Plastic promises – environmental problems of plastic

Plastic promises – environmental problems of plastic

Marc Lecard

Have you ever wondered where all the plastic bottles, jugs, and containers you collect, rinse, and sort so carefully end up after they’re hauled off to the recycling center? The answer is simple, if not very comforting. Right now, they tend to go nowhere. And it could get worse: the plastics industry would like to see them go up in smoke.

Plastic has never been a big favorite among environmentalists. Making it depletes finite petroleum resources and pumps toxic chemicals into air and water; then, when its useful life is over, we can’t get rid of it.

The cure for plastic’s environmental unfriendliness, we’ve been told of late, is supposed to be its recyclability. Plastic containers now bear the well-known recycling symbol–a triangle formed of three arrows, with a number code from 1 to 7 printed inside and an acronym underneath. (Industry groups are currently pondering a change.) These symbols are meant to identify the type of plastic a container is made of and to help recyclers sort it; they imply that recycling is possible, even likely. In fact, the industry spent a couple of years and about $18 million on an elaborate ad campaign to convince the public that all cast-off plastic jars, jugs, and bottles would soon be remade into useful items.

But for all except a small percentage of just two kinds of plastic, this is not the way it works. Bales of discarded plastic have been stacking up in recyclers’ yards, and some city and county programs have stopped picking up plastics, because there is little market for recycled resin (the present petroleum glut means that virgin resin costs less), and because much of what is collected will never be recycled.

Two types of resin-PET and HDPE–account for almost all of plastics recycling’s very limited success. Polyethylene terephthalate (abbreviated PET, coded 1, and found most often in soft-drink bottles) is probably the most-recycled variety, with between 15 and 27 percent of PET containers sold coming back for reprocessing. High-density polyethylene (a.k.a. HDPE, coded 2, used in milk jugs and shampoo bottles) accounts for two-thirds of rigid plastic containers; it follows in recycling frequency with around 10 percent. The other five varieties, as identified by the industry’s number coding, average about one percent each–or less.

As the largely fictitious nature of most plastics recycling begins to come to light, the industry has decided to change horses in mid-wastestream, and is beginning to push incineration as the disposal method of choice. Pyrolysis, a thermal process that bakes plastics into a hydrocarbon soup used as a feedstock for oil and chemical refineries, is also being touted as a solution to plastics disposal–even though it would cost more than recycling, and in spite of its potential for air pollution. Most of the feedstock generated by pyrolysis would go into making fuel; at best, this is energy recovery; at worst, it is a complicated form of incineration. Manufacturers are claiming that both incineration and pyrolysis are in fact forms of “recycling”; the Society for the Plastics Industry, for instance, has filed a lawsuit in Oregon to overturn that state’s decision to exclude pyrolysis from it definition of recycling.

Environmentalists argue to become truly effective, the industry will have to spend its money on something besides advertising campaigns and lawsuits. Some recyclers are pushing for minimum-content legislation that would mandate a certain percentage of post-consumer waste in recycled plastic. Others would prefer a system wherein the costs of disposal or recycling of materials are paid into a pool by the manufacturers and used to reimburse the municipalities that actually collect and dispose of the product. “The responsibility needs to be put on those who put the packaging on the market,” says Marty Forman, a Wisconsin recycler and a founding member of the Association of Post-consumer Plastic Recyclers.

Does all this mean that the consumer should give up on recycling plastics? Not necessarily. Recycling PET and HDPE can be made to work, and it makes sense to keep trying. Supporting bottle bills is one way to help: part of the reason for PET recycling’s relative success is the fact that nine states have some kind of bottle-deposit law, which ensures a ready supply and helps to establish a market.

But for the other kinds of plastics, the best thing you can do is use them as little as possible. Avoid over-packaged goods–the many different kinds of plastic used in them are almost impossible to recycle. Choose products in other, truly recyclable packaging materials–glass and cardboard, for instance–and reuse plastic containers whenever you can.

Concerned consumers and recyclers should also keep the heat on the plastics industry to find ways to recycle the rest of the resin–or else stop making it. If consumers are resolute in rejecting unrecyclable plastics, maybe the manufacturers will get the message.

* For more information, see “Resources,” p. 86.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Sierra Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group