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.
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.