Recycling and material use

Recycling is great, except for all the times and ways in which materials can’t easily be recycled, or could be, but they escape containment, or otherwise don’t get put in the right places to wind up recycled. So what material you start with is a really important consideration.

Why We Must Ban Plastic Bags and Support a Circular Economy describes a program called “How 2 Recycle,” which aims to change labeling on products to better inform people what to do with their object. The project was introduced to the author of the article by someone who is the director of a plastic bag manufacturing company, and the program itself is an effort by an industry working group (the Sustainable Packaging Coalition).

Its intent is a good thing: “. . . create a circular economy around plastic products and packaging in order to keep materials out of the dump or incinerator and instead keep them moving in a circular system from production and manufacturing to consumption and recovery.” The application also sounds good, in that it will actually direct people where to recycle things (local recycling, or a store drop-off, for example), instead of leaving everyone trying to remember whether number 2 or 7 is or is not accepted in your local program. (Although in Portland, numbers don’t matter, shape and size of the plastic does! Plastic tubs and bottles above certain sizes, yes; lids from plastic tubs, no.)

As the article points out, there are a couple problems with the How 2 Recycle program and the industry overall. One is that not all material IS going to wind up in the “circle,” and some items will be too small to easily be labeled (or possibly still seen by people as “trash” and not something potentially recyclable, and thrown out anyway). Another is that they are “material neutral,” which means they’re not trying to encourage manufacturers to switch to materials that aren’t environmentally harmful if they escape the recycling process.

As we spoke with How2Recycle, we got into a discussion about irrecoverable products. . . . In our throwaway society there are hundreds of applications of plastic that are irrecoverable, from gum wrappers to sachet packets, these are design failures that evade recovery and are not recycled in any practical, meaningful terms.

When I asked the How2Recycle representatives, “Where do you stand on products like this and others that you can’t stick a recycle label on and if you did they would likely never get recycled anyway because of their elusive design? Like candy wrappers, plastic stir sticks, catchup packets, the list goes on and on.” The answer was quite simple. They said, “We are material neutral.” That means the How2Recycle program and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a whole, do not weigh in on the material of choice a company uses. Instead, they aim to improve recyclability.

The contradiction here is that if you are not willing to stand against poorly conceived applications of plastic, then you’re not addressing irrecoverable design, which is one of the tenants of a circular economy. You must make design choices that fit a system of efficient recovery or go for environmentally benign materials. You can’t be for a circular economy and be materials neutral at the same time.

But what this contradiction unveils is a deeper set of philosophical assumptions that trump the recycling conversation. It is the ethos of doing business where any scent of regulation, as in microbead or plastic bag bans, is seen as heresy to the free market system. It’s an unwavering belief that the market regulates itself and any constraints undermine innovation. The consensus among nonprofits working on waste issues is that for the sake of public good, harmful materials need to be removed from society if evidence shows they cause harm. This is the divide between industry and conservation that fuels the contradiction.

So then what is the solution? We look for common values. We all believe in being responsible citizens. And we all believe that doing things that hurt other people and causes suffering is wrong. When we accept the latest science about plastic ocean pollution and the danger it poses to the environment and marine food webs, it is clear that plastic in the environment becomes dangerous as it shreds into microplastics, absorbs toxins and has ecosystem-wide impacts. Plastic in the environment is doing harm and responsibility must be shared across sectors, including the courage to eliminate poorly designed products and packaging. The industries that make plastic products and packaging have enjoyed the economic benefit of deferring the cost and responsibilities for these externalities to municipalities and taxpayers.

Not mentioned in the article are the increasing number of plastics that are not made from petroleum, but from biological sources only, and which are supposed to be actually, truly compostable. They might not be “recyclable” (or maybe they are – I do not know; I haven’t researched this in depth) but if they escape a recycle or compost or waste bin and end up somewhere random, at least they should break down into ecologically neutral or even beneficial components, rather than simply being miniscule fragments of plastic pollution.

For a while, a farm share I was part of put vegetables into plastic bags that contained, according to printing on the bags, “natural, Sustainable ingredients, and Earth-friendly polymers.” So of course I looked up their website and – after some digging, because it wasn’t the easiest info to find – was really frustrated with what all those nice-sounding words really meant. The manufacturer replaced “up to 70%” of “a-biotic” (i.e., petroleum-based) ingredients with materials made from plants. So despite the nice words on the bags, there are still non-“Earth-friendly” polymers in them. Can they be recycled like many fully-plastic produce bags? I don’t know, bag doesn’t say. But they can’t be composted, either, and if they wind up blowing around or floating in the ocean, I expect some parts of them will end up as just tiny tiny particles of plastics, ready for plankton and other tiny invertebrates to consume and send back up the food chain. It’ll just be 70% less tiny plastic crap than the standard bag. Thoughtful.


About Fjothr Lokakvan

More or less Northern Tradition polytheist.
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