Plastics Watch: Recycling, Raccoons, and Rubbish

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

America Recycles Day has come and gone and I didn’t even notice.

The Guardian reports on Friday that the plastics industry, via an NGO they’ve created, Keep America Beautiful, is the power behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recycling initiative, Big plastic polluters accused of cynically backing US recycling day.

The NGO promotes three goals: end littering; improve recycling; and beautify communities.

Notice that each of these places the onus on individuals to clean up the plastics mess, after plastics pushers generate the waste – rather than on reducing or eliminating that waste in the first  instance. According to the Guardian:

“Just like the fossil fuel industry, corporate polluters have been using recycling to justify ever-increasing production of single-use packaging, while taxpayers and cities are left to foot the bill,” said Denise Patel, the US and Canada program director of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

“Lower-income communities and communities of color, who are the hardest hit and the least responsible, bear the brunt of a model that has brought us to the brink of the waste and climate crisis.”

Now, far be it for me that recycling should be part of a sound waste management strategy. But it should be far from the major part. Why? Rather than making more plastics – via processes that exacerbate climate change we should stop transforming fossil fuel inputs into unnecessary waste.   We’ll likely need to use those fuels  in future, for reasons more pressing than swathing  things in excessive and unnecessary plastics.

The FT published a longform essay on the topic earlier this month, Can we break our addiction to plastic? The future of packaging, which touches on some of the reasons curbing our use of plastics is so difficult. It mentions just how poor the current reality is on recycling plastics, with only about 9% off the 8.3 billion tons of plastics produced since the 1950s being recycled. The remainder ends up in landfills, oceans, or elsewhere in the environment.

Before turning away from recycling, I’ll highlight a recent Waste Dive piece, How recycling has changed in all 50 states, which documents changes in state recycling efforts in the wake of the Chinese decision to ban plastic imports about two years ago. The first consequence of the Chinese decision was to divert plastics waste to there designates. Which quickly became overwhelmed, and either reduced, banned, or sent back, further imports (see Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia; India Bans Plastics Waste Imports, While Fossil Fuel Plastics Pushers in US and China Ramp Up to Party On; and Recycling Woes: Indonesia Sends Waste Shipment Back to Australia).

At the risk of repeating previous material I’ve posted, I’d like to discuss the wider problem: the consequences of a massive ramp up in plastics production. As the Guardian reports:

A huge global expansion in plastic production is under way, threatening to sweep aside any effort to increase the current recycling rate of about 9% of all plastics. A 2017 analysis found that fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell have poured more than $180bn into new facilities that form the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons.

This boom is set to fuel a 40% rise in plastic production over the next decade, according to experts, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientists warn already risks “near permanent pollution of the Earth”.

Currently, approximately 6% of global fossil fuel production is devoted to making plastics, and that is expected to increase to 20% by 2050, according to the International Energy Administration, as reported by the FT.

Now, I’m not going to succumb to the fallacy of fully embracing Say’s Law. But I would think that rather than making more of the stuff, we should just stop. For if it is produced, plastics pushers will seek to market and sell the poison. Any sustainable system must include outright reduction in creating the stuff in the first instance. Instead, the Trump administration is both promotes plastic production, and encouraging more recycling (within the limits of the current system  and without rethinking or overhauling it.)

By contrast, many other countries are doing far more. Over to the FT:

In many parts of the world, regulation is also tightening. Some 127 countries have placed limits on plastic bags, while the EU will ban a range of items by 2021, including cutlery, plates and straws. The UK government has made proposals to tax packaging that does not contain enough recycled content and wants to make manufacturers responsible for the full cost of managing their waste.

Nonetheless, I’ve seen some small positive signs on the reduce front. A couple of weeks ago, I was shopping at the local Saturday Farmers Market (in Long Beach, on Long Island). When I refused single-use plastic bags, and opted instead for my own bags, one vendor nodded his approval, and told me, next season, he won’t offer single use plastic (this is in anticipation of New York state’s ban of single-use plastics, due to come into effect in March, according to the NYT, Plastic Bags to Be Banned in New York; Second Statewide Ban, After California). Another vendor, a woman, told me she’s already stopped providing plastic bags, and when customers complained, she told them about her beach clean-up work, and the fact that we just have to stop using the stuff.

And yesterday, the couple in front of me at the supermarket dutifully bagged their groceries in the reusable bags they ported. But things like eliminating low-hanging fruit such as single-use plastic grocery bags are only a minuscule part of a vast problem.

Raccoons and Rubbish

Now to change the subject completely – but still stay somewhat in the realm of rubbish. Let me tell you about my raccoon problem.

I’m currently writing this in Point Lookout, Long Island, where my husband has temporarily taken a winter rental.

We thought we were suffering from a plague of feral cats.


The other night – early Saturday morning, actually, at about 2:00 a.m., when I was staring out the kitchen window, as I drank a glass of cold water – I spied two jaunty masked mammalian bandits as they loped into the yard.

I rapped on the window, hoping to startle them and chase them away. They noticed, looked up, but didn’t otherwise react.

I opened the back door and half-heartedly lunged in their direction. The raccoons stood their ground. One looked at me, as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got, lady?” and calmly returned to chowing down on my rubbish. I didn’t fancy a close encounter with two feral raccoons, so it was I who retreated, to continue watching their antics safely from behind a window.

Now I am well aware, raccoons can be vicious. But I must admit: they looked so cute! With their little bandit masks. This pair was quite tubby – well-fed on Point Lookout rubbish. One of them focussed on the loot on the ground, the other was performing calisthenics off the garbage bin. S/he’d figured out how to take the top off – easy peasy – and clambered inside, in search of rotting treasure.

The next morning, we tidied up the carnage – lncluding dozens of wrappers from left-over Halloween candy my husband had tossed in order not tempted to overindulge in Kit Kats and Snickers bars.

Last night, my husband booby-trapped the rubbish before setting it out again. Now, I grew up and lived in three small towns, each located at least sixty miles (and sixty years) from mid-town Manhattan. So, I’m well familiar with raccoons. When I was no more than six or seven years old, my father tried to deal with them by borrowing a neighbor’s BB gun. EIither he was a lousy shot or never awake when the raccoons came to raid the rubbish and never managed to wing let alone deter a raccoon.

Years later, when I’d moved away, a raccoon tried to enter my mother’s kitchen during the middle of the day. Having heard a perhaps overwrought rural legend about the curse of rabid raccoons, she called the local cops. A NJ state trooper arrived and he, too, was concerned, as rather than running away, the animal lurked on our deck. The trooper was a much better shot than my father and carried a handgun to boot. So he shot the raccoon and sent the head off to the state lab to be examined for rabies.

Alas, said raccoon wasn’t rabid. But certainly too friendly – or simply curious – for her/his own good.

But I digress. My husband and I have no interest in executing any raccoons. Just in deterring them from mauling our rubbish. My husband searched online for what to do.

One remedy he found: soaking some paper towels in standard household ammonia reputedly repels the critters. Another alternative – lacing the trash with cayenne – while it avoids messing with ammonia, it can sometime harm them. The cayenne gets in their eyes, and when they scratch at it in search of relief, they can blind themselves.

And just as I don’t want to kill the critters outright, I don’t want the burden of blind raccoons on my conscience. I’d prefer not to imagine them stumbling around until they starve to death.

So since we wanted to put the rubbish out for collection, ammonia it was, after we found some lurking under the sink. (I no longer buy the stuff, but the owner of this beach rental apparently does.) Not to mention, we had little cayenne.

Don’t know why – the ammonia, the hangover from gorging themselves on chocolate, or perhaps, just as it is for dogs, chocolate may be poisonous to raccoons, and my pair had succumbed to death by chocolate – the rubbish was intact this morning, and the refuse truck just picked it up.

Incidentally, if any readers have any better suggestions raccoon-deterrent strategies please share, as I’m not sure this problem has been completely solved.

As for the longer-term. I’m no fan of the technofix fairy (see Plastic Watch: Debunking the Technofix Fairy, Biodegradable Bags Don’t Degrade.) The FT mentions a number of start-ups that are pioneering other types of non-plastics packaging, which would degrade naturally rather than linger as plastics does. These include some based on coated-paper products, wood, cardboard or cellulose-based fibre from seaweed or trees, or other organic materials such as corn, sugar cane, or potato starch.

Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating feeding the local raccoons as a waste management strategy.

But as long as they’re going to pillage the rubbish, I’d prefer they eat the chocolate wrappers along with the chocolates, rather than leaving that plastic behind to be sent to the landfill.

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  1. Fred

    To deal with my raccoons, possums etc I put all my food scraps in a compost pile about 100 yards from the house. Sure they went after it and messed with my pile. But that’s the idea, as it gave me a reason to stir it up and keep it going.

  2. truly

    Chocolate is poisonous to raccoons I believe.
    Minneapolis has moved to raccoon proof garbage cans about 20 years ago. That really is the best solution. We have way less raccoons in our city now. There has to be a way to strap or otherwise attach the lid to dissuade them.
    Most raccoons have common routes and areas that they work. If yours did die due to chocolate then it will be just a matter of time until a new individual or family starts working your property.
    Raccoons also hate brightly lit areas. Probably not a solution to your garbage issue but often a solution to raccoons being on the deck.
    DOn’t leave cat food out.

  3. Danny

    Dear, how do I recycle the 10×8″ plastic card you mailed to everyone in our town, and probably to tens of millions of other people, announcing your various promotions?

    It’s marked “other.” Therefore is not recyclable.
    Could we trade it for a free case of good wine?
    That would be the correct thing to do, plus a sizeable donation to a serious environmental group and using paper from now on.

    Until then, not a cent of spending.

  4. doug

    You can catch them in a havahart type trap and relocate them. You have to take them rather far away. But there probably is no need for them anywhere you might drop them off.
    My vet told me if I ever shot one during the day that might be rabid, was to burn it right there and not touch it or get very near it. Rabies is quite contagious, or so I am told.

    Raccoons can open most anything and are remarkable to watch doing so, but…..
    Did the landlord have the issue? or suggestions?
    Good luck with it.

  5. Arizona Slim

    Last summer, while I was visiting my mother, we were settled in for a lovely night’s slumber. Then came a loud CLANG!

    Oh, goodie. The raccoons are back on the porch, and they’re tipping the metal trashcan over. Again.

    Guess who got to clean up the mess. If you guessed Arizona Slim, you’re right.

    Now, my mother lived in a semi-rural area near Philadelphia, and let’s just say that the township trash pickup service wasn’t too particular about what customers put their trash in for pickup.

    Meaning that there was no official trashcan like there is here in Tucson. (Try setting your trash out in bags, and watch our city trucks blow right by your place without stopping.)

    So, Mom’s caregiver and I embarked upon a mission. And that was to purchase a raccoon-resistant trashcan.

    I’m here to tell you that the rolling 40 gallon plastic can that we brought home from Lowes did the trick. It kept the raccoons out of our trash.

  6. markm

    Do we have data on how much consumer-recycled plastic is *actually* recycled into another plastic product? My (limited) understanding is that types 1-5 plastic cannot be recycled into the same type, only into lower-quality forms.

    BTW in my town all plastic now goes along with household waste to an incinerator, which uses the plastic as fuel to reduce the incinerator’s carbon footprint and operating cost. The former recycle contract was ended by the contractor.

    Clearly, eliminating new plastic production should be the priority.

  7. john halasz

    Speaking of single use plastic is nonsense; there are no triple use plastics. If recycled under current technology, the result is inferior quality plastic which can’t be recycled again. It’s a waste of energy and other resources to recycle plastic. Degradable and compostable bio-plastics need to be kept separate from other waste in landfills, else they just increase the methane problem, and composting can only be done in special industrial facilities, not at home. But there are technologies on the horizon. A couple of years ago a team from the U. of Tel Aviv announce that they had developed a method of breaking down plastics into their basic pellets while stripping the plastic of any chemicals that they had been treated with in their manufacture. Hence permanently recyclable plastic. (I don’t recall if they could capture and recycle the chemicals which themselves can be toxic). Just recently a team from Sweden announced that they had developed a method from breaking down plastics to reusable pellets by slowly heating them 850 C. and condensing the resulting gas. Further scientists have found in odd nooks species of bacteria and fungi that had evolved the ability to metabolize and digest plastic. More recently the exact enzyme involved has be identified and extracted. Permanently recyclable plastic would still require energy and resource use, but they would potentially nullify fossil fuel based plastics production while providing an economic incentive to collect plastics. And then the investments of the fossil fuel corps. would be rendered worthless, stranded. (Taxing new fossil fuel plastics to compensate for any price differential could surely help). But plastics are such a malleable set of materials with innumerable uses that imagining that they could be abolished or completely substituted away from in modern industrial societies seems a pipe dream. And banning plastic bags is just a trivial displacement from the full extent of the plastics pollution problem, a kind of denial. I’m afraid that the techno-fix fairy is our best bet,

  8. Joe Well

    It would be nice if society could come up with some solution for people who stop and buy something at the last moment while they’re out walking. Right now, the default is to sell someone a supposedly reusable plastic bag for 10 cents or whatever nominal amount–why can’t we get truly reusable bags on deposit? Or just sell people paper bags for 10 cents each?

    Also, isn’t any bag solution that is designed around people who drive to shop just greenwashing? Isn’t the environmental impact of a car (let alone an SUV or pickup) a lot bigger than for a few paper bags?

    1. anon y'mouse

      i haven’t been able to stop the checkout clerks from giving me plastic bags except by carrying whatever it is by hand. it isn’t the “culture” here, and they are mystified anytime i bring my own bags. or say “you’re from California, aren’t you?”

      if you are out walking regularly, you could use a bag that folds into itself and becomes smaller than a pair of rolled up socks. they even sell them premade with carabiners to clip onto your belt buckle, purse strap, etc.

      1. Joe Well

        >>if you are out walking regularly

        My objection is that if anyone is not “out walking regularly” they are almost certainly a menace to the earth and I don’t want to hear about their reusable shopping bags.

        >>a bag that folds into itself

        I saw a new advanced fits-in-your-wallet bag advertised on Facebook, but in the comments people worked out that the environmental impact of the thing was huge due to the materials it used.

        When it is cold weather, I just roll up two “bad” plastic shopping bags, which are remarkably reusable if you don’t put in anything with sharp edges, and leave them inside my coat pocket, but even those are too big to leave in my wallet or pants pocket. And yes, like you said, the cashiers at some places wriggle their noses, literally, at old plastic bags, even the “reusable” ones the stores sell you in Boston for $0.10.

        And what about when I am going jogging, for instance, and see a great deal on apples on the way back?

        Bottom line: the reusable bag movement reeks of greenwashing by automobile users. I don’t want their lifestyle advice and I certainly don’t want them setting environmental policy.

        1. anon y'mouse

          not everyone lives in a community in which it is safe to walk regularly. there is also weather, to which some people are more sensitive.

          not to mention disability which may prevent one from doing so, no matter how much they wish otherwise.

          as for “the reusable bag” that has an environmental impact much larger than the plastic ones it replaces, sadly this is true unless you use it thousands of times. it is likely to be lost and/or fall apart sooner than that.

          hippies used to carry something called a “string bag” for produce.

          sounds like you have it figured out, though. sorry to “preach at” you.

  9. Susan the Other

    We should consider raccoons, we all love them, right?, to be land-fish. They wake up at dusk and begin swimming through the aromatic air to their food source. By the early hours they are stuffed and going back to sleep. My raccoons never have far to travel. They sleep in maximum security under my back deck. And when times (used to be) were rough, they just ate dog food from the front deck mess hall. We need an organizational principle. No poison/adequate nutrition – for the critters. Too bad we can’t potty-train raccoons. They’d end human overpopulation because we’d all love them and adopt them. But back to pollution – that’s our problem – externalizing all our costs. No? But to the point of plastic pollution? – I think it’s now a question of lag-time. The indiscriminate slop of garbage landing in landfills produces huge methane pollution, just sitting there waiting to be buried. We could use some basic waste engineering: 1, 2, and 3. If AOC came up with a plan for recycling while eliminating plastic packaging it would be excellent. Just recently there was an announcement about detoxifying nuclear waste: zapping the proton away from its electrons; leaving protons in a pile of recyclables? New Age. Plastics should be the same. If we try to plow all that icky plastic into the soil we will run out of soil. We will create, in addition, an enormous diffuse source of methane, rising from barely buried garbage into the air and into the atmosphere. We need to get control of our “manufactures” asap. We need to control out garbage. Do we actually need to even say this??

  10. Anarcissie

    The bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that eat plastic (which contains a lot of energy) will continue to evolve, cross-breed, and multiply, so I would expect the problem to solve itself in a few decades. As they evolve, they may also develop and spread pathogens, so maybe they’ll take the sources of plastic down too.

    Raccoons may be cute, but they are dangerous wild animals and they don’t love you. I have seen a couple of videos of raccoons attacking human beings; they seem to go for the head or the face. They are pretty fearless. Several years ago, when I was out walking my dog (a 55-pound dog, by the way) a group of them came after us, but I had a stick of the right length to ward of overly aggressive dogs, and the raccoons seemed to know about sticks since they stayed just out of reach. But don’t ever fool with them, and avoid feeding them if possible, unless you want to support all the raccoons in your county. Ammonia deters raccoons and other garbage raiders; since the smell repels them, they are not usually harmed by it. The composting solution is also good, if you don’t mind having the compost redistributed around the compost bin regularly.

  11. anon y'mouse

    gee, how did people sell and distribute goods before all of this?

    cans, bottles, and waxed paper?

    instead, everyone tries to reinvent the wheel.

    remember bottle deposits? remember taking back your six-pack in the cardboard container, and stacking it in the rack at the exit to the checkout line at the grocery store, and getting your money back?

    what is there that is absolutely necessary to send in a plastic container?

    also, why focus on the wrapping. tons of household goods and appliances are plastic, and non-repairable when they break, and cheaply/poorly made enough to break often and never have worked correctly to begin with. remember mechanical devices that you could take to a local repairman and have fixed for you? instead, if the coffee maker dies somehow, just toss it. another one can be had very easily, right?

    one thing that people don’t seem to bring up because many are not aware is the MASSIVE amounts of waste behind the scenes at every store you shop in. you brought home the package that the actual product was placed in and , after opening the package to get the item, tossed it. but there is an absolute mountain of stuff that was thrown away to get the dozen or so that the store stocked out on the shelf that customers NEVER see. granted, not all of it is plastic, but it is just as foolish: entire displays worth of cardboard and tickytacky material that can’t be recycled (because ordering a full display is quite often how they refill the first display). mountains of boxes that were used ONE TIME to get the item from the distributor to you, and a bazillion miles of plastic wrap to enclose pallets of items. nearly everything behind the scenes at every store you visit is swimming in this stuff, and disposing of it, daily. only the pallets, and those reusable closing plastic bins for loose items generally get reused.

    every item represents how many pounds worth of waste that sadly we are not aware of, and may never be aware no matter how virtuous we are at checkout with our plastic bag refusal?

  12. D.M. Dunkle

    I was a professional proofreader back in the Stone Age before MacIntosh and computer graphics. One of the books I proofed was a manual put out by the State of Florida regarding rabies and wildlife. One of the top animals listed was raccoons. There is nothing cute about them. They are wildlife, contract rabies quite easily, and will defend themselves and their families. I live in a downtown area and have composted for decades. My area is undergoing rapid gentrification, and I have not seen raccoons in quite sometime. However, if I had to choose between the critters and the plastic scourge……that’s a no-brainer.

  13. John Zelnicker

    I live in a residential area with lots of patches of woods and various parks. Recently, my dog, fed on my back porch, didn’t eat all his food, which he usually does in one sitting. When I let him out later to finish, there was a raccoon eating at his bowl and they both took off like streaks of lightning. The raccoon escaped, fortunately.

    I close the porch door now if he doesn’t finish.

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