July 15, 2019 9:25 AM   Subscribe

When China took action to protect its borders from foreign plastic pollution by effectively shutting its doors to plastic waste imports in the beginning of 2018, it threw the global plastic recycling industry into chaos. As waste began piling up in ASEAN nations, leaders stepped up to send containers "back where they came from" - the United States (the world's leader in plastic waste creation), Japan, the UK, and Germany, among others. As more Asian nations ban foreign plastic waste, a full fledged global crisis is ongoing for the "developed" world.
posted by Mrs Potato (48 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I'm totally willing to sort my plastic by type and ensure it's relatively clean. But is there anything I can subsequently do with it which will keep it out of landfills or the ocean?

For years, producers have been putting recycling symbols onto their packaging in order to make us feel better without actually doing anything to ensure that the packaging really is recyclable. My "favorite" are the ones with the logo and small print that says "store recycling only". As if the local supermarket is actually going to take back the waste... .
posted by Slothrup at 9:48 AM on July 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

Every plastic item is given a number from 1-7 to signify the kind of plastic it is made from. The category of "mixed plastics" (sometimes also called "mixed rigid plastic" in the recycling industry) includes virtually everything except for plastic jugs and bottles labeled No 1 and No 2, which retain a high value. ...

The China ban revealed an uncomfortable truth about plastic recycling, Skye said: much of this plastic was never possible to recycle at all.

“[China] would just pull out the items that were actually recyclable and burn or throw away the rest,” he said. “China has subsidized the recycling industry for many years in a way that distorted our views.”
posted by clawsoon at 9:54 AM on July 15, 2019 [25 favorites]

Great post, BTW. A couple of months ago I was thinking of posting something about the Philippines threatening to declare war on Canada over this, but your post is a much more comprehensive view of what's going on globally than mine would've been.
posted by clawsoon at 9:56 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe this will result in more movement towards plant-based, compostable alternatives to plastic, at least for the uses where that's feasible.
posted by overglow at 9:56 AM on July 15, 2019

Maybe this will result in more movement towards plant-based, compostable alternatives to plastic, at least for the uses where that's feasible.

My wife worked for a firm that tried to pull this off nine or 10 years ago (Nancy Pelosi's son was on the Board!) and it is a difficult problem.

Their stuff was corn-based, iirc, (although they played around with other plant inputs, too) and eventually they sorted out a lot of the design/production issues to create a range of reliable packaging and plastic doo-dads (compostable cutlery was especially difficult). But the really hard problem was composting the stuff after use, at least in the United States. Very few cities have composting programs up and running to accept the material, and it shouldn't go into the recycling stream (since it isn't recyclable). Unfortunately most folks assumed it was recyclable (after all isn't that the responsible way to get rid of stuff?) and it cluttered up the works there, or it got directed to the landfill.

Plus it was expensive.

Maybe the situation has evolved more favorably since?
posted by notyou at 10:14 AM on July 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Maybe this will result in more movement towards plant-based, compostable alternatives to plastic, at least for the uses where that's feasible.

I've noticed in the last few years that compostable food containers have taken the festival circuit by storm, many of the local festivals require it from food vendors, and it seems to have been pretty successful. This gives me some hope that it can break-out into the broader economy.

A lot of these containers are more obviously compostable though, such as paper or bamboo, so maybe the trick is making the compostable plastic look different from regular plastic?
posted by selenized at 10:25 AM on July 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

Improperly pricing Externalities to make a profit on the backs of others will doom the world, and is the greatest crime that we've ever committed as a culture and species
posted by lalochezia at 10:25 AM on July 15, 2019 [33 favorites]

Instead of putting the onus on consumers and municipalities to deal with waste plastic manufactures should be on the hook financially for their packaging practices. So many items are over packaged or could be packaged differently or with different materials.
posted by Gwynarra at 10:38 AM on July 15, 2019 [38 favorites]

I strongly recommend watching the documentary Plastic China to see what this all thid looks like on the receiving end of these shipments. It's free on Prime for the moment.

Like Slothrup, I'd be willing to do a lot of presorting of my recyclables - even down to separating plastics by their numbers. Municipalities really should harness the power of their obsessive citizens (speaking for myself here). :)

@Lalochezia - I was thinking along these lines too. Where did we get the idea that recycling must be able to pay for itself. Does trash pickup? What about street cleaning?
posted by duoshao at 10:41 AM on July 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

duoshao: Where did we get the idea that recycling must be able to pay for itself.

It might've come from Jane Jacob's visionary idea that "cities are the mines of the future". Or from the fact that the recycling of metals was and continues to be profitable.

It's a good question you ask, though.
posted by clawsoon at 11:00 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you're wondering "how'd we even get to rely on China?" Slate has a good write-up on why China was taking all recyclables in:
It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Chinese businesses welcomed waste plastic from overseas because it was often of a higher quality than what was available domestically, and countries like the U.S. and U.K. found that it was cheaper to send their trash abroad than to sort through it at home. Waste-plastic imports boomed after China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001, which opened up a host of international business opportunities. China was exporting more manufactured goods than ever before on enormous container ships, and businesses saw that it was inexpensive to fill the empty space that was available on return trips with recyclable trash. This informal waste industry eventually grew to employ 3 to 5 million people.
duoshao: Municipalities really should harness the power of their obsessive citizens

Back in California in the late 1990s, we used to haul our recycling to a local facility and manually sorted glass by color, and then paper goods and plastics, but in reflection, it was a tiny facility, which only supported those who had the time, energy and interest to do all that work themselves. As such, I imagine the impact to divert the trash flow would be rather limited, and also focused on people who make enough money to have spare time on their hands to sort their own waste.

A co-worker said that in high school, a science or environmental group she belonged to collected clean white paper from all the classes, which they sold to a recycler, and that netted the group a few thousand dollars at the end of the year.

Oregon is a recent success story, with it's deposit system hitting 90 percent redemption rate in 2018. Being focused on aluminum, glass and rigid plastic containers makes it easier to sell and recycle domestically. And raising the rebate from $0.05 to $0.10 per container helped increase the redemption rate.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:01 AM on July 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

Great collection of info. I was just reading about this in the Sierra Club magazine article in their last issue. According to it, the biggest boost to recycling is the passage of container deposit laws (aka bottle bills). States that have passed them have the highest amount of recycling. It also helps to have more separation in the process, as opposed to just dumping it all into the container for pick-up.

I’m a big recycler but I’ve learned that the glass is just put in the landfill as there are no “economical” options in our area that will take it. I still recycle it so that maybe they will notice it and eventually take steps to reuse it. And I also agree that the notion that recycling must be profitable is ridiculous.
posted by jabo at 11:04 AM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

This makes me think of how capitalism was able to co-opt the push for greater individualism of the '60s by figuring out how to mass produce a greater variety of superficially individualized goods. In this case, capitalism was able to co-opt environmental pushes by exporting both dirty production and dirty waste collection to poor societies where those of us in rich societies wouldn't notice.
posted by clawsoon at 11:06 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

clawsoon, exactly my thoughts. We're comfortable with the idea of recycling, thanks to the companies behind the "Crying Indian" campaign (Zócalo Public Square) who successfully framed waste as problem for consumers rather than one for the companies that manufactured the items being wasted, he says, and thus framed recycling as something that taxpayers should pay for (Time magazine).

Reduce, reuse, then recycle. Or just toss it all in the green bin and hope for the best.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:10 AM on July 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

Locally, we've been quietly putting our recyclables (plastics included) in the landfill, or so it's just come out. The huge blue bins are still out there in the city, people are still encouraged to sort everything and make use of them, but apparently everything was just piling up at the dump with nowhere to go until someone decided it might as well go into the landfill.

A little disheartening, but better we have to deal with it here than it get shipped out to get buried or burned overseas.
posted by ODiV at 11:16 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm so glad that this issue is getting more visibility.

I wish there were more clear information on each item about the cost of that item to the ecology. How much energy was used to create it? How much would it cost to recycle it?

I just bought a nalgene bottle but it turns out my nose hits the rim, making it unusable. So I slapped some silly stickers on a ridged-feeling "single use" water bottle (dasini, I think).

What is the "break even" point of using items? I think that should be labeled on them as well. Or at least we should be given the information that enables us to calculate that ourselves - maybe with an "expiration date" because break-even will change when industries advance.
posted by rebent at 11:17 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

A couple of mentions of glass recycling got me digging into that, too. Turns out that single-stream recycling (i.e. throw all the recycling into the same bin) wrecks glass recycling economics, too:
Many municipal recyclers bemoan low demand for recycled glass, which is more expensive to recycle.

Meanwhile, glass processing companies and brands that actually incorporate recycled glass content in their products say they can’t get enough supply of the thing municipalities say there’s no demand for.

From a business standpoint, recyclers face many challenges with glass. First, glass breaks and it is difficult to sort at most recycling centers. Second, glass is hard on equipment, resulting in higher maintenance costs at recycling centers where glass is processed. Third, glass mixes with paper and cardboard and lowers the value of the fiber that is being sold or increases the risk of deductions at the mill for quality issues.

US municipalities manage residential recycling primarily via single-stream curbside collection. ... Multistream glass typically bypasses materials recovery facilities and goes directly to cullet processors. Because of the difference in the quality of glass from the two streams, just 40% of glass from single-stream collection ends up being recycled into new products, compared with about 90% of glass from multistream systems.

In addition, with single-stream recycling, broken glass gets mixed in with other recyclables and disrupts the sorting process. It can also wreak havoc on equipment and pose a danger for workers.
So not only does single-stream recycling mix up a bunch of different plastics that can't be recycled together, it also adds a bunch of broken glass to the mix. But, as one of those articles points out, multi-stream recycling is more expensive at the source - more public education, more time spent by consumers sorting their trash, more complex trash trucks that cost more money. More taxes, in other words, in the form of both time and money, and Americans are not big fans of taxes.
posted by clawsoon at 11:30 AM on July 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

If compostable stuff just ends up in the landfill, that's still vastly superior to plastics ending up there.
posted by jetsetsc at 11:32 AM on July 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Where did we get the idea that recycling must be able to pay for itself

Recycling must pay for itself, or else all you're doing is dedicating resources and money to fancy up garbage for the landfill. Think about it. Recycling only makes sense if your refuse has post use value. That means it's worthwhile financially. If it isn't, what you have isn't recyclable material. What you have is just garbage. Spending money to recycle this matter that costs more than it's worth will give you material that's more expensive to use than new production raw material. The result is more money spent, less reuse, and more material destined for the landfill.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:32 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

2N2222: Spending money to recycle this matter that costs more than it's worth will give you material that's more expensive to use than new production raw material.

Doesn't this equation depend on where in the system costs are being externalized? If someone sells you virgin forest for cheap, it'll be less expensive to clearcut it and turn into paper than to collect paper for recycling. But that won't necessarily mean that the cost of recycling would be higher if all the externalized costs had been taken into account.

Same thing with pumping oil out of the ground to make new plastic, no?
posted by clawsoon at 11:41 AM on July 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

I think the trouble is the idea that recycling must be able to pay for itself in the short term. If recycling isn't paying for itself in the moment but it's something we collectively know needs to be done in the long term, then that's the point where the government needs to step in and either make recycling cheaper or make everything else more expensive. If new production raw material is substantially worse for everybody in the long term, then it needs to be made the more expensive option.
posted by Sequence at 11:42 AM on July 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Single-stream recycling has never been feasible. It's all got to be hand separated at some point, which is such a labor intensive process that it's not even viable for the extremely low labor costs in China. The only benefit of single-stream recycling is tricking people into thinking they're helping the environment.

It's becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the bullet points given in favor of recycling are bunk and the answer isn't reusing plastic, it's reducing the general amount of plastic being produced and outlawing the use of plastic in disposable packaging.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:45 AM on July 15, 2019 [22 favorites]

The Soviet Union had this problem solved (for the most part)...there was no plastic packaging. At all. Everything came in glass bottles/jars (there were a dozen or so standard sizes), and they didn't get recycled, they got cleaned and reused. Non-jar/bottle items came in paper or paperboard. There's no need for plastic packaging at all and there never has been.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:54 AM on July 15, 2019 [35 favorites]

 As if the local supermarket is actually going to take back the waste..

That's the idea behind extended producer responsibility: you make it, you're responsible for it. That was one of the goals of Der Grüne Punkt: you could happily leave your product boxes in the store because they were its problem.

Glass recycling is its whole own thing. Glass bottles used to be thick and heavy for reuse by the bottler. Modern beer bottles are made as thin as possible to survive one use, and are expected to be broken into cullet for transportation. The energy cost of recycling is a big factor for glass.
posted by scruss at 12:18 PM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

as someone who lives in the rural U.S. with no curbside service, recycling is labor intensive. I have to take things sorted to the local transfer station. For plastic, the only accept #2(milk jugs) and deposit bottles.
it's also interesting to note that compact flourescents(a "green" tech) are full of nasty chemicals and supposed to go into a separate waste stream. if i hide them in my normal trash bags, i pay nothing extra but if i take the time to separate and turn them into the transfer station, i pay usd$0.45 per bulb, which i do but i know i'm in the minority in a place where people are pressed for cash. generally i think we should dramatically extend the bottle deposit model to batteries, bulbs, and all kinds of other goods. or some other clever solution that helps motivate these items to make it to their proper resting place.

I also volunteer at a large rural fair in maine in the compost and recycling tent. we process the goods waste stream for ~60,000 visitors over a three day weekend. it's one hell of an education in trash. ;) lots of single use comes through and also "compostable" plastic flatware that we can't do anything with because it requires a commercial scale facility (with heat and a schredder) to make the composting work. we would like to ask people to bring their own containers, but US food code prevents vendors from filling your containers... lots of progress to make!
posted by danjo at 12:20 PM on July 15, 2019 [11 favorites]

If compostable stuff just ends up in the landfill, that's still vastly superior to plastics ending up there.
No it’s not. If buried without oxygen it’s subjected to anaerobic digestion which produces methane a greenhouse gases x25 worse then CO2.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 12:51 PM on July 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

sexyrobot: The Soviet Union had this problem solved (for the most part)

You can still buy drinks in reusable bottles elsewhere in the world, including the U.S., but it seems that those are mostly imported bottles that aren't then exported back to their source. They're easier to tell apart from other glass bottles -- thicker than their typical use-and-recycle counterparts. That, and the durability in transport, are key reasons that companies shifted from glass to plastic. Here's a very detailed article on how Snapple finally made the shift from glass to plastic in 2018. I could have sworn one of the delays was also finding a plastic that wouldn't have issues storing lemonade, but I may be making it up.

Major international companies are apparently revisiting reusable containers, in the style of "old timey" milk deliveries, sort of (CNN, Jan. 2019) --
Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Danone, Mars Petcare, Mondelēz International and others — some of the world’s largest consumer goods companies — are partnering on a potential solution to limit future waste. They’re working together on a project known as Loop, announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Thursday. It offers consumers an alternative to recycling — a system that isn't working well these days.

At this point, the partners are testing the waters. It’s an experiment they’ll roll out to several thousand consumers in New York and Paris this May, with plans to expand to London later in 2019 and Toronto, Tokyo and San Francisco in 2020.

Loop is a new way to shop, offering about 300 items — from Tide detergent to Pantene shampoo, Häagen-Dazs ice cream to Crest mouthwash — all in reusable packaging. After using the products, customers put the empty containers in a Loop tote on their doorstep. The containers are then picked up by a delivery service, cleaned and refilled, and shipped out to consumers again.
But there's good news, again from Oregon: the state launched the first statewide refillable bottle system in the U.S. last year (NPR), and recently, a Portland winery was the first to use reusable wine bottles.

danjo: as someone who lives in the rural U.S. with no curbside service, recycling is labor intensive.

This would be a bit less labor-intensive, in that you're still hauling your recycling, but to somewhere you're already going -- I just found this Guardian article from 2018 that notes that German recycling refund machines are (or at least were) in grocery stores, which makes a ton of sense. But I also think it makes sense to bring your own bags, yet my local anecdotal experience is that I'm an outlier, except where they straight-up don't give you bags. I think that Natural Grocers does this, and they offer to give you boxes, which means there's at least one reuse from their delivery boxes. Bulk grocer Costco also does that, but it makes a lot of sense for them to offer boxes for carry-out, as there's no way to bag 48 rolls of toilet paper, or a giant box of frozen pizzas.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:57 PM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Anecdotal: around 1994 I was at a bar in Montreal, quietly getting drunk, and I got into a very interesting discussion with the guy next to me. Turns out JF here works at the factory that receives beer bottle returns. He explains to me that it is his job to take and sort the the empty bottles, clean them out of foreign objects (cigarette butts, paper, gum, etc... he hates gum!) then put the bottles on the conveyer that heads to the steamer. The bottles get steamed clean, which also removes the label, then sent back to brewers to refill.

In Quebec, the deposit on beer bottles is 10 cents and it is very rare to find empty beer bottles in any trash container anywhere, they get picked up real quick. In hindsight it seems to me that this system works and should be looked at for other products. filthy light thief's post gives me a faint hope that this may happen. One way or another we have to find a way out of this recycling hell-cycle we've gotten ourselves into.

It seems like every day we discover a new way that we broke the world, it would be nice if we got serious about saving it.
posted by Vindaloo at 1:24 PM on July 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

here's a nice visualization of the great recycling reroute :P
posted by kliuless at 1:49 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Single-stream recycling has never been feasible. It's all got to be hand separated at some point,

No, it hasn't got to be hand separated: Here's a look at a single-stream recycling plant in New York. It has to be overseen by hand, but a lot of it works very well.

My feeling about plastic is that pyrolysis is a good solution, effectively turning it back into crude oil, from which high quality plastic can be made, at a much lower total energy cost across the cycle than nearly every other solution. I'd very much like to see if there is serious policy work around making it feasible.
posted by ambrosen at 1:57 PM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

In CA, which has a deposit, it's not uncommon to see people rifling through trash cans for redeemable items.

On the capitalist hand, here is a worker population ready made for exploitation for manual sorting of materials; they are doing it exclusively for the deposit, let alone any sort of wage.

On the human-being hand, proposing to pay someone below minimum wage ($15/hr in LA, or it will be soon) to do this nasty kind of labor is unthinkable

On the municipal budget hand, it's difficult to earmark the funds to ensure someone doing this sorting is fairly compensated

But on the ecological hand, at what point do we seriously need to get asses in gear in order to have materials available (in the case of rare metals), and living space (in the case of non bio-degrading)?

...And on the process improvement hand, where is the "bottle"neck (omg I'm hilarious)? What faulty assumptions are we working with? Where can changes be introduced to provide the most benefit?

(this is a train of thought I've had many times, and always hated myself a little for having)
posted by rubah at 2:41 PM on July 15, 2019

I'm afraid most municipalities around me are just burning plastics in the incinerator before taking them to the landfill. At least that's what the guys at the transfer station tell me.
CO₂ is the thing that is going to end us though. That's probably going to take electing better leaders. Soon, please.
posted by Bee'sWing at 4:20 PM on July 15, 2019

Given that end-customers and municipalities can't do much to change how things are packaged it doesn't make sense to make them do all the work in fixing this problem. Ultimately the people who packaged the product, or if it was made elsewhere then who imported it, should be responsible for the disposal of its packaging. This can get pushed all the way down the chain until the final point of sale so that the customer can take it back to the store they bought the item from and then the store can push it back up the chain. This is what happens with a defective product already. I can take it back to the store I bought it from for a return or exchange. I could also send it directly to the manufacturer because it is ultimately their responsibility, and many things I've bought have inserts asking me to do that instead of taking them back to the store. Large stores can dictate custom product sizes and even formulations and this will give them incentive to dictate how products will be packaged.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:23 PM on July 15, 2019

"compostable" plastics deserve a hard look and a grain of salt; idk shit about shit but here's a tumblr post from someone who knows shit, saying that bioplastics won't decompose in a landfill by themselves, they won't compost properly in a typical backyard/home/DIY composter, it takes a "hot composter". It's also worth asking/testing if people will have an allergic reaction if e.g. they have a corn allergy and use some sort of plastic that was made from corn.

she also says it's pretty sketchy to use perfectly good food to ... not feed people ... and instead make stuff like plastic or oil ... although, ethanol & bioplastics &c are mostly made from types of corn that aren't really food and are grown specifically to make shit with, so there's that.

also here's a twitter thread from Dr. Sarah Taber about another thing to do with waste which is make biochar. She has an episode of her podcast devoted entirely to it.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 4:39 PM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Plastics are pretty amazing. Disposable plastics are pretty bullshit.

This is only hard because a whole bunch of corporate interests foisted responsibility onto the consumer. There is an even simpler* regulatory solution than deposits and forced recycling: Don't let companies sell single-use plastic goods.

*But pipe dream, pie-in-the-sky, vanishingly, painfully unlikely.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:52 PM on July 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

One of the main bottlenecks I'm running into right now is communication. There are materials being collected, and there are companies in the US that want these materials, but they aren't connecting. I'm working on a regional project right now to fix just that.
posted by Gneisskate at 7:29 PM on July 15, 2019

This has all been on my mind a lot lately. In particular:

> Ultimately the people who packaged the product, or if it was made elsewhere then who imported it, should be responsible for the disposal of its packaging.

I want to take this even further and say that they are also responsible for incurring all costs of the disposal of not just the packaging, but the product itself in the event that it is something that can expire, go bad, break, go obsolete, etc - and that they are required to do so in a way that prioritizes reuse and reclamation of materials. If materials are not reusable or reclaimable, or at least disposable in a non-impactful and sustainable way, then any environmental costs of disposal need to be accounted for and offset with a tax that goes towards furthering sustainable resources and reclamation, or similar.

I am sure that this would be loopholed to death in practice, but I think the idea is clear enough. At present, any company not incurring the cost and responsibility of disposal of their packaging AND their products is ultimately being subsidized by the present and future populace.
posted by MysticMCJ at 7:43 PM on July 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Locally, we've been quietly putting our recyclables (plastics included) in the landfill, or so it's just come out. The huge blue bins are still out there in the city, people are still encouraged to sort everything and make use of them, but apparently everything was just piling up at the dump with nowhere to go until someone decided it might as well go into the landfill.

There is in fact a benefit to having a recycling program even if most of the stuff that is collected ends up in a landfill anyway. The biggest one is that it acclimates people to diverting recyclable waste. The second is that it creates an opportunity to recycle whatever materials happen to be priced high enough to make pulling them out economically viable.

What gets my goat about it is the dishonesty. Don't say you're recycling stuff unless you are actually recycling the stuff.
posted by wierdo at 8:09 PM on July 15, 2019

There's a company in Richmond, BC that upcycles mall food court chopsticks into laminated wood products.

I'm a fan of paper and paperboard, but yeah, you need specialized composting accommodations for that - it'll end up just being mostly preserved if just dumped into a landfill.

Big fan of the Quebec model of glass beer containers being cleaned and reused; I remember certain brands of bottled beer (in BC) back in the early '90s being pretty scuffed up on the outside (mostly on the raised ridges near the bottom and just before the top tapers into the neck - sacrificial material to preserve the smooth cylinder that the label was affixed to).

In the early '00s before I became lactose intolerant, I bought milk in refillable glass bottles. Damned fine milk, too.

I moved to Surrey/ Langley from Vancouver about a year ago - it's single stream in those two municipalities and it's obviously complete bs; there's minimal actual recycling going on. The bottle recycling depot chain (used primarily by binners [people living rough who collect containers for their deposits]) that serve all three seem to have a unified protocol, though, and deals mostly with redeamables and uses that to subsidize lower/ negative return recycling.

There's a 'thing' in Vancouver - senior-aged Asian ladies collecting bottles from trash cans/ etc.. While living in multi-million dollar properties.

Of course, there are counterexamples of low income person who bins and donates/ed most of her redemption to the BC Cancer Foundation. (tl;dr ~$15,000 over 21 years)

When I was a grad student at UBC (~2010), I overheard a couple of older male binners speaking to each other in Cantonese:

1: My son got a 3.8 and is keeping his $8000 scholarship this year, so I gave him $8000 towards his sports car
2: My useless son only got a 2.4 so I have to help him with his rent and tuition now.
posted by porpoise at 8:28 PM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I strongly recommend watching the documentary Plastic China to see what this all thid looks like on the receiving end of these shipments. It's free on Prime for the moment.

99% Invisibile did an excellent episode on China’s new tack on plastics, in which the National Sword legislation is actually traced back to the local success of that very film. (It also includes a fascinating explanation of how Taipei solved its garbage/recycling problem.)
posted by progosk at 10:45 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

One "solution" for plastic is to burn it, of course. Back when I lived in Toronto I, like most residents, was very suspicious of the steady stream of proposals to build incinerators ( waste-to-energy! ) in the region, mostly because part of the negotiations with municipalities was a requirement to guarantee the supply of garbage for 30-40 years. "How will that incentivize waste reduction" was my concern. As I sat in a house on a block where every house was burning natural gas all winter.

Now I live in a Swedish town which built out a district heating system in the 60s and now is mostly heated by waste heat from a garbage incinerator electric plant down on the lakefront between a coal plant and an under-construction wood burner. There are no furnaces in anyone's homes. It's stunning. Even some bike paths get snow-melted in the winter. So my opinion has changed a bit. It's not sustainable, burning plastic, but it at least feels like getting electricity and heat out of it is a better bargain than burying it and burning fossil fuel instead.
posted by anthill at 12:28 AM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Circular economy: What goes around comes around - "Traditional economics has faced troubling questions since the 2008 financial crash, though its 'linear' version remains dominant. Now some believe that circular economics could, and perhaps should, set us on a new track."

Cradle to cradle: Living in a world without waste - "People buy, consume and then discard. But can you imagine a reality where the concept of waste had no meaning? That's behind the growing 'cradle to cradle' movement."

Taking on plastic pollution with molecular recycling - "Plastic waste is a big problem. Turning it into new plastic sounds like the obvious solution, but that's trickier than you think. Now two young entrepreneurs are trying a new kind of recycling that could do the job."
posted by kliuless at 1:26 AM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Amazon's incredible, vanishing cardboard box - "Retailers and shippers are working rapidly to shrink, make lighter, and re-use all that extra packaging — and eventually, maybe, get rid of it altogether."
posted by kliuless at 2:00 PM on July 16, 2019

Sawdust Might Be One Answer to the World's Plastic Problem - "Beverage giants Pepsi, Danone and Nestle plan to sell water in recyclable plastic bottles made from lumber scraps."
It’s one of the many unconventional ways conceived by scientists to reduce the world’s reliance on plastics made from petroleum, which emit as much climate-damaging pollutants as 189 coal plants each year from production to incineration. Other so-called bio-based plastics are being developed from sugar, corn, algae, seaweed, sewage and even dead beetles...

Origin Materials developed a way to extract cellulose from wood waste to make para-xylene, a hydrocarbon usually derived from oil used to manufacture PET, one of the most common plastics today. Since trees and plants naturally capture CO2 through photosynthesis, using sustainably sourced sawdust and wood chips more than offsets any pollutants released in the manufacturing process, according to Bissell.

However ingenious the techniques to make plant-based bottles may get, though, they’re still plastic. Not all varieties are recyclable or biodegradable. And ultimately unless they are recycled — and worldwide only one out of every five bottles is — plastic bottles inevitably end up in landfills where they may spew pollutants into the air, or worse, find their way into the oceans where most could take hundreds of years to degrade, killing birds, fish and whales in the process. When incinerating, bio-based plastics may be little better than oil-based ones because the carbon stored in them is released...

Skeptics of the bioplastic push say they’re not resolving the underlying problem. It would be better to focus on improving rates of reuse of plastic or glass packaging, with waste collected by the producer, according to Juliet Phillips, an ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-governmental organization.

If production of plant-based plastics were to be scaled up, “land-use demands could bring about competition with agriculture, accelerating deforestation concerns and biodiversity loss,” she said.
posted by kliuless at 5:32 AM on July 23, 2019

I wonder...

Many products are marketed as being worth purchasing because doing so lowers one's environmental impact.

For example, an "energy star" refrigerator is said to reduce energy consumption more than enough to make up for its production.

On the flip side, we have electric cars that have such high embodied pollution, it would be (hyperbolically) to roll coal than to buy electric.

I am very skeptical of this logic - because instead of reducing manufacturing demand, it increases it.

I want more data on the "break even point" and the "consumed" point.
posted by rebent at 6:43 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

In the Circular Economy, Products Are Designed to Be Recycled - "Many business leaders and governments — including China, Japan and the U.K. — argue that we should ditch this linear system in favor of a so-called circular economy of take, make, use, reuse and reuse again and again."
The German government offers grants to design products that have a lower environmental impact or are cheap to repair. In Chile, the government said it will aim to make all plastic reusable. And the government in India introduced a law in 2012 requiring manufacturers of electronics and white goods to provide “take-back” services when a product reaches the end of its life — a move could create an estimated half a million jobs.
Tesla CTO JB Straubel has a stealthy recycling start-up and it's expanding into Nevada - "Straubel has promoted recycling in Tesla's own business, saying the company would eventually like to establish a 'closed loop.'"
Tesla will absolutely recycle, and we do recycle, all of our spent cells, modules and battery packs. So the discussion about is this waste ending up in landfills is not correct. We would not do that, these are valuable materials. In addition, it’s just the right thing to do.

We have current partner companies-- on every major continent where we have cars operating-- that we work with to do this today. And in addition, we’re developing internally more processes, and we’re doing R&D on how we can improve this recycling process to get more of the active materials back. Ultimately what we want is a closed loop, right, at the Gigafactories that reuses the same, recycled materials.
These Companies Are Trying to Reinvent Recycling - "At least 60 chemical companies are racing to develop technology that can return trash to its original hydrocarbon ingredients, according to a report [in April]. The process -- call it the unmaking of plastic -- creates clean, virgin resin that can be used for new products, avoiding the need to pump oil for endless fresh batches."
posted by kliuless at 6:59 PM on July 30, 2019

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