Friday, March 29, 2019

Recycling Thoughts

The recycling truck still comes to our neighborhood, but the Ann Arbor government is challenged by recycling
problems that have emerged in the last few years. The cost for this service is becoming a real issue.

A Little History

Recycling began with earnest, responsible citizens who aspired to be good stewards of the environment. In Ann Arbor where I live a few dedicated people got a truck and began collecting recyclables in 1977. City dumps were just beginning to fill up and become a problem; some coastal cities still dumped garbage in the ocean, and recycling seemed a good start to making a cleaner world. The era of recycling began at this time.

Did recycling, which started so idealistically, become an enabler that allowed our society to become more and more dependent on excesses of packaging? During the era of recycling, our collective habits grew worse despite our personal efforts. China, which accepted much of this material for re-purposing, recently stopped processing our trash. Our own capacity to make new products from used plastics, paper and glass grew at first, but now has diminished. Landfills are at capacity. Plastics, especially, are a disastrous worldwide problem, polluting the oceans, poisoning fish, and killing wildlife in obscure parts of the planet. Just this month, a dead whale that washed up in the Philippines was found to have 88 pounds of plastic in its gut.

Ann Arbor allows individuals to bring in either trash or recycling that can't
be picked up by the neighborhood garbage trucks. Here's a photo from a
long-ago trip to the dump.
Going back 50 years: recycling, created by idealists, looked like an ideal solution. During the 1980s, towns and cities, including ours, developed municipal recycling centers. These accepted newspapers, which most people had delivered to their homes on a daily basis; glass bottles, and aluminum cans.  Manufacturers could buy this waste and turn trash into usable materials like paper products or roofing tiles. "Curbside pickup" became the norm. Plastics became acceptable as well as paper and glass. Recycling became part of virtually all municipal trash collection, whether done by public or private trash services.

In 1987 people throughout the USA had a garbage awakening when a barge loaded with New York City trash was denied access to garbage plants all along the East Coast. It went as as far as Mexico and Belize, but finally had to bring the garbage back to its starting point for incineration. The cost of dumping garbage was accelerating, while people became increasingly consciousness of resulting air and water pollution from mountains of rotting garbage and never-rotting plastic.

During the 1990s, recycling became a habit of virtually everyone in the US. Bottles, cans, yogurt tubs, cardboard boxes, juice cartons, more kinds of paper -- there were constantly new items that could be put in recycling. I think this made us all complacent. Fruit and vegetable packing plants, electronics manufacturers, and many others didn't have to worry that people would criticize them for using more and more plastic containers.

Economists refer to "externalities," that is, costs that society -- not manufacturers -- would be responsible for. Specifically, producers that wrapped every product with plastic packaging didn't have the least responsibility for disposing of the packaging. It wasn't their problem; it was an externality. Garbage disposal seemed kind of magical: both producers and consumers assumed that recycling took care of it. The foreign and domestic markets where we could sell the recyclable materials seemed able to expand indefinitely. Especially: exports of plastics between 1988 and 2016 amounted to 26.7 million tons. (source) It was too good to be true.

By the end of 2017, the destination for large quantities of collected recycling was China. Ships brought giant containers of manufactured goods to America from China; instead of returning empty the ships returned to China filled with recycling. Cheap Chinese labor could deal with it.

"Single stream recycling" allowed us to throw all our household recyclables together for someone else to deal with. Everyone assumed that ubiquitous recycle bins demonstrated that garbage problems were under control. No more idealism -- not even a bit of responsibility for our kitchen waste.

A problem for our time

Protecting soft fruit with plastic packaging is the norm now.
However, disposal of the packaging is a major issue.
Vast quantities of plastic and cardboard are used at Costco.
The corporate policy is to recycle unsaleable food and also
packaging. (Costco Policy Statement Here.)
At the beginning of 2018, China stopped accepting our undisciplined trash. China is a more prosperous country now -- and we are slobs who contaminate our recyclables with food waste, scraps of the wrong materials, and so on, making it hard to deal with. Without China, the consequences of our irresponsibility are painfully obvious. Municipalities that could get at least a little money for the trash in their single stream of recyclables are now beginning to pay more and more to get rid of it. A lot of recycling has nowhere to go but landfills, which are overfilled anyway.

According to NPR: "Recycling experts say it's a time of reckoning for their industry and that wealthy countries need to stop exporting to countries that can't handle it."

According to an article in Wired: "This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US."

Somehow the good intentions our society acted on in the 1980s have reached a limit. Allowing more and more products to be over-packaged and taking less individual responsibility for our trash was not sustainable. We're clearly in need of a new solution, both collective and personal. We need to exert the self-discipline and restraint that we lost when recycling became too easy.

Plastic boxes of mandarin oranges at Trader Joe's. Is this reasonable and necessary packaging? I don't know.

Reading About Recycling

A number of recent articles discuss the emerging crisis in recycling.
Coming next: for my once-a-month report titled "In My Kitchen," a more personal post about recycling.


Jeanie said...

Interesting. We don't have recycling here in our township (apart from collecting and driving to a point to dump ourselves). I wish we had something. I think we'd be better at it. I'm trying to cut back on plastic, which is easier said than done when you start parsing it. I'm replacing plastic containers with glass, for the most part (but then you still end up pitching the plastic or giving to someone else, so it only keeps it from growing but doesn't really help!) Plastic bags are probably my biggest use and hardest to omit completely. But it is a huge growing problem...

kwarkito said...

I read an article recently on this worrying situation. Of course, the problem must be considered upstream, and plastic packaging must be reduced to a minimum. From this point of view your photos are very eloquent. I think this problem will affect the whole Western world because poor countries will at some point stop being the dustbin of the West

Jens Zorn said...

A depressing meditation: Suppose the plastic waste generated each year by an average individual has a compressed volume of one cubic meter. If we slice this cube into layers, each the thickness of a typical soap bubble, then we’d have enough of these thin layers to cover an area of 1 square kilometer.
The area of the contiguous United States is somewhat less than ten million square kilometers, so the year’s plastic waste from ten million persons (e.g. metropolitan Chicago) would be sufficient to shrink wrap the entire country.

Pamela said...

Great post! We have become such a throw away society, with nowhere to throw it all away. Where I live in Japan, you get charged for plastic shopping bags, so most people bring their own reusable bags. There is a big problem with too much packaging though. For example, each cookie is individually wrapped, put in a plastic tray, put in a box, then wrapped with plastic, etc. it might look pretty, but it is too much!

Beth F said...

Timely post!

jama said...

Interesting and informative post! Didn't realize there was such a crisis. I agree that many items are unnecessarily overpackaged. Not just food. Every time I see a laundry detergent pod I shake my head. Convenience for the customer -- but another way of making more profit, of marketing the same product in a different way. Seems environmentally unsound.

Pam said...

Interesting post, Mae! Our recycle can is picked up weekly and then once a month we can take paint, oil, etc to a recycling center. It's definitely needed everywhere and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is horrendous. We need to use less plastic items, for sure!

Nan said...

This is just so upsetting, and something that is on my mind a lot. One person can't really make much of a difference, and that makes me sad. We all used to think that what we did mattered - that we could help the world one person at a time. Now I feel helpless about it all. I barely use any plastic bags, but so much that I order online comes with plastic packaging. And then there are plastic trash bags.

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

It is imperative that more people use less plastic and recycle. Of course, the main problem is getting corporations to use less plastic.

Iris Flavia said...

We do have tons for paper, plastic, compost and rubbish right in front of the house (glass is extra,as are recycling bottles) - yet oh so often I find pizza cartons in the rubbish bin :-(
Some people I'm surprised they can.... no bragging.