China refuses the world's refuse; what to do with the problem of plastic
June 1, 2018 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Slipped into a New York Times listicle (of sorts) on the 6 things you're recycling wrong as an aspirational recycler is a link to another article: your recycling might not be getting recycled because of a ban on importing 24 types of "foreign waste" that was announced in July 2017, with the restrictions to start in 2018. In December of 2017, there was recycling chaos in the U.S. as recyclers were looking for new importers for the 1/6th of U.S. recycling that was previously heading to China. In April 2018, waste exporters such as the U.S., Europe and Japan were still scrambling for an alternative to China. Ahead of Earth Day 2018, China announced additional bans on waste imports.

Waste360 noted this was not the first time that China limited its waste importing, and listed newly banned waste as:
  • Plastic waste from living sources
  • Vanadium slag
  • Waste textile materials
  • Slag, dross (other than granulated slag), scalings and other waste from the manufacture of iron or steel.
  • Ash and residues (other than from the manufacture of iron or steel), containing arsenic, metals or their compounds.
  • Waste, parings and scrap, of plastics.
  • Waste of wool or of fine or coarse animal hair, including yarn waste but excluding garnetted stock.
  • Garnetted stock of wool or of fine or coarse animal hair.
  • Cotton waste (including yarn waste and garnetted stock).
  • Waste (including noils, yarn waste and garnetted stock) of man-made fibers.
  • Used or new rags, scrap twine, cordage, rope and cables and worn out articles of twine, cordage, rope or cables, of textile materials.
  • Other, including unsorted waste and scrap
China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment added waste hardware, scrapped ships, parts of scrapped cars and industrial waste plastics for processing to the list of prohibited imports in April 2018.

With the fact that some recyclers, like the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, are no longer accepting certain types of plastics, and given that a whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled (as reported by National Geographic in July 2017, which noted that "billions of tons of plastic have been made over the past decades, and much of it is becoming trash and litter, found the first analysis of the issue."), perhaps it's time to change our relationship with plastics. Christine Cole, writing for The Conversation UK via Scientific American includes a good round-up of the ways that different countries and companies are changing regulations and uses of plastics, from bans and taxes on lightweight plastic bags (which France has extended to a ban of plastic plates, cups and utensils in 2016), to bans on microbeads, found in personal care products, which kill marine life and bring harmful chemicals into the food chain.

Given that plastics aren't going away, some are looking for solutions: could the future of plastics recycling be in India?
posted by filthy light thief (54 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
The EU has the right idea. It should absolutely be illegal to make or sell single-use disposable plastic products. Nothing about plastic is "disposable."
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:04 PM on June 1, 2018 [62 favorites]


The US has a real bad habit of blaming the consumer. The key isn't guilting people, it's effective legislation. It's also identifying the actual pollution. While you've got people wringing their hands about disposable straws, the truth of the matter is that 90+% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing refuse. Nets and the like.

We need laws about how to make things more reusable, laws that incentivize proper usage and recycling, but also taxes that make up for the costs that plastics (and other materials) wage on our environments.
posted by explosion at 7:53 PM on June 1, 2018 [47 favorites]


Don't forget those darned "Tetra pack" or "aseptic pack" or "shelf stable" boxes -- aka "juice boxes" but they come on larger sizes and are used for milk and soup and suchlike. Few cities can accept them for recycling.

And the industry-PR "carton council" will tell you they can go into recycling in your city but you can't trust that oh-so-cheerful information, you need to ask the actual city/local recycling people about them.

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/03/09/591568093/in-the-recycling-world-why-are-some-cartons-such-a-problem
posted by hank at 7:53 PM on June 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


So much stuff is disposed of just because it's dispose-able. I'm no miser or hoarder, but a ziplock baggie will last a long time. I've been using the same ziplock to take 2 slices of bread for my sandwiches every workday for over a year. I've been using the same gatorade bottle for a water bottle that I fill up at the water cooler a few times a day for about as long. I have "tupperware" that startred out its life as lunch meat containers from the grocery store, and are perfectly lunch-sized when I want to take a blob of leftover casserole.

Not that I don't throw out enough plastic to horrify my as it is, (blister-pack is a scourge upon the earth, thanks shoplifters) But just because you've used it once doesn't mean you HAVE to throw it out.

I guess plastic is lighter & cheaper than glass to transport things like drinks in, but a thing that baffles & bothers me is the demise of the re-usable glass bottle. Remember when you could take your coke or beer empties to the store & when the truck would come with more beer or coke, they're pick up the empties to be washed & re-filled? From what I understand, marketers decided that their product looked unsightly on the shelf with all the wear rings on the bottles, from them passing through the washing, filling & capping machines again and again, & that their product would look much better in fresh glass bottles. Then, those got expensive compared to plastic bottles (I don't guess beer is ever sold in plastic bottles, but I'm probably giving someone ideas) Re-use is better than recycle in most cases, I'd think, & it feels like a huge step backward from re-usable glass containers to single use glass or plastic containers.

I'll give aluminum cans a pass because they're fairly easily melted & re-formed, but again, that seems like a waste of energy compared to re-use, & how many aluminum cans go in the trash vs recycling?

That's an aside, though. Yes, we're drowning in plastic, which is made from oil, which we destroy the environment to drill/dig up, & something has to give.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:59 PM on June 1, 2018 [12 favorites]


laws that incentivize proper usage and recycling

I havent been to Mexico in a while, but they had onerously high deposit fees for bottles last I was there. No one would think of going for a six-pack without taking back 6 empties - I think it was about half the price of a full six-pack. I've been in some tiendas where the proprietor wouldn't even sell you a six-pack unless you had empties to return, because it would cost them money when the truck came with more full bottles. I'd imagine this is a result of some sort of govt. regulation, & I'd be all for similar regulation here in the states.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:05 PM on June 1, 2018 [16 favorites]


I've come aound to the idea of putting stuff in landfills. I mean, mostly it comes from mines and wells disconnected from the biosphere anyway, and if it's stuck back in the ground it isn't going to choke seabirds, and if you manage it well (like shipping it off to the desert instead of more microbially-hospitable temperate, wet climates) you can probably keep more carbon in the ground than decomposes into methane. It's a low-effort sort of geoengineering. Obviously there are more aesthetically-pleasing ways of dealing with waste, but with unrecoverable and useless waste burying it might not be the worst response.
posted by Small Dollar at 8:31 PM on June 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Sending plastic to the landfill isn't the worst possible outcome. You take carbon as petroleum out of the ground, make it into plastic, and then bury that carbon back into the ground where it came from. That's a lot better than burning it or dumping it in the ocean.

Your buried plastic does have a carbon cost for original manufacturing but it isn't worth recycling unless the cost of recycling it is less than the cost of manufacturing new plastic from petroleum. Some plastic can be reused as lower grade products like plastic lumber, but there are limited uses for that.

The same is true of paper. You cut down a tree for its carbon, eventually bury its carbon in a landfill, and a new carbon tree grows in its place. There is a net reduction in carbon in the atmosphere (ignoring the carbon cost of manufacturing paper.) There is not a big enough market to use all lower grade recycled paper.
posted by JackFlash at 8:35 PM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


They tried to use capitalism to fix the externalities created by capitalism, and they did it by shipping those externalities to another country. Genius! Problem solved! "There is no way this will ever backfire on us," said MBA #1 to MBA #2.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:49 PM on June 1, 2018 [15 favorites]


I'll give aluminum cans a pass because they're fairly easily melted & re-formed, but again, that seems like a waste of energy

Extracting aluminum from bauxite requires an order of magnitude more energy than recycling it does. So whatever else might not be "worth it" to recycle, recycling waste aluminum is very, very worth it.
posted by Aleyn at 9:20 PM on June 1, 2018 [36 favorites]


Some years ago, I decided that I would try not to “down-cycle” anything that might actually be re-usable. Then, over time, I collected boxes and boxes full of these recyclables, one each for pickle jars, jam jars, plastic tubs (cottage cheese and lunch meats), plastic clamshells, aluminum cans, steel soup cans, toilet paper and paper towel tubes, newspaper, egg cartons, etc.

(I really wish I had a clever way to repurpose jam jars other than to just “put stuff in them”, since I have dozens.)

I’m not a hoarder (okay, so I do save dryer lint, but that’s to make firestarters for camping). So eventually I stopped when the number of boxes of these things in my attic hit about a dozen and storage space ran out.

There seems to be no getting away from this stuff, even when you shop with an eye to diminishing it.

Don’t get me started on the amount of paper in the form of junk mail, supermarket flyers, and shipping boxes I receive that have to go straight into the recycling bin.
posted by darkstar at 9:23 PM on June 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


In the rush to stash the trash somewhere, apparently a lot of it, especially from the EU (because Schengen lack of borders and import regulations), is ending up in Poland. There are landfill regulations, but they're spottily enforced, including a week-long heads-up before an inspection. This, unsurprisingly, has resulted in dozens of literal trash fires - probably arson to cover up importing/storing illegal waste. One of them in Zgierz that burned over several days prompted school cancellations and warnings to stay indoors over a large densely populated area because no-one knows what the hell was in that smoke.

And hey, it's not like we're dealing that well with trash we're producing ourselves, since Poland is behind on all EU recycling targets. Surprisingly, the one thing we're doing well on is glass and aluminium recycling, because these are mostly beer cans and bottles...
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:01 PM on June 1, 2018 [8 favorites]


In 2016 Deutsche Welle had a beginning and end podcast (in English) of a correspondent who attempted to live plastic-free while living in Berlin. Bonus: cute kids.

I haven't listened to it but "This woman hasn't produced any trash in three years" about a zero-waste person in NYC showed up while I was searching for the above podcasts.
posted by XMLicious at 11:20 PM on June 1, 2018


For those reusing single-use plastic bottles, maybe switch to a reusable glass bottle or mason jar that you can throw in the dishwasher? Because plastic ones are full of... problems.
posted by greermahoney at 11:21 PM on June 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


Has anyone explained why we don’t have more recycling facilities in the US to handle the demand?
posted by bleep at 12:01 AM on June 2, 2018


Carbon tax all the plastic and cardboard packaging.
posted by benzenedream at 12:33 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


(I really wish I had a clever way to repurpose jam jars other than to just “put stuff in them”, since I have dozens.)

Well, they're jars. The options are pretty much (1) put things in them or (2) use them for art projects. (You can use one for a kitchen tool - flattening meat, use the open part to cut out biscuits - but that doesn't help deal with a large collection.) However, things stored in them don't have to be food; they can be tool supplies.

Has anyone explained why we don’t have more recycling facilities in the US to handle the demand?

Why would we deal with all that waste and those toxins and building cleaning facilities when we can just ship it all to China? ...that's pretty much the reason.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:34 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


I’m just hoping nanotechnology can remedy the plastic and waste problem at some point by being able to intelligently render and retrieve mass amounts of reusable materials from landfills with minimal surface intrusion.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:43 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


Has anyone explained why we don’t have more recycling facilities in the US to handle the demand?

I strongly believe denial is the cause (whether it's individual inaction or corporations externalising costs - and running anti-recycling propaganda); actually doing anything real about the problem is admitting there is a problem, unless you're of the mindset that sees this as a worthwhile (and essential) challenge.

Huge problem in NZ too, with space running out to store what we've shamefully been sending to China. Very little recycling here, a bit of down-cycling and a huge reliance on oil-based plastics. I also often see rural fires with a slim plume of dark smoke amidst all the forest-slash/farm biomass waste smoke. Also quite a common practice when it's foggy to 'have a clean up'.
posted by unearthed at 1:09 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


When I traveled to Switzerland I was amazed by how little waste they produce. They fine you for throwing away more than a small bag of trash. It works. Once I got used to some different habits, like bringing my own bag to the grocery store, etc. I didn't even think about it.

I mentioned these habits to my cousins as an example of something I admired about the Swiss.
They were horrified, because FREEDOM. They even claimed they would simply take their trash out to the woods and dump it there rather than comply.

I rent some rooms to foreign exchange students. I picked one up straight from China who kept telling me how beautiful he found America. We weren't really driving by anything of interest, so I finally asked what in particular he liked. He said "The sky. It's blue."
posted by xammerboy at 3:10 AM on June 2, 2018 [27 favorites]


I'll give aluminum cans a pass because they're fairly easily melted & re-formed

Plastic should be this efficient to recycle as well, but for some reason people get very hung up on the significance of a recycling process which is little more than "melt down and remake as lower quality version of the original", or even worse than that, in the case of plastic lumber.

Plastic is complicated enough that it should be reprocessed by pyrolysis, and the basically crude oil like output from that should be used as a feedstock for new plastics. This technology hasn't been developed, but as far as I can tell from the literature I've read, it's more of a chemical engineering problem than a chemistry problem.

And likewise, paper recycling isn't done properly. The main environmental impacts of paper production are all about pulping the wood or other feedstock to get lignin and other non-cellulose constituents out of the pulp. It's a huge impact. So why, when recycling paper, do we not have a way to repair (enzymatically, maybe with bacteria that can do this) the cellulose that we took such great pains to purify? This is a fair bit further into blue sky thinking, but I'm confident it's also achievable.

And glass is a beautiful, inert, intuitively environmental* material, but the embedded energy costs in manufacture, recycling and transport definitely don't mean it's the hands down best material in every application it's used in. As packaging, I'd hazard a guess that it rarely is. And I don't know how recyclable it is, once you consider that it's not just a simple mix of silica, soda and lime, but carefully controlled amounts of all that, plus other metal ions.

So there's no one size fits all solution, and we have to be careful about being blasé about our recycling actually just being an excuse for downcycling.

Especially with plastics. A "recycled" plastic bench will shed an awful lot of microplastics into the environment over its lifetime as it slowly degrades.

*that is to say, it's basically like a super conveniently shaped rock.
posted by ambrosen at 4:27 AM on June 2, 2018 [8 favorites]


darkstar: jam jars make great drinking glasses.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:31 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Has anyone explained why we don’t have more recycling facilities in the US to handle the demand?

Because they didn't have to. All those shipping containers were going back to China anyway so the the transport was subsidized. China's low cost labor pool and lax environmental workplace safety standards meant they could recycle at a much lower cost.

Also waste management is typically not done by the 'best people'. It is generally one of last bastions of traditional organized crime domains with pretty recent histories of violence, intimidation and bribery which tends to insulate them from competition, politics and the need to improve technology.
posted by srboisvert at 4:49 AM on June 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


Post-consumer plastic is pretty much impossible to recycle as plastic. Plastic products are made from a specialised mixture of polymer chains of various lengths and complexity, pigments, chemicals to prevent degradation or improve flexibility, mold release agents and so forth. That mixture is degraded by heat, so even internal recycling of pre-consumer waste needs to be carefully managed. Post-consumer waste is contaminated by all sorts of unpredictable things and consists of a mixture of incompatible types of plastic. For instance, PVC and polyethylene have superficially similar structures, but about polyethylene is a hydrocarbon while about half of PVC (by weight) is chlorine .

I don't even know how useful pyrolysis would be at producing new feedstock, but I suspect it would be much harder than extracting raw plastic feedstock from oil. It would take a lot of plant, both to heat and distill the plastic, and also to trap and extract all the weird chemicals and compounds that are added to plastics. And then, what do you do with the by now highly toxic waste? Cadmium trapped inside plastic is going to be a much more stable storage solution than the same material after its surrounding polymers have been removed.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:17 AM on June 2, 2018 [5 favorites]


RE reusing jam jars, I recall as a child seeing a neighborhood dad had reused dozens of baby food jars for nails and screws in his garage workshop, with the lids nailed to a board, as in the photo ErisLordFreedom linked above. I always thought that was pretty cool.

My favorite for reusing jam jars is as candle holders. With a bit of sand or gravel in the bottom, and a tea light, they really work well for this. (You can also decorate the outside with stained glass paint or glue on multicolored tissue paper!)

I’ve also used them to re-package bulk honey into smaller jars, since honey doesn’t need to be heat canned, and as starter pots for little seedlings. I use one at the washing machine, to mix concentrated blueing with water before I add it to the rinse.

I have jam jars as drinking vessels and one as a sugar bowl next to my teapot. I use them for cotton balls, flossing picks, dice, loose change, sugar-free candies, paperclips, small binder clips.

But jebus, I add at least one more new jar a week, whether from preserves or olives or pickles or pepperoncini or whatever. Fifty new jars come into this household every year - five hundred over a decade! Multiply by every household in the country! Aieeee!!!

It’s a wonder we’re not literally shuffling around through several inches of broken glass and plastic wherever we walk on this planet, the way we use the stuff. If someone were able to come up with some sort of transformational use for the jars, man, other than just “put stuff in them”, like...well, I don’t know what, but they’d make a killing, or at least they’d be my hero.
posted by darkstar at 6:40 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


guys its almost like consumerism isnt sustainable
posted by entropicamericana at 7:49 AM on June 2, 2018 [13 favorites]


I mentioned these habits to my cousins as an example of something I admired about the Swiss.
They were horrified, because FREEDOM. They even claimed they would simply take their trash out to the woods and dump it there rather than comply.


I had very much the same experience when I moved to Switzerland. Trash bags are produced and labelled by the local authorities (or in some places they sell stickers instead for normal trash bags) and the collectors won’t collect unofficial bags (or bags without the stickers). They’re amazingly expensive. Like, imagine a very very very high price, a preposterously high price, for a roll of “official” trash bags, then increase that by several orders of magnitude. Of course, this isn’t about “freedom” (trash collection is a pretty Big Government concept, after all) but about social trust, of which the Swiss have very high levels. I also explained the system to a Spanish friend, and she laughed and said “imagine how the Spanish countryside would look if you tried that here” and her point is probably true of most countries.

Also in Switzerland if you want to take something to the dump (sports equipment, furniture, etc etc) you are charged by the kilogram and it is not at all cheap. Switzerland is small and the people are rich and like new stuff. This is great if you’re relatively poor because people sell last season’s skis / snowboard / motorcycle for next to nothing just to be rid of it, or leave designer furniture on the street with a little “free to a good home” sign.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:12 AM on June 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


I've been in some tiendas where the proprietor wouldn't even sell you a six-pack unless you had empties to return, because it would cost them money when the truck came with more full bottles.

I once lived in a remote part of a very poor African country. All of the beer was made by, let’s say, Patriotic Brewing Company. Beer came in three varieties, all very watery and sweet, and was almost certainly served at ambient temperature, i.e. hot. A bottle of beer was made of thick glass, contained about 2/3 of a litre of liquid, and would normally be shared between a group of friends rather than drunk alone. After purchasing beer, you needed to return the empties to the same establishment or you wouldn’t be sold more. Easy enough with a bar; buying from a shop was more difficult, because the shop keeper had to know and trust you and you would need to negotiate a time to return the bottles (later that day, or, if you bargained hard, the next morning); nightmareish at the end of a house party as people tried to keep track of their bottles.

Bottles were a very big deal.

After about 9 months of living there, suddenly the beer selection expanded hugely. You could now buy another three or four types of sweet watery beer, supplied by Patriotic Brewing Company’s competitor, National Refreshment Company! They’d even licensed the Guiness brand and you could buy a very odd, sweet, watery stout with startlingly high ABV! (Same rules on empties, of course, they just went into a different crate at the back of the shop.) I was quite excited by this development and asked my local friends about it. Were they excited about this choice?

No, in fact, this was what they were used to. I’d just happened to arrive during a period of a year or so when you couldn’t buy any drinks from National Refreshment Company, because Patriotic Brewing Company had secretly bought up their entire supply of empties (by offering a fractionally higher price for them) and then smashed them all. Given our remoteness, it had taken more than a year for National Refreshment Company to restock and get their supply chain up and running again.

I don’t know what my point is, but if I ever taught an MBA course this would be a case study for sure.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:35 AM on June 2, 2018 [45 favorites]


Strip-mine landfills. Problem solved.
posted by mikelieman at 8:38 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


super train
posted by entropicamericana at 8:45 AM on June 2, 2018


Metafilter: I don’t know what my point is, but if I ever taught an MBA course this would be a case study for sure
posted by benzenedream at 9:10 AM on June 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


The Left Bloc want to have half of drinks on reusable (not recyclable) containers, which is the way to go. Around half of our waste here is from disposable plastic containers for liquid, and a lot of time it's not a matter of "finding an alternative" because there's none, except buying a 1L glass bottle of water for the same price as a 5L plastic jug, or a 33cl bottle of Sprite around half the cost of a 2L plastic bottle, and so on.

For those reusing single-use plastic bottles, maybe switch to a reusable glass bottle or mason jar that you can throw in the dishwasher?
A friend of mine once had the same idea after she found out a "really cute bottle" from a vintage store. Then it broke inside her purse, taking away a phone and work papers with it. There's multiple use containers, from cycling bidons to camping canteens to sealable travel mugs that are made to be lugged around without much care. Anything made of glass isn't.
posted by lmfsilva at 10:22 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


Has anyone explained why we don’t have more recycling facilities in the US to handle the demand?

I've tried in vain to find a documentary I watched in the last few months about the Australian recycling industry and the parallel problem they've had due to changes in China's policies... I think it probably would have shared some footage with this ABC series, War on Waste?

But anyways, one factor they mentioned is that Chinese companies were willing to accept a higher percentage of "contamination", non-recyclable material mixed in, than Australian recyclers do, but municipalities find the pre-sorting of the material to reduce its contamination rate cost-prohibitive.

I think it was another part of the same documentary which showed an experimental system of robotic arm sorting material moving along a conveyor belt, which the designers were applying AI techniques to in an attempt to replicate the speed and success rate of humans. The municipalities were storing bales of their high-contaminant recycling waste in hopes that an affordable solution will arise.
posted by XMLicious at 10:53 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


Has anyone explained why we don’t have more recycling facilities in the US to handle the demand?

The simple explanation is that there is no (or too little) demand. It costs money to recycle plastic and paper into new products -- more money than it costs to manufacture virgin products. Aluminum, steel and to a limited extent glass have enough value to support recycling domestically. Plastic and paper do not.

If the public were willing to pay for and subsidize recycling of paper and plastic, through taxes or surcharges, then it could be done. But that costs money.

The real solution is to minimize the production of low quality recyclable materials in the first place.
posted by JackFlash at 11:47 AM on June 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


Carbon tax all the plastic and cardboard packaging.


Better, tax all the carbon, let the users/market figure out which packaging is actually least energy-intensive for which stuff, and rebate the tax money per capita.
posted by clew at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


There are other uses for empty bottles, since heavily-lined air pockets are good insulation, but I suspect this isn't going to catch on as the new recycling trend.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:15 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


When I start a steampunk adult film channel, Vanadium Slag will be my porn star name.
posted by the_blizz at 1:15 PM on June 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


Of course, this isn’t about “freedom” (trash collection is a pretty Big Government concept, after all) but about social trust, of which the Swiss have very high levels. I also explained the system to a Spanish friend, and she laughed and said “imagine how the Spanish countryside would look if you tried that here” and her point is probably true of most countries.

When I lived in Birmingham, England people flytipped everywhere. A vacant lot? Filled with flytipped garbage. Canal ravine near a road? Filled with flytipped rubbish. Yard backs onto a road? You're gonna be picking up garbage bags. This wasn't like American or Canadian illegal dumping that happens out in the middle of nowhere. This was right in densely populated areas.

It was pretty incredible. I had never seen so much evidence of missing social capital before. When they built the new central library some people joked that the design was to honour Birmingham's tradition of flytipped mattresses decaying down to just their springs.
posted by srboisvert at 2:51 PM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


I am just boggled at the sheer inability of most people to recycle properly. I lived in NYC for a long time and you would get a ticket if you recycled incorrectly. Now in Columbus, I see my neighbors and co-workers constantly tossing plastic bags, styrofoam (!), clamshells, straws, fast food wrappers, etc. and rather than breaking a large cardboard box down, into the trash it goes. Sigh.

I would love to see places that have regular recycling really make an effort to inform their customers. Just posting it on your sanitation department website is weak.
posted by nikitabot at 3:53 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's been interesting watching these changes play out in the non-profit recycling depot in my small island community. We have no landfill (garbage has to be taken off-island at rather high expense), so we take recycling very seriously, and our recycling depot makes an effort to take as much as they possibly can and find someone who will recycle it.

We have to sort our recycling into 12 different bins: non-plastic containers for liquids (like milk and soup); paper; hard plastic containers; beverage containers; metal containers (non-aluminum), glass containers, aluminum packaging; soft plastic; crinkly plastic; foil-lined; styrofoam; corrugated cardboard.

The condition of the material has become critical (e.g. there can be no contamination, paper labels need to be removed from plastic bags, etc.) and they have become incredibly strict. There are 5-6 volunteers who watch everyone sort, pull out anything unacceptable and hand it back to you as you hang your head in shame.

This seems to be what it takes for them to be able to get anyone to accept their material, and I have no idea how larger municipal recycling collection can possibly keep up this level of quality.
posted by borsboom at 9:49 PM on June 2, 2018 [8 favorites]


ErisLordFreedom: "since heavily-lined air pockets are good insulation, but I suspect this isn't going to catch on as the new recycling trend."

This building method doesn't really have a good R factor1. The concrete itself has a very low R value; the glass isn't much better and the air space inside is large enough that convective air eddy currents limit its insulation properties. Now if you could come up with a bottle that held a vacuum; had a very thin wall and would stack like legos so as to minimize binding material you'd have something. Sealed glass straws have been suggested but of course they don't have much value as a beverage transport system.

[1] it does have significant mass and could let in a lot of light. So if you live some place where daily temperature fluctuations make an uninsulated, high mass building (eg adobe) sensible and like a lot of weirdly tinted light this could be the building material for you.
posted by Mitheral at 10:21 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much society's obsession with hygiene causes unnecessary waste in the form of excess packaging and a fear that reused items aren't quite as sanitary.
posted by daybeforetheday at 1:53 AM on June 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


I wonder how much society's obsession with hygiene causes unnecessary waste in the form of excess packaging

A single baking potato wrapped in plastic makes me anguished every time I see one.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:44 AM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


This whole topic makes me sad. I need to make a better effort to continue to frequent the farmers market and not stress the prices. It's already confirmed here that the same truck that picks up the garbage is also grabbing the recycling bin... The US is a fucked up place.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:53 AM on June 3, 2018


I wonder how much society's obsession with hygiene causes unnecessary waste in the form of excess packaging

Some is the hygiene obsession; some is fear of theft and attempts to replace humans with devices - if we wrap everything in bulky must-be-cut-open plastic, we won't need to hire employees who actually watch for theft, and won't have to teach people to be careful while handling the stock.

And it's more sanitary this way - you wouldn't want a flash drive or a light bulb that's been touched by someone else first! ... nor a banana, of course.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:24 AM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


There's also people who don't have a clue when shopping if everything is not labelled. Once saw a couple buying bell peppers or something from the produce crates, but "couldn't tell how much they would cost", and went on to buy a packaged mix from the refrigerated section at a premium.

They passed by a functioning scale.
posted by lmfsilva at 11:46 AM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


The Outside/In podcast had an excellent recent episode on the recycling industry, and how much most people don't understand the industry part of it.
posted by mostly vowels at 2:57 PM on June 3, 2018




Banning straws won't save the oceans. (And yes, disabled people are well aware of the other options available and find them unworkable. See paragraphs 6 and 7.)
posted by Lexica at 3:34 PM on June 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


Ok so maybe a total ban on manufacturing straws isn’t ok, but I can’t see the harm in preventing restaurants from just giving straws to every single person. I’ve been trying to cut out single use plastic for the last couple of years and the straw issue is one that really gets me, especially because I’m not going to use it and it’s creating waste anyways. Maybe we change to a system where either people only get straws when they ask or people bring their own straws if they want to use one.
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:34 PM on June 4, 2018


I heard a talk by an engineer who'd helped design a German waste factory. They had the righ idea. Everything goes into one waste stream, then an automated factory sorts it. Ferrous metals are sucked out by a magnet. Then things are seperated by density Then they use robotic arms with...I think it was Raman spectrometers on the end to separate out plastics by type.

THEN they recycle the plastics much more effectively then the traditional pyrolysis method, since it has been far more accurately sorted that you can get away with something some chemistry on it. And since they can blend the plastics in some very cool ratios, you could make stuff with properties you can't get with new plastics, for example, by blending very high and low molecular weight (long and short chains), and they can sell all this. The factory is expected to pay for itself pretty quickly.

Plus, no worrying about what plastics go where: It all goes to the factory, along with metal and glass and other stuff, and the computers sort it out better then you could in the first place.
posted by Canageek at 10:09 AM on June 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


Paper straws were a thing when I was a kid, so I'm kind of mystified by the above linked article's insistence that they are some bizarre exotic expensive thing that can't possibly replace plastic straws for disabled people.
posted by tavella at 1:55 PM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


Disabled people have been speaking and writing about this extensively drawing on both personal experience and research. Saying "paper straws were a thing when I was a kid", when multiple disabled people have directly addressed why they're not satisfactory for their needs, is irrelevant and insulting in its implication that you know better than they do.

Listen to disabled people. Trust disabled people to know what they need and what their life experiences are. Then maybe we can find solutions that work.
posted by Lexica at 3:20 PM on June 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


Well, the article was a parent speaking for their disabled child, so not actually listening to a disabled person. And they in fact admitted their child liked them, IIRC, but then went off on how they were so mad expensive. Also allergies for theoretical other people, but given there are people allergic to plastic, it's hard to see why this would be a disqualifer.

I'm open to the point that straws are such an insignificant part of the plastic problem that it's silly to make specific laws about them, but the article was tremendously unconvincing. If 1970's technology could turn out paper straws that were sufficiently economical for fast food restaurants, I expect 21st century technology could manage the transition fine.
posted by tavella at 5:31 PM on June 6, 2018


The Recycling Game Is Rigged Against You - "Even if you put everything into the right blue bins, a lot of plastics will end up in landfills and the ocean. Consumers can't solve this problem."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:14 AM on June 28, 2018


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