Straight Talk about Plastics Recycling

CommonWealth Magazine, 12/6/2022
by Claire Galkowski, Executive Director of South Shore Recycling Cooperative

HAS RECENT NEWS  left you wondering if it’s worthwhile to rinse and sort your plastic containers?  As a lifelong waste warrior and 30-year recycling professional, my answer is an emphatic “yes.”

Attacking recycling programs, as anti-plastic organizations have been doing, is like hiding the lifejackets during a storm.  Yes, there is too much trashy plastic in circulation.  Durable plastics – computers, mattresses, equipment that kept my husband alive in the ICU last year – also figure substantially in the denominator of low recycling rates being bandied about.

However, when it comes to the bottles and rigid containers that go in your blue bin, big brand owners and local companies alike can’t get enough of the rigid #1s, 2s, and 5s to replace petroleum-based “virgin” material. Consumers demand it, and new laws in four states will soon require it. While the recycling system strives to be more efficient, the main challenge is that more than 70 percent of this feedstock is thrown in the trash, or worse, dropped on the ground.

To be sure, those plastic industry-driven “chasing arrows” surrounding numbers are misleading.  The symbols suggest that the items are recyclable, but in fact all they do is identify plastic type.  This information isn’t useful to the sorting facilities, which use high-tech optical scanners, and it confuses consumers.  Items that are put in the bin stamped with #3, 4, 6, and 7 are indeed taking a long detour to the landfill.

Since China embargoed mixed recyclables from the US in 2018, the domestic recycling industry has made great strides in its capacity to recover those materials.  In Massachusetts, for example, most of the acceptable plastics that land in recycling bins do become new products, especially now that all but one processor sorts polypropylene (#5) separately.   And there is capacity in the system for plenty more, if consumers put them in the right place.

Plastic containers prop up our other recycling streams.  They comprise less than 10 percent of our residential material, but provide nearly half of its value, subsidizing the low-to-negative valued paper and glass.  Without plastics in our single stream recycling in 2022, average net processing costs (sorting, baling, shipping) in my service area, would have been more than double the $30/ton cost.

When motherhood inspired my own environmental epiphany, I avoided plastic as if it were anthrax.  After getting into the business and doing my own research, I realized that no material used in or on consumer goods is benign.  And plastic isn’t even the worst of them by most measures.

Despite its eco-failings, plastic is more efficient and less impactful than its alternatives. Yet the habitat destruction, chemical and climate-warming pollution of paper production, and the fossil-fueled furnaces of glassmaking somehow manage to escape the scrutiny that plastic receives.  Substitutes are also less effective at preventing spoiled food and broken merchandise, which are far more damaging than the packaging.

The recycling community has tried in vain to shift disposal habits for decades.  The only effective way to reduce waste is to put the onus of managing it on the brand owners that sell it.  In Canada and around the world, producers fund recycling with a small fee on their packaging.  Toothpaste thus is sold loose, not boxed. New producer responsibility laws in Maine, California, Oregon, and Colorado include incentives to use materials that do the least harm. They’ve already spurred some big brands to redesign their packaging.  MassRecycle, the Mass. Municipal Association, and my own South Shore Recycling Cooperative are leading the effort to enact this system in our state.

The overproduction of plastics – and of all other materials – is straining our little planet’s ability to support us.  Recycling does give consumers a lame excuse to buy more stuff.  But unless and until our society re-embraces Yankee frugality – making do with what we have, bringing our own bags, washing durable party goods – should we just trash the plastic we can recover?

We consumers are not helpless in the fight against waste.  We have the power to be creative, buy less stuff, to replace disposables with rags and travel mugs, to borrow, rent, and repair.  As for the rest, we can recycle and redeem our clean paper, cardboard, bottles, cans, and rigid containers with confidence.  Putting plastic waste into new products is a far happier ending, and beginning, than burning, burying, or littering them.

Claire Galkowski is the executive director of the 18-town South Shore Recycling Cooperative

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