Externalizing Waste Costs Hurts Everyone But Producers
October 2, 2019 9:06 AM   Subscribe

“Beyond disposability, present day waste practices like recycling continue the extension of profit through trash. The Container Corporation of America sponsored the creation of the recycling symbol for the first Earth Day in 1970 (Rogers 2006: 171). The American Chemistry Council, the world’s largest plastics lobby, enthusiastically testified in favor of expanding New York City’s curbside recycling program to accept rigid plastics (ACC 2010). Recycling is a far greater benefit to industry than to the environment. ” Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy (Discard Studies) We asked 3 companies to recycle Canadian plastic and secretly tracked it. Only 1 company recycled the material (CBC)
posted by The Whelk (40 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's aggravating and yet not at all surprising.

I've never been a great recycler and it's very hard not to take stories like this as a reason not to try. At this point, my recycling strategy is only to put in recycling the most obviously suitable things from the waste I generate. I feel like at least that way, I'm not contaminating the recycling stream with stuff that shouldn't be there. It means some stuff that maybe could have been recyled isn't, but that seems like the lesser of two evils.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:20 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]


OH HAI. Over the summer I went on a rant about my former city's solid waste diversion strategy and emailed a bunch of people to complain (but uh, embarrassingly not the solid waste management division of the city...) The city's current proposal is to just chuck all the "recycled" plastic into the waste-to-energy plant, which, as much as I hate it, is not the worst idea they have had.

Single-stream recycling was ultimately a mistake. Increasing rates of recycling also lead to increasing rates of contamination, which precipitated China's decision to stop buying America's recycling. I posted an answer on the green recently that includes this bit:
"Today, the average contamination rate among communities and businesses sits at around 25%. That means that roughly 1 in 4 items placed in a recycling container is actually not recyclable through curbside programs, and this creates enormous problems for the recycling economy." (Waste Management, 2018)

I've been wondering for a long time how much money/know-how it would take to have a municipal glass recycling facility and a municipal paper recycling facility. The amount of city budget that goes to solid waste and wastewater management / disposal is huge. Can we reallocate the money spent on landfilling and shipping out trash to dealing with it locally?
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:39 AM on October 2 [3 favorites]


I walk ~3/4 of a mile twice a day as part of my commute through two trash-littered neighborhoods, and generally pick up and throw away anywhere between 10 and 20 plastic bottles each way. This has been going on for years now, and it barely makes a dent - only pure hate keeps me going.

It is so f-ing obvious that Coke et al are just passing on their production costs to municipalities in the form of garbage, and that a huge % of the population has become inured to living in the resulting squalor that it barely registers at this point.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:45 AM on October 2 [16 favorites]


Related to fauxcycling fuckery, the Heated newsletter had a piece yesterday about the insulated foil freezer bag that Amazon's Prime Now (and others) uses, and the open trickery of presenting obfuscatory labeling as them being made of "recyclable materials"--where the truth is that's only straining-technically correct, but when those materials are put together into final manufactured form, they are very much not--even for recycling centers that actually recycle more than just aluminum.
posted by Drastic at 9:46 AM on October 2 [3 favorites]


My partner & I just found out recently that our county is storing all the glass recyclables in a huge warehouse because no one will buy them. Seems totally antithetical to the publicly-presented purpose of recycling. This article is a very helpful clarification I can send him.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:47 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]


And yes, let's stop it with the blue bin curbside system that both confuses most residents (what kind of plastic is recyclable? how much should I rinse out this sauce jar?) and distracted us from how capitalism is still externalizing costs. The plastics manufacturers lurrrrrrved making us feel like buying single-use items was okay because hey it gets recycled (as long as China or other countries with huge need for material inputs like scrap metal or plastic were buying).

There are limits to individual consumer model of recycling and virtuous waste disposal. Like yes, we should recycle and have a home compost bin if possible, but we need to be holding our cities accountable instead of paying the trash disposal fee which then pays for our trash to be sent out on a barge elsewhere. A municipal composting facility is icky I know, and a glass recycling facility would have start up costs, but its so much better than the landfill with veggie scraps, glass jars and plastic beverage cups mixed indiscriminately when those separately would actually make usable resources (compost/soil and uh, wait, I need to look up how Korea or Japan does it).
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:49 AM on October 2 [3 favorites]


Kitty Stardust, the glass recycling situation is dire I think in almost all cities.

I am envious of Portland (glass to glass recycling facility) and Kansas City (glass to fiberglass recycling facility). And I'm sure there are many others too.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:52 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]


Previously : it's time to rethink recycling and NYC tackles food waste
posted by The Whelk at 10:10 AM on October 2


As a backgrounder on this topic, I highly recommend Vance Packard's The Waste Makers - he was documenting all this when it first began on industrial scale
posted by Mrs Potato at 11:24 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]


I feel like I need a full 360-view like-I'm-five explainer on what to do with all my various waste products.

Like, organic waste: what's best? Second best? Garbage disposal: yea or nay?

As a family we've recently stopped using curbside single stream in favor of hand-sorting and a once-a-week trip to the recycling drop-off center. I think? that's better?

When I have a choice of container options, what's the order of preference? Aluminum vs glass: which is more readily recyclable?
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:27 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]


I re-use as much as possible, but I always carried some suspicion about recycling because it just didn't make logistical sense to me..
posted by captain afab at 11:29 AM on October 2


That means that roughly 1 in 4 items placed in a recycling container is actually not recyclable through curbside programs, and this creates enormous problems for the recycling economy." (Waste Management, 2018)


The recycling industry's definition of what is recyclable is largely to blame, and their definition is based on what they see as profitable. Styrene is deemed recyclable, while styrofoam is not. If I'm not mistaken, styrofoam is styrene. I have seen recycling-truck drivers reject aluminum cookware. Aluminum is one of the most profitably recyclable materials around, but if it's not cans, they won't take it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:32 AM on October 2


When I have a choice of container options, what's the order of preference? Aluminum vs glass: which is more readily recyclable?

I've wondered the same thing, so I did a bit of googling. What I found somewhat surprised me! I'd assumed that glass recycling was marginal and aluminum recycling was better (just based on the value of the raw materials). But apparently that's wrong.

This article seems pretty good. Concluding section:
If you can find aluminum cans made from 100 percent recycled materials, they should be your top choice when shopping for single-serving beverages. Their low transportation footprint and ease of recyclability make them a winner.

However, the extraction of raw bauxite is detrimental to the planet. New aluminum cans are not eco-friendly.

Glass should be your pick if recycled cans are not an option. Glass bottles are made from relatively innocuous raw materials and are, like aluminum cans, completely recyclable. Their weight and transportation footprint is their downfall.

Plastic does have a small carbon footprint when it comes to transportation, but it’s tough to ignore the giant carbon footprint when it comes to manufacturing. Plus, the plastic that doesn’t end up in a recycling bin can be a huge pollutant in our environment, killing wildlife and contaminating ecosystems. Our irresponsible use of plastic is ravaging the planet.
Not sure how to tell if an aluminum can is made from recycled materials, though.

If the article is to be believed, glass > aluminum > plastic. It says that, "an estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles," which surprised me since I'd assumed much less. It also says, "we are currently recycling only 45 percent of [aluminum] cans," which surprised me since I'd assumed much more. (However note that "recovered glass containers" is not apples-to-apples with [all] aluminum cans.)

I give the article some credence since it covers entire lifecycle costs, from raw materials, manufacturing, transport, all the way to disposal and recycling.
posted by sjswitzer at 11:53 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]


A municipal composting facility is icky I know

The one my food waste goes to looks like it works fine, and it also creates 15% of the gas that comes through my pipes.

I think the fact that a service is underperforming and underregulated doesn't mean that it shouldn't exist, and certainly doesn't (necessarily) mean it can't exist. All it means is that it's not being run properly. New York City's main single stream recycling facility (see also this video) delivers what's promised.

That said, plastic separation does seem the wrong thing to do for me, because even after reprocessing, the polymers are much lower quality than raw produced ones, unlike in the case of metal and glass recycling. Breaking it down to oil through pyrolysis seems like a very low waste solution to me, although the presence of PVC and other halogen containing plastics does complicate the process. Arguably separating out those plastics would be a good thing.
posted by ambrosen at 12:02 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting The Whelk.

I get so annoyed by the lack of recycling here, like most countries NZ allowed dependency on Asia taking our recycling. We are also seen as an uneconomically-small market so for instance refillable pens are an oxymoron as the importers make less profit "if we buy refills".

What we need a licence to manufacture only if you have a recycling process or pathway in place for your product molecules in = molecules out. We also need recyling labour to be valued.

Govt here is starting in right direction but a long way to go yet.

With glass I used to work in a winery and lots of bottles get broken, when clearing up the mess you needed to keep the colours separate. If the colours were mixed they were only worth a ¼ of single colour bottles fit for beer bottles\ dark glass. Many NZers are too lazy to clean or sort IMO.

I had hoped electrostatic sorting of plastics would be a thing but it seems to have gone by the by. There's a video on their somewhere which show bottles leaping off a production line in different directions based on the electrostatic properties.

Composting can be very nice although you need gardeners and end users involved in the process.
posted by unearthed at 12:34 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


Concerning glass recycling, it's not as nice and easy as you think.

Glass is easily re-used, this is very true and is the main strength of using glass over other types of material as liquid containers. However when it comes to actually recycling glass, as in breaking down the glass and forming a new container from it, this process is much rarer than you would think. Broken glass is very very hard on machinery and dangerous for the workers, and so, in America, it doesn't easily turn a profit, which is why more and more glass recycling facilities in North America are shutting down.

The problem is exacerbated when the glass recycling program is done through curbside recycling, because the process of curbside recycling/collecting/sorting results in lots of broken bottles so most of then end up in landfills. Re-using glass bottles works really well with dedicated programs like beer bottle recycling where there is a deposit-return system in place, and this is what we need more of in North America, but the current system is broken.

Sources:
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/cbc-investigation-shatters-glass-recycling-myths-1.2762967
https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recycling-US-broken/97/i6
https://www.waste360.com/glass/focusing-economics-glass-recycling
posted by Vindaloo at 12:35 PM on October 2 [8 favorites]


Like, organic waste: what's best? Second best? Garbage disposal: yea or nay?

A municipal composting facility is best, after that there's no easy answer. It'll depend on what technologies your municipal wastewater treatment and landfill operator have invested in. Do they have any processes in place for methane mitigation, recovery, and use? How does the wastewater system do biological nutrient removal (if at all)? In general, for the sake of your plumbing, you should probably put organic waste in the trash.
posted by peeedro at 12:45 PM on October 2


Hruska argues meaningful alternatives to plastic grocery bags don't yet exist

With paper bags on the one hand, and sturdy reusable bags on the other, what sort of "meaningful alternative" are they hoping for? Like, sure, it's be great to have an alternative that had both the strength and disposability of plastic, I guess, but given the ability to get one or the other, depending on your needs, it seems to me like the alternatives are meaningful.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:06 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]


For me, personally, neither paper nor reusable represents a really viable option. I could make reusable bags work with some effort, but it's more effort than really makes sense for me, especially given that I need garbage bags anyway.

I don't have a car, and I most often buy groceries on the way home from work. When I buy them is kind of chaotic -- it depends when I get off work on a given day, how my buses are running and what groceries I have at home. Because of that I don't know on any given day whether I need grocery bags -- not in the morning, and not even when I leave work at night. So either I carry around 3 or 4 reusable grocery bags every day -- which I'd rather not do -- or I don't have them with me when I need to go grocery shopping.

But grocery store paper bags are completely useless for people who need to carry a significant amount of groceries a significant distance, so just picking paper isn't practical, either.

There are transit commuters and cycle commuters who make reusable bags work, so I know I could if I really wanted to, but it just seems like a lot more effort than it's worth.

For people with cars, either option probably works. But then, those people are driving around in their cars, so...
posted by jacquilynne at 1:37 PM on October 2


A lot of the companies directly responsible for the debris that is choking so many neighborhoods go to great lengths to plaster their branded logos all over that future debris. Why don't we start having caravans to the headquarters of Coca-Cola, McDonald's et al. to return their labeled property to them? What groups could (or have) effectively organized such campaigns?

"Render Unto Little Caesar's," we could call it.
posted by shenderson at 2:11 PM on October 2 [13 favorites]


And what about all these little plastic bags of dog poop?
posted by hank at 2:24 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


I've wondered the same thing, so I did a bit of googling. What I found somewhat surprised me! I'd assumed that glass recycling was marginal and aluminum recycling was better (just based on the value of the raw materials). But apparently that's wrong.

That article is really bad. There is no way that 80% of recycled glass bottles are ending up back on the shelf as bottles (far too much ends up in landfill or crushed for use in pavement, etc). Even then, that's 80% of the bottles that are recycled (which is apparently only 1/3 or so).

But for aluminum, they quote a recycling rate, not the rate that the cans get turned back into cans once they are recycled (which is very high). Apples to oranges.

When you look at higher recycling rates, less transport, etc, I'm pretty sure aluminum cans come out on top, by far. Some people even say aluminum cans are better than glass that gets washed and reused (it all depends on the energy used to transport and wash the bottles), but that's far less clearcut.

These environmental comparisons are often written by people who have no idea what they are talking about and are complete BS. If anything, it just goes to show that we need strong regulatory action to deal with these issues, not some imaginary individual choice free-market fantasy.
posted by ssg at 2:27 PM on October 2


As a family we've recently stopped using curbside single stream in favor of hand-sorting and a once-a-week trip to the recycling drop-off center. I think? that's better?

Are you driving there? How far is it? That's probably the biggest factor. Unless going to the recycling center is a very low carbon trip for you, I'd guess that curbside is better, by far.
posted by ssg at 2:30 PM on October 2


Figure out how much fossil fuel the atmosphere can absorb each year, auction off that much fuel only at the wellheads and pitheads, rebate the money to the whole population per capita, and we won't have to make these calculations: cheaper is better.

Also everyone gets cash to use as they see fit, and a lot of fortunes will spend themselves down to maintain current standards of consumption.
posted by clew at 2:40 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah, my bad. That was a questionable article. I allowed it some credence, but that was probably too much.

My understanding had been in alignment with yours: not a lot of recycled glass bottles end up as bottles again, so the 80% figure was surprising (and probably misleading). Beverage bottles have pretty stringent requirements for color and composition that are hard to meet with random recycled glass. Also, using glass for aggregate in concrete isn't a completely bad disposal solution. It's better than putting it in landfills, but it barely meets the definition of recycling.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:44 PM on October 2


The problem with recycling single use products is that the materials they use are already dirt cheap. Which is no wonder why they go into single use products. Recycling such material has to pay for itself. A really tall order. It amazes me how much people object to this idea. As if recycling should be done on principle. Bottom line is that recycling should be done when it's practical, because if it isn't, you're just compounding waste upon waste. Waste needs to be dealt with in ways that reflect actual costs, be it recycling or landfill.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:00 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


There are transit commuters and cycle commuters who make reusable bags work, so I know I could if I really wanted to, but it just seems like a lot more effort than it's worth.

The biggest benefit for me with reusable bags on transit or while walking is that the handles are significantly more comfortable to carry than plastic bags and hold more without breaking. For biking, well. I have panniers, shopping goes in them along with everything else I'm carrying. Unless it's really large stuff, in which case I've now got a cargo trailer. Both options avoid the awkwardness and potential safety problems of hanging plastic bags off my handlebars.

My general method for having reusable bags available for after-work shopping trips is to bring a few from home to leave at the office every now and then so that they're available when I know I'll be making a stop on the way home. Not possible for anyone without some kind of personal storage available at work, but I'm lucky it's an option for me at my current job.
posted by asperity at 4:09 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


Unless going to the recycling center is a very low carbon trip for you, I'd guess that curbside is better, by far.

Considering that curbside recycling is accomplished using big, heavy trucks that are (at least most places) internal-combustion powered, and that they are constantly stopping and starting -- the worst case for IC fuel consumption -- I'm not so sure that curbside is better.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:24 PM on October 2


It says that, "an estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles," which surprised me since I'd assumed much less.

See, this is what I don't get.

Growing up in the 70s, when glass was recycled (for return-deposit) it was being washed and re-used by the company that had it produced in the first place. Coca-Cola even capitalized on this with the idea of putting the name of the city of origin of the new bottle molded into the bottom of the bottle, so when you later bought a bottle of Coke you could look at the bottom and see where the bottle was from. They did all that early on and I think I only ever saw one or two "native" bottles to our local Coke facility, they were nearly all from other places.

I don't understand the insistence that glass has to be reformed to be recycled when for generations it was washed/sanitized and re-used just fine.

And honestly, we have a problem wherein food service sanitation laws conflict directly in most cases with people bringing in their own reusable containers to get food put into. This applies both to things like take-out food and also grocery store food purchases from like a salad bar or bulk food station or whatever. As long as one law says "can't bring it in to fill it", the only option is "gotta take the new offered to use once".
posted by hippybear at 5:46 PM on October 2 [11 favorites]


The recycling center is on the same block as the co-op we grocery shop at, so we're not making a special trip. And the other difference is that curbside is single stream while drop off is seperated. The city has also recently contracted with a local glass recycler but only as drop off, they are not part of the single stream system (god knows where that glass goes--probably the landfill). I get the impression that the city is trying to gently encourage people to separate and drop off because single stream is a clusterfuck.

This conversation did prompt me to look into local composting. We do compost at home but produce more organic waste than a simple home set up on a small urban lot can handle (we're vegetarians, I keep chickens, it's a lot of veggies and fruits and straw and poop) . We really need a dedicated multiple bin system and don't have the space for it (and I don't have the time to build it to the standard that is required to keep rats out). But I did find a local vermiculture co-op where they come around and collect your bucket every week and then in the spring you get a bunch of worm castings. So I think we're going to do that for the winter and give our own compost tumbler a much needed digestion break.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:22 PM on October 2


we have a problem wherein food service sanitation laws conflict directly in most cases with people bringing in their own reusable containers to get food put into

Also OMG this drives me bonkers. I'm in a lowkey war with the Starbucks where I work over how they define "personal cup" and also their complete inability for their behind the counter workflow to not utterly fuck up personal cup orders. I washed and brought back a cold cup from a previous visit and they refused to refill it. Hoooow is it different from the plastic reusable cold cups they sell for $3 (aside from not being fucking ginormouse trente sized monstrosities)?? And even when I bring my approved personal cup I've caught them on multiple occasions making my drink in a plastic to go cup, then pouring it in to my personal cup then throwing away the plastic one. (Yes, I have complained to corporate.) I am the kind of weirdo that would bring my own tupperware when I get fast food, but I know it's not allowed.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:30 PM on October 2 [6 favorites]


we have a problem wherein food service sanitation laws conflict directly in most cases with people bringing in their own reusable containers to get food put into. This applies both to things like take-out food and also grocery store food purchases from like a salad bar or bulk food station or whatever.

I just this past week read an article about a Toronto restaurant that’s offering customers reusable takeout containers. The containers cost customers $4 each, and that fee is fully refunded when the customer returns the container. The restaurant washes and sterilizes the containers before reuse.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 6:32 PM on October 2 [5 favorites]


My daughter's college cafeteria has disposable to go containers, but for a dollar deposit they will fill a hard plastic reusable one. (You swap it for a clean one when you bring it back next time.)

She is very on-board with it, but doesn't always want to tote the thing around all morning until she goes to lunch.

For just a buck, I told her to bring me a couple of them for carrying my lunch to work!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:57 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]


I have a plastic Cumberland Farms mug, which they used to refill with coffee for free years ago. I doubt that they'll do that free any more, and I stopped using it because it's plastic and too big at the bottom to fit in cupholders. But refilling containers was a thing back then.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:47 AM on October 3


Like, organic waste: what's best? Second best? Garbage disposal: yea or nay?
A municipal composting facility is best,


Your not-human grade food goes to your chickens/pigs.

Your human-waste and the chicken/pigs waste goes to something like Black Soldier Fly larve. That larve goes to the pigs/chickens.

The larve waste/what the larve doesn't eat goes to worms. Excess worms to chicken/pigs

The worm poop - to the plants you are going to eat.

If you are worried about disease - the worms/larve to fish instead.


Now back in the 1970's it used to be a marketing angle on some in-jar foods in the supermarket how they were re-useable for canning. Rare to see today and the marketing photos for Chip Magnet Salsa show the 'mason' text but the jars of 2019 stocked material are the standard smooth glass most home canners push back on reusing. The government could try to mandate such standardization for re-use......
posted by rough ashlar at 9:48 AM on October 3 [2 favorites]


My local recycling center is swamped in amazon cardboard shipping boxes. Sure the billionaire owns the trees that make the cardboard but what is he doing to recycle the boxes?
TOO MUCH STUFF.
posted by Mesaverdian at 10:29 AM on October 3 [1 favorite]


My local recycling center is swamped in amazon cardboard shipping boxes. Sure the billionaire owns the trees that make the cardboard but what is he doing to recycle the boxes?

He doesn't need to. Which is kind of the point being made. Or made by Adam ruins everything here. One man's cardboard trash is anothers feedstock to grow oyster mushrooms.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:11 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]


I just this past week read an article about a Toronto restaurant that’s offering customers reusable takeout containers. The containers cost customers $4 each, and that fee is fully refunded when the customer returns the container. The restaurant washes and sterilizes the containers before reuse.

But what if I want to bring in my washed, would be used in my own house for food clean, yogurt tub to get food? Or Tupperware or Rubbermaid or whatever? Why should I rent plastic from a restaurant when I often get it "for free" with food I'm buying or have bought it specifically for food storage?
posted by hippybear at 12:58 PM on October 5


hippybear, that would be against the food handling codes in my jurisdiction (which are probably similar to any nationwide in the US). Restaurants are required to serve food* on plates or in containers that meet certain requirements like the materials they are made from and the process that they are cleaned by.

If John Q. Public shows up with with a mystery container, the restaurant and the health inspector should ask, "has it been sanitized?" "Sanitized" is defined by the food safety code, it's "the application of cumulative heat or chemicals on cleaned food-contact surfaces that, when evaluated for efficacy, is sufficient to yield a reduction of 5 logs, which is equal to a 99.999% reduction, of representative disease microorganisms of public health importance."

Restaurants pay a lot of money for professional equipment, chemicals, and training that are certified to meet these standards, your home kitchen is unlikely to suffice. Even if it did, you'd be asking the restaurant to take your word for it; they are inspected and insured, you are not. If your from-home container is contaminated, or if you handled your perfectly clean container with dirty hands, that contamination can spread to any of the restaurant's serving utensils or restaurant worker's hands that come in contact. That risk is avoided by saying no to unknown containers, handled by unknown hands, cleaned by unknown processes.

*not all food, there are exceptions for non-potentially hazardous food (such as grocery store bulk foods) or for refilling beverages with a process that prevents contamination from lip-contact surfaces.
posted by peeedro at 2:42 PM on October 5


And that exactly, peeedro, is what is entirely stupid about the situation because the result is either I rent plastic from the restaurant (right now apparently just one is doing this) or I get new plastic with every purchase.

As long as these laws are in place, we will be flooded by plastic everywhere all the time.
posted by hippybear at 3:07 PM on October 5


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