficult to get in quantity. When they can get the supply of PCR, cleanliness is an issue. Much of the PET that is recycled is baled and sent to China for reprocessing, then shipped back to the U.S., which adds cost and makes the RPET about as expensive as virgin PET.
What this says is that municipalities—even those in the “green” state of California—aren’t really interested in recycling programs, as evidenced by a report issued in 2008 (the most recent available) by the Environmental Protection Agency. The report said that curbside recycling programs for municipal waste fell to 8660 in 2008 from 8875 in 2002. Out of 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated annually, only 12% is plastics vs. 31% paper. Plastics represents 30.5 million tons of MSW, and has a recovery rate of only 7.1%.
Given the plastics recycling infrastructure that has been built over the past two decades, a recycling rate like that can’t keep all these recyclers in business. The American Chemistry Council reported that 1677 post-consumer plastics recycling plants and 207 post-industrial reprocessing plants were in business in 2005. As we know, many of those are no longer operating—in part due to lack of post-consumer feedstock.
Banning plastics is not the answer. When all is taken into consideration, plastics are among the cleanest materials available, both to produce as a raw material and to process into millions of products. Paper production is a filthy business when compared to plastics.
Perhaps asking for a paper bag makes Californians feel good, but asking for plastics—then recycling them properly—would actually have some impact on both businesses and the environment.
And if you’re going to promote using cloth bags for groceries, then you’d better check the label to see if the bag was made in China, where there is little concern for the environment. (A recent report noted that a mountain-top sensor near Steamboat Springs, CO, has found that 70% of the pollution in the western U.S. comes from the type of coal used in China’s coal-fired power plants!) A "Made in the USA" bag would be the optimum choice.
Plastics aren’t the problem, and banning plastics isn’t the solution. People—and the lack of concern for the environment—are the problem. Teach people the real value in plastics, what can be done to provide jobs, meet the demand for recycled plastics materials, and show how we can work together—the industry and the consumer—and there will be more good uses for plastics and far less waste in the environment. —Clare Goldsberry