Plastic Watch: Recycling Woes

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Regular readers of my plastics posts know that I’m sceptical of the premise that the recycling fairy will be able to rid the world of the problems raised by overuse of plastics – and their inappropriate disposal.

But I don’t deny that better recycling strategies would alleviate some damage that our current mis- and over-use of plastics creates.

Alas, today I bring to readers’ attention a Guardian exclusive report, published Friday, UK plastics recycling industry under investigation for fraud and corruption. Over to the Guardian:

The plastics recycling industry is facing an investigation into suspected widespread abuse and fraud within the export system amid warnings the world is about to close the door on UK packaging waste, the Guardian has learned.

The Environment Agency (EA) has set up a team of investigators, including three retired police officers, in an attempt to deal with complaints that organised criminals and firms are abusing the system.

Six UK exporters of plastic waste have had their licences suspended or cancelled in the last three months, according to EA data. One firm has had 57 containers of plastic waste stopped at UK ports in the last three years due to concerns over contamination of waste.

Allegations that the agency is understood to be investigating include:

  • Exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist
  • UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans
  • Illegal shipments of plastic waste are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands
  • UK firms with serial offences of shipping contaminated waste are being allowed to continue exporting.

I encourage interested readers to read the Guardian’s account in full. Perhaps the most striking claim:

The Guardian understands information has been passed to the EA – the regulators – which shows huge discrepancies between the amount of packaging exports recorded by HM customs, compared to the amount UK exporters claim to have shipped.

The data, analysed by the Guardian, reveals British export firms claim to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HM Customs has recorded leaving the country.

The UK– along with other major waste producing countries– has been struggling to find places to which to ship plastic collected for recycling, in the wake of China’s decision last year to ban most imports of such plastics waste  (I discussed the consequences of this ban in this post, Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia). As I wrote in that post, many Southeast Asian countries have thus far significantly ramped up their imports of plastic waste. But these imports threaten to overwhelm their capacity for processing such waste, and these countries are in turn considering imposing their own plastic waste import bans. If this happens, what will happen to the mountains of plastic collected, worldwide, by countries that lack the domestic capacity for recycling such waste?

Unfortunately, the latest UK disclosures are a consequence of allowing an industry to operate, without adequate regulation, and hewing to market-based principles. Whereas if the UK were serious about developing a waste management policy adequate to the threat that plastic waste poses, at minimum, much greater oversight and regulation would be necessary, not only for recycling, but other elements of waste management. Undoubtedly, a far greater role for government would be necessary. But that, gentle readers, doesn’t accord with the neoliberal playbook.

Microplastics Ubiquitous in Salt

National Geographic reported last week in Microplastics found in 90 percent of table salt on the results of a study that concluded microplastics are now present in 90% of table salt sampled worldwide. According to the article:

Salt samples from 21 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia were analyzed. The three brands that did not contain microplastics are from Taiwan (refined sea salt), China (refined rock salt), and France (unrefined sea salt produced by solar evaporation). The study was published this month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The density of microplastics found in salt varied dramatically among different brands, but those from Asian brands were especially high, the study found. The highest quantities of microplastics were found in salt sold in Indonesia. Asia is a hot spot for plastic pollution, and Indonesia—with 34,000 miles (54,720 km) of coastline—ranked in an unrelated 2015 study as suffering the second-worst level of plastic pollution in the world.

Sherri Mason, a professor at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who produced a separate salt study with other researchers, said microplastics are now “ubiquitous” in most forms of salt, and added, “It’s not a matter of if you are buying sea salt in England, you are safe.”

So, even if we immediately stopped releasing any more plastic into the wider environment– whether by recycling or otherwise –  how do we get rid of all the crud that’s already out there – whether in the form of microplastics, or other forms?

Japan Lags on Even the Most Modest Efforts on Slowing Use of Plastics

Japan is on the wrong side of the international curve on using and disposing of plastics. As The Japan Times reported last week in Plastic waste piling up in Japan after Chinese import ban:

Japan produces the largest amount of plastic waste per capita after the United States and has lagged behind other countries in curbing the use of plastics despite growing fears over environmental pollution.

Japan and the US were alone among the  G-7 in failing to endorse the group’s modest Ocean Plastics Charter, unveiled at the June summit held in Charlesvoix, Quebec, as I discussed in this previous post, US, Japan Reject G-7 Ocean Plastics Charter. Travellers on the Shinkansen – aka, the bullet train – service between Tokyo and Kyoto are to this day served coffee in non-recyclable plastic-lined paper cups, covered by black plastic lids. Unfortunately, that presentation is similar to what one finds in the rest of the world, from Long Island to Indonesia. But what the Japanese add is an extra, unnecessary plastic step: one’s given a small, single-use plastic bag to hold the empty coffee cup in the brief period before one throws it away in a public trash receptacle. The contrast between Japan’s efficient, reliable, modern transportation network – and its pathetic performance on plastics –  is striking.

Japan’s use of single-use plastics may slowly be shifting, as the country has been hard hit by the Chinese ban on imports of plastic waste for recycling. As The Japan Times article further notes:

Plastic waste is piling up in Japan with many local governments struggling to cope after China banned the import of such waste late last year, Environment Ministry data showed Thursday.

According to about a quarter of 102 local governments that responded to a ministry survey, the amount of plastic waste stored at local scrap companies increased between January and July, with some reporting that piled-up waste had exceeded the legal limit.

Japan exports about 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year and until last year around half went to China, which imported the waste for recycling purposes.

Japan is finally getting around to implementing measures to reduce plastics use– but those proposed are on the meager side, as another recent article in The Japan Times,  Japan to make charging for plastic shopping bags mandatory, notes:

A government advisory panel has approved a set of proposals for plastic recycling, including making it mandatory for retailers to charge for plastic shopping bags.

The government plans to officially adopt the measures aimed at reducing plastic waste, crafted by the Environment Ministry, before a summit of the Group of 20 leading economies set for June next year in Osaka, it said Friday.

The government believes the measures will help the country showcase its efforts on plastics recycling at the G20 summit. Japan has been under fire for being slow to deal with plastic waste.

The ministry’s proposals call for setting a goal of reducing the volume of disposable plastic products, including drinking straws, plastic bottles and shopping bags, by 25 percent by 2030.

The proposals seek to increase the percentage of plastic packaging products recycled to 60 percent by 2030 and use all forms of plastic waste, including the heat emitted when it is burned, effectively by 2035.

It has not been decided when the mandatory charging for plastic shopping bags will start. Some relief measures will be taken for small businesses, according to the proposals.

Note the pathetically lax deadlines. And similarly unambitious targets for reductions. For a relevant benchmark, IIRC, India currently recycles 60% of its plastic drinking water bottles. The shopping bag measure isn’t an outright ban – as many countries, and cities, have already implemented – but a charge.


What Must Be Done

The recycling fairy isn’t going to solve the plastics crisis. As the recent study on microplastics in salt reveals, we are already surrounded by the residue of previous decisions to gorge on the use of plastics.

Yet this week’s news about how corruption is further weakening the UK’s existing inadequate recycling efforts, is profoundly depressing. Ditto that so far, Japan seems to be following the US model on plastics use and recycling.

Both Japan and the UK can – and should do better.

And I emphasize that recycling is only one small part of necessary change. What’s required is a drastic cut in the production and use of plastics for all but essential purposes – and those certainly don’t include most current single uses. Sadly, I don’t see such change occurring anytime soon.

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41 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    Came across a chart at http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/advances/3/7/e1700782/F3.large.jpg which seems to indicate that plastic waste is going to dramatically increase in the years to come. This is from a paper at http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.full but my question is that if we are chocking on all the plastic that we have produced, are we really set on making even more of the stuff? Hard to believe that all this plastic production really dates back to only about WW2 which is still within living memory.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      Hard to believe that all this plastic production really dates back to only about WW2

      More like the ’70s Watch The Graduate again.

      Reply
  2. Wukchumni

    Its almost time to do biannual roadside trash pickup again, and the ones I hate the most* are plastic shopping bags after they’ve been baked in the sun all summer, some of them fall apart when you pick em’ up with the mechanical grabber. Premature brittle.

    It’s been a year or 2 since California did away with free plastic bags @ supermarkets (although you can buy sturdier ones for a dime) and most everybody I see is using a cloth bag now.

    So, there’s a little less blight at the end of the tunnel.

    * aside from the dreaded ‘trucker bomb’

    Reply
    1. Edward E

      Plastic shopping bags are referred to as Northwest Arkansas tumbleweeds because of how the wind catches them. Wal~Mart made it popular, try to avoid going there, but lately I’ve seen a few stores offer paper bag options.

      Reply
  3. DJG

    Thanks, Jeri-Lynn. You marshal many facts worth further consideration. It is small consolation that the Japanese are second to the U.S. in plastics waste: The irony is that the stereotype is that most of us think that the Japanese are nature-loving flower-arranging zealots who wouldn’t do such things.

    What is to be done? Your post dovetails with a post that Yves Smith put up the other day about how hard it is to create urgency about evidence of climate change, rises in average global temperature, increasingly bad climate, emissions, and personal habits.

    Yet you point to something: Eliminating disposables. This may be the way to get into people’s heads and hands something that they can do, habits that they can change. This means less packaging. It means glass bottles for soda, milk, and many cosmetic lotions. It means glass jars for vegetables, skin creams, and so on. It means paper packaging for bread–and also for vegetables and mushrooms and cheeses, which would benefit from less suffocating packaging.

    It means reviving deposits on bottles and re-creating that service, which was once so common in the U S of A, of stores paying a nickel or a dime each for returned bottles. (Much to the delight of children across the country.) Who knows? Maybe it means bringing back the “milkman” with the daily delivery of glass-bottled milk and cottage cheese in tub and cheddar wrapped in kraft paper.

    All in know is that we are choking on disposables, as I returned this morning from my espresso (in its little glass) and croissant (served on an earthenware dish) and saw the streets of my neighborhood littered with to-go cups, foam packaging, yards of plastic sheets (that go along with who-knows-what), and crushed plastic bottles. Plus a litter of plastic car parts on one of the arterial streets where someone in a pricy sedan had an accident overnight.

    So we tell people: The Earth isn’t disposable. You aren’t disposable. Let’s get rid of disposable packaging before it gets rid of us.

    Reply
    1. lyman alpha blob

      Just reading your comment after posting mine below. Your coffee shop needs to send a letter to the one I’m sitting in because as a mug isn’t even an option here I won’t be back.

      My personal biggest pet heart wrenching disappointment (definitely more than just a peeve with the planet in the shape it’s in) re: packaging is seeing supposedly organic produce at the grocery store sold in a cardboard or styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. Who’s the sociopath who decided that would be a good idea?

      Reply
      1. Louis Fyne

        organic produce margins are razor thin—-especially for the little guys, even by agriculture standards.

        commercial/industrial-grade reusable, collapsible totes exist (imagine a scaled up version of the NPR tote)….but they’re $$$$ and logistically you gotta ship empty totes back to the sender.

        I sympathize/empathize with a 50 acre organic farmer using styrofoam, I don’t when it’s Starbucks with drive-thrus dishing out plastic by the dumpster

        SJW PR virtue-signalling is free. Eliminating drive-thrus and coffee sleeves costs revenue.

        just saying.

        Reply
    2. Plenue

      “The irony is that the stereotype is that most of us think that the Japanese are nature-loving flower-arranging zealots who wouldn’t do such things.”

      Is that a common stereotype? Because I when I think of Japan and the environment, I think of things like their cancerous Construction-Industrial Complex and illegal whale hunting.

      Reply
  4. Anarcissie

    One interesting aspect of the plastics problem is that, as much of it floats out to sea and becomes microplastic, bacteria and other microorganisms are evolving to metabolize the plastic to obtain the energy to grow and reproduce. The microbes are also exchanging genes, which will presumably lead to novel organisms, very possibly pathogenic. See https://www.quantamagazine.org/on-waste-plastics-at-sea-maria-luiza-pedrotti-finds-unique-microbial-multitudes-20180913/ Seagoing plastic and its attendant microorganisms move to the land via the food chain and other means. For a description of this process, see The Royal Society Publishing,‘Up and away: ontogenic transference as a pathway for aerial dispersal of microplastics’ It looks like yet another of those developments which, like climate change and the misuse of antibiotics, will become widely apparent only when it is too late to do anything about it.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Of course any such bacteria which emerge ( and they will) could also be used to decay plastics down to final atoms in huge plasto-bacteria composters.

      Reply
  5. lyman alpha blob

    What’s required is a drastic cut in the production and use of plastics for all but essential purposes – and those certainly don’t include most current single uses.

    I’m reading this from a little local coffee shop I decided to try out today. I’m drinking my coffee from a cup made out of recycled paper with a plastic lid with a ‘6’ on it. And so is everybody else sitting in the shop. So great for trying to be environmentally conscious and all – I suppose putting the recycled plastic in my cup lid at least temporarily keeps some microplastic beads out of the guts of some fish – but how what’s wrong with a nice ceramic mug???!?!?!

    So many easy things we could do but just don’t.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If the coffee-place industry wanted to incentivise everybody to bring in their own ceramic mug or other perma-reusable coffee-drinking container, here’s what they could do. They could charge a dollar for every disposable cup and offer a dollar discount to every customer who brings in herm’s own non-disposable coffee-drinking device.

      Reply
    2. a different chris

      Yeah, short of the ceramic dream, you should at least ask them why you need a lid when you aren’t even leaving the shop.

      Reply
    3. tommy

      As far as coffee shops go, which I don’t like to go to anymore (living in SF,heh), one reason is that, you can’t serve in glass unless you have the whole three container stainless steel sink outfit, which then requires a whole specialized floor underneath cuz of health dept. rules….and well as requirements on the ceiling above it….this work can then trip off new bathroom rules, which can be very expensive to build / re do… I went through this. Ugh. But yeah, so sick of all plastic. The bag thing worked here right away. Everyone normal got used to it immediately.

      Reply
  6. diptherio

    Anybody looked into plasti-gas? Apparently there’s a process by which you can convert plastics into a fuel that’s usable in gasoline engines. One of my neighbors keeps talking about it, but I haven’t looked into it yet to see if it’s just internet BS or something legit.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      No matter how techno-feasible it may be, it is still illegit from an energy conservation standpoint. Energy is lost at every step of turning NatGas or petro-extractives into plastic.
      More energy is lost from the plastic turning into plastigasoline for burning in engines.

      Separately, if it is a chlorinated plastic, chlorine bearing molecules will enter the air and whatever breathes or touches that air.

      Reply
  7. Hana M

    When the first investigations of plastic ‘recycling’ first began to appear I researched my very ‘environmentally conscious’ town’s program and discovered that it was all being sent to China. With China’s recent refusal to accept our junk Broookline’s ‘recycled’ trash is now going to Vietnam and other Asian nations, arguably even less able to handle it than China. I made a decision to put all my (limited) plastic in the regular trash. Currently most of it goes to New York State — to three different landfills and one waste to energy plant. Trash from Massachusetts also goes to New Hampshire, Maine [Sorry, Lambert!], and even as far as Ohio. I am not happy about this but I think it’s a better solution than having it make a round trip across the Pacific only to wind up in the ocean.

    Reply
    1. KPC

      Hana, as horrible as this is, thank you. I do the same here in my country.

      Sometimes, things are just not right, you know.

      I promise you, things will and do get a bit better from time to time.

      But it is so debilitating to discover that you have been lied to when you so reasonably and thoughtfully and properly believed and did, in that time, do the correct thing.

      In the law, you were deceived. This deceit was violence on you and others.

      Reply
    2. Carla

      Hana, I am grateful that you limit your plastics use (and not only because I live in Ohio) and I need to do the same thing. I’ve made the super-easy switch to re-usable shopping bags made of cloth or recycled plastics. Eschewing berries and/or mushrooms because they can only be purchased in non-recyclable plastic trays is harder. Plastic drinking straws drive me nuts, as they are utterly unnecessary for at least 99 percent of the population. And those plastic K-cups for brewing single cups of coffee? Crazy-making. A compostable paper filter is just as easy and actually makes a much better cuppa.

      Reply
  8. JEHR

    The next big thing will be tracing the effects of ingesting (by eating and breathing) these plastic micro-particles into animal and human bodies. It cannot be good to have micro-plastics in our bodies.

    Reply
  9. carl

    I was in Japan two weeks ago and I noticed that practically everything is encased in plastic, from the wetnaps at restaurants to the towels they give you to dry off with after a shower. I’m guessing it’s related to the Japanese fastidiousness, but it’s pretty striking, whatever the reason.

    Reply
  10. KPC

    Jerri-Lynn, thank you for this.

    Now we need solutions and they exist. First, stop using this nonsense.

    So, my firm, my family, my neighborhood and all are all about solutions. The ambassador up the street is in on the act. He is from Asia.

    Perhaps we can start with this book to help us come up with solutions which can be implemented now: “Life Without Plastic: The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy”.

    This book will be added to this firm’s library. It will be available to all of our clients, colleagues and friends as well as used in our practice of law, accountancy and diplomacy. We have this on order from Libro Max, a fabulous book store up the street from these offices. You can see Libro Max here http://www.libromax.com/libros.htm .

    In addition to books, Randall who runs the Libro Max up the street also sells cloth shopping bags. I assure you that the cloth shopping bags actually work better than the plastic ones such as when I have to carry a gallon of Clorox, a liter of milk, bags of rice and beans or even a few vegetables from the growers markets. E.g., the cloth bags do not break and the handles are easier on my hands.

    So, when we go to the Automercado at the fancy place up the street or PeriMercado, we have in our pocket the cloth bags and DEMAND they NOT use those gawd awful plastic things. Loudly demand. There are a rapidly evolving group grand dames and caballeros in this neighborhood who do the same to a noticeable impact… .

    Lets get on with the solutions! We have no need to wait for some jefes, grand or small, to ORDER the necessary changes in our personal behavior. We can start now and it is perfectly legal.

    This is the law of small numbers. The behavior of each and every one of us each and every day make up the collective. No, no one of us can change it all. No one of us can do 100%. But each and every day, we can make some small difference.

    Another source of solutions in this area is this: treehugger.com.

    Again, Jerri-Lynn, thank you for your hard work.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      In addition to treehugger, like this post from there, https://www.treehugger.com/green-home/11-easy-ways-reduce-your-plastic-waste-today.html, here’s some more resources for us iPeople to reduce our iNdividual impacts:

      https://www.reefrelief.org/2013/01/51-ways-to-reduce-plastic-use-or-completely-eliminate-it/

      http://savedbygraceblog.com/use-instead-plastic/

      For the all-important office environment, some ideas on alternatives and waste reduction: http://www.greeneducationfoundation.org/nationalgreenweeksub/waste-reduction-tips/tips-for-the-office.html

      And there are various curricula for various levels of schooling that might help breed some conscious anti-waste and anti-consumption thinking into the young folks as well as us oldsters steeped in the culture of consumption:

      https://seagrant.psu.edu/sites/default/files/Lessons%20for%20NIE%202%20and%203%205GyresALLACTIVITIESPlasticPollutionCurriculum.pdf

      Here’s a fun one from my old agency, the US Environmental ProtectDecimation Agency: https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyNET.exe/10001A5U.txt?ZyActionD=ZyDocument&Client=EPA&Index=1986%20Thru%201990&Docs=&Query=&Time=&EndTime=&SearchMethod=1&TocRestrict=n&Toc=&TocEntry=&QField=&QFieldYear=&QFieldMonth=&QFieldDay=&UseQField=&IntQFieldOp=0&ExtQFieldOp=0&XmlQuery=&File=D%3A%5CZYFILES%5CINDEX%20DATA%5C86THRU90%5CTXT%5C00000004%5C10001A5U.txt&User=ANONYMOUS&Password=anonymous&SortMethod=h%7C-&MaximumDocuments=1&FuzzyDegree=0&ImageQuality=r75g8/r75g8/x150y150g16/i425&Display=hpfr&DefSeekPage=x&SearchBack=ZyActionL&Back=ZyActionS&BackDesc=Results%20page&MaximumPages=1&ZyEntry=5 Lots of Fun Activities there… Maybe some of it might stick in a useful part of the young brains, though EPA is not so much about protecting health and the environment any more — more about providing cover for the wastrels…

      Every little bit helps.

      Reply
    2. Oguk

      In my town we are currently having a “Plastics-free October” month-long series of events highlighting different aspects of the problem, and various specific ways for people to plug in (e.g., distributing stainless steel straws). I’ve just picked up Life Without Plastic from the library (from the Plastics-Free October collection). I like it a lot, and though I thought I was doing pretty well, there’s so much more to do.

      Re virtue-signalling: I find that though I think there’s some of that, no one in the activist core thinks that e.g. recycling alone will solve things, it’s just a way to engage people to observe and learn just what happens to your trash. It’s a huge disappointment to find even the recycling we pay for isn’t really happening – and is only a “downcycle” solution (recycled plastic becomes lower value products). I don’t see a solution, just have to be honest.

      Reply
  11. Jean

    Whenever we order anything online, we ask
    “Is this item packed in Styrofoam blocks or pellets? If so, we will return it immediately.”
    If buying items at retail, we open it up at the register and leave it there should it have plastic foam packaging.

    If enough people did this, the factories that make and pack the stuff would switch to paper or cardboard insulation.

    Reply
  12. marieann

    I am as plastic free as one can be without government intervention.I rarely eat out and when I do I have my own non plastic utensils,napkins,water bottle etc. I shop as much as I can at bulk stores with my own containers. I write to companies to encourage them to use less plastic, I changed to loose tea because of the plastic in tea bags and I contacted Tetley Tea (a total waste of time) I make all my own food, process fruit and veggies so I don’t have to buy plastic lined cans.I shop mainly in thrift stores or don’t shop at all.

    It is exhausting! and folk who still work,have kids and busy lives could not do it. We need regulations to make sure the companies who produce and use the plastic pay for it’s disposal. We need deposits on all plastic to make the consumers that use the product are responsible for recycling or non use.

    As your article says recycling is not the answer…we must stop using plastic and all disposables.

    Sadly I don’t think any of this will happen…we have been at this recycling gig about 10 years? and most of the folk in my neighbourhood get it wrong or don’t even try.

    When I go for my walk in the morning I apologize to the trees and wildlife I see, we are killing our planet

    Reply
    1. KPC

      It can be despairing, there is no question.

      But what others do is no excuse for me to do likewise or take any less care. Frankly, this behavior is roughly the maturity level of about age 5.

      Exhausting? I suppose sometimes. But, as I mentioned, the cloth shopping bags actually make my life easier and less costly in monetary terms.

      Of course, we are always fond of the excuse of having children. Tis a choice, you know? My wife and I chose not to have children for all of the reasons we face today. However, never doubt, we have just a passel of kids. One of whom is my youngest kid-in-law whom we cared for after mum died in a horrible accident. At the time my wife and I were working well in excess of 100 hours a week trying to fix this mess and continue to do so. We are very proud of this kid of ours who today is an attorney working in these same areas. I do not ever recall feeling put upon when caring for this fabulous human being.

      I will add her father at age 94 today is equally proud. He also worked hundreds of hours per week in law and diplomacy commencing during the time of WWII. He is a teacher of me as well. He works yet today and we do not live in USA.

      So, as one of my teachers said to me one night at midnight, buck up. The lady in question was 65 at the time and a major attorney, single as well and the comment was made at mid-night as she and I toiled away.

      These excuses are just that. Excuses.

      I also take my own containers up to a fabulous tea shop up the street. This is hardly difficult or vaguely taxing, if you will pardon the pun. The containers weigh near nothing. I just stuff them in the cloth shopping bags. So, I would complain?

      As for working? Well, so do I. Often seven days a week. So, I don’t know. We all get tired.

      Now that I think about it, back to work for me.

      Reply
  13. Snifferdog

    From the above “Japan exports 1.5 million tons of plastic” Plastic weighs next to nothing, imagine the volume of that amount of plastic!!!

    Recycling is not enough, we must STOP IT AT SOURCE and stop manufacturers using plastic packaging as a start with dedicated phase out dates…

    Reply
  14. Jeremy Grimm

    I’ll play the ‘Devil’s Advocate’. I recall an argument that gasoline is something of a waste product compared with diesel, but thanks to the internal combustion engine a use was found for it. Might a similar argument apply to the components of petroleum that are used to make plastics? If so — which would you rather … a plastic straw … or whatever other ‘solution’ the Oil Cartels might come up with for disposing of their wastes. And before you answer — think seriously about how nicely frackers deal with their waste water problems.

    Suppose all plastic containers might be eliminated and replaced by glass, steel or wood. Consider the additional weight added to freight and the consequent additional usage of diesel fuel. Maybe some microplastic particles in salt and sea birds isn’t such a bad trade-off.

    Plastic is a useful material. We simply are not using it very well. We are wasting it in short-sighted, short-term applications — like plastic straws — that waste what is a valuable resource. Plastic is light, it does not rot [yet], and it can be efficiently formed into innumerable shapes using less energy than similar products made using glass or metal. When protected from UV light plastic lasts for centuries, and some types of plastic can tolerate exposure to UV light. Plastic doesn’t break like glass and it stretches far more than a most metals without breaking.

    Plastic is a miracle material we are badly misusing. One application of plastic that excites my imagination is plastic papers that might be used to preserve our knowledge. They are inexpensive, save trees, and endure conditions that destroy all but the most special and expensive papers from other sources. Plastic paper makes an excellent wrap for an energy efficient building envelope that also allows interior humidity to leave a building while protecting the building from moisture coming in.

    Besides all this — when considering all the issues related to Peak Oil and Climate Disruption — is plastic misuse really what bothers you most? [Disclaimer called for — I am very much in love with glass although my desire to preserve knowledge makes me fond also of plastic papers.]

    Reply
    1. KPC

      I do not think you are entirely wrong.

      The discussion above deals with wasting to the extreme. E.g., last I saw there is in excess a 30% waste factor in the USA food system and electric grid.

      Plastic is useful when used properly. E.g., some plumbing, parts of alternative energy sources such as the wind mills and solar use plastic. But this is transitory and will need to be adjusted. Nonetheless, it helps in the transition.

      Furthermore, I am not advocating the absolute abandonment of plastic and other technology. Quite the contrary. I am advocating using these tools intelligently and thoughtfully including, sometimes, out right banning them such as herbicides and insecticides which, to a large degree, are also petrochemicals.

      The problem we encounter with these discussions is they are used to flip this back at us to justify exception after exception after exception… . A classic is justifying plastic bottles instead of glass for soda and beer due to the weight and consumption of delivery fuel. There are solutions to this without using the plastic bottles, by the way. Back in the day, I worked on the Anhueser-Busch solutions.

      But as we say, plastic, petroleum, computers and pen and paper are tools. Tools are agnostic. It is how we human beings use tools that renders them good or evil. Ain’t no such thing as artificial intelligence.

      There are solutions and all of these solutions involve of necessity a bit of change in our individual and collective behavior. Nothing more and nothing less.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Continuing as Devil’s Advocate I’ll accept your agreement where I am not entirely wrong.
        “Plastic is useful when used properly …” a tool neither good nor bad but bad when misused. — I’m not arguing to justify exceptions nor to excuse waste or excess.

        But I’m not making moral arguments at all. What I am arguing is the old argument that all the costs and benefits need to be weighed against our goals. One goal is to minimize environmental pollution generated to support our way of life. I’m adding a hypothetical waste Oil Cartels would probably add if there were no use for a portion of petroleum left from the crack after taking out the diesel. I trust they might find the same sorts of ‘legal’ ways to get rid of a waste byproduct that they found for fracking waste water or the way the pork industry dumps pig waste into open pools to contribute to the local air quality and water table.

        Another goal is to reduce the CO2 pollution used for making and transporting the containers we seem to need to support our way of life. Plastic is bad but it saves weight and obtaining plastic — the raw materials for glass do no come from a well — and forming it — plastic forms at a lower temperature than glass — saves energy over the full life cycle of producing a bottle for ketchup and placing it on a store shelf. The bottle that remains after the ketchup is gone does fill up our landfills but that is as true for the glass as it is for the plastic. And you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that as the Devil’s Advocate I have little faith in the effective recycling of plastic or glass.

        I recall a story from my college days about the ‘test’ dogs the biology labs used for their ‘experiments’ in the upper levels and basements of the building housing the biology department. Some of the more tender-hearted who heard the mournful howls of the tortured test animals when visiting their lecturer’s office hours complained to the administration. Shortly after that a memo come down from the administration to the biology department … and shortly after that a graduate student armed with a scalpel went from lab to lab “de-barking” the dogs.

        The misuse of plastic is a waste in another sense of the word, indeed more than a waste. Plastic as a portion of petroleum is a finite resource. When it is gone, there is no more. True we have ways to make plastic but they would hardly replace the vast billions of gallons of the raw stuff we pull from the ground. There are some applications for which plastic offers the best solution. Again I come to plastic papers. It is more than waste to use up a finite though vast resource for silly purposes like a plastic straw or a plastic ketchup bottle or a container for a gallon of milk. — And for that matter, what of our mad using up of petroleum … for so many frivolous purposes. As far as anyone knows there is no more when it is gone … not for a few million years at least.

        Reply
        1. saylor

          All of what you said is supportive of continuing on with the same foundation of consumerism that we have had for many decades.
          Per the latest UN climate report, ALL of the ways we live now HAVE to change. Plastics do have a place. But all plastics manufactured should be readily recycled and at this point, some are not. Not all plastics are created equal.

          Reply
  15. Phil in KC

    My first attempt to start deplastizing my household started in the fridge. DId away with Saran-wrapping all the leftovers. Next was to stop buying items in plastic containers when there was an alternative.

    Visited four grocery stores and could not find ketchup, cheap yellow mustard, mayonnaise, or salad dressing (with the exception of one brand) in glass bottles or jars. Pickles, fancy mustards, steak sauces, some barbecues sauces still are packaged in glass, but for how long? It seems as if the food industry is going the wrong way! At least where we live, glass is being recycled and is a profitable business.

    I have a suspicion that my municipality is no longer recycling, as I keep seeing the trash guys dump the recycling bin in the same part of the truck as the regular garbage.

    Some things are unavoidable. I bought a bag of Kit Kat bars at the grocery. Check out person tried to put it in a bag. I said, ” I don’t need a bag, they’re already in a bag.”

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  16. RR Hayes

    Surely there is a technology that can convert plastic back into petroleum. If one does not exist, why not start the effort. There is whole island in the pacific that is plastic–could that be the new Saudi Arabia for petroleum production?

    Reply
  17. Rod

    i recognize that the post greatest gen has been groomed diligently regarding the concept of ‘waste’ and ‘trash’. yes we have got the physical problem of bulk discards–but that is the symptom.
    the disease is our mental concept of what is ‘waste’ and ‘trash’.
    i’m sure my grandmother(1889-1969rip) would have thought the resealable plastic container of lunch meat–currently meant by THE MANUFACTURER to be discarded after the contents are gone–to be a godsend of storage capability to be used until worn out. as an example to differentiate btwn plastic bag and wrap byproduct versus byproduct that has potential second life.

    regardless, the manufacturers are profiting without penalty or cost because we have been groomed by the consumptive marketplace that post consumption deitrus should be considered “waste” not new raw material.
    remember—–reduce-reuse-recycle? these 3 r’s really are the solution–not just the slogan.

    Reply
  18. saylor

    I suggested that my local grocery store deli manager switch from plastic deli containers to the paper cartons used by Chinese take out. Man did she get an attitude with me. In a cold professional tone she state that I could reuse the existing containers. While I do that, I also only use them about three times as they start to degrade with too much hot water and detergent. Absolutely do not wash plastic containers (beloved Tupperware and all) in a dishwasher.

    Reply
  19. Duck1

    Comment on teabags, they contain plastic because they are heatsealed and the plastic bonds the paper. The fancy whole leaf type teabags are pure synthetic as far as I know. I became aware of this situation while reading about people wondering why the teabags didn’t compost. Whole leaf is superior and good quality leaf can be found at middle eastern or indian groceries, if they are accessible where you live . Reasonably priced.

    Reply

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