Friday, January 28, 2011

Recycling the Myth

When I hit the beach, and the plastic confetti of life hits me, I stop. And I think, why? Why is there so much plastic in the sea, in the world? Why is it everywhere? In everything we do, everything we touch, everywhere we turn?

One word: "Recycling"

As I've shown here and here, little of the plastic that we "recycle" actually returns again as the same kind/quality of plastic. It's just a downward spiral. But it only recently dawned on me what that means. I mean, the true scale of what that means. It hit me last week, when I saw this on the side of a toy package:
#1 plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, "PET"
This is the packaging for a set of Zoobles -- silly little plastic creatures with magnets inside. They fold down into spheres and "pop" back up into animals when you put them on another magnet. My daughter had a Target gift card from Christmas/Hannukah, and she picked them out. She played with them for 5 minutes.

Zoobles are made in China. The packaging is made in China. In 2011, this is no surprise. But the #1 stamped on the side was a surprise. Remember, #1 plastic is held up by the industry as a shining symbol. Buy a bottle of soda, recycle it, get another bottle of soda. Yay!

So what's it doing in this cheap package? Maybe this chart can help.
Natl. Assn. for PET Container Resources 2009 report, p. 4
Accessed at
Since 1999, the amount of #1 plastic bought by U.S. reclaimers has gone up 9.2%. The amount bought for export (mostly to China -- p. 3 of the NAPCOR report) has gone up 438%. That's right. All that extra recycling we're doing, all those marketing campaigns? They've created a bumpercrop of #1 plastic, the vast majority of which is now being shipped off overseas.

And that exported plastic is not becoming new #1 bottles. The reason: the LNO (see "The Triangle Is a Lie"). The U.S. FDA's "Letter of No Objection" is only given to plastic recyclers who meet the strictest quality controls. It costs a lot, there's a lot of regulatory hurdles. As this FDA list shows, a total of -7- companies in the world received an LNO in 2010; none were developing nations.

FACT: High-quality plastic is very, very hard to recycle into a new version of itself. Even #1, the golden child. It's extremely rare. But don't take my word for it. Here's a summary of the "Best Practices and Industry Standards in PET Plastic Recycling," from NAPCOR's Web site.*
  1. Non-bottle PET items, like laundry scoops, or microwave trays, should be excluded. These materials introduce contaminants or create technical or economic problems.
  2. Pigmented PET bottles and containers... can cause technical or economic problems.
  3. Lids, caps, closures... [and] safety seals... introduce aluminum and plastic materials that are not made from PET and can contaminate or add cost to the PET recycling process.
That's 3; there's 4 more.

Moreover, food plastics that aren't bottles shouldn't be recycled either. Check this out:
"Made with 100" Recycled PET from Post Consumer Bottles"
This is a "clamshell" tub of blueberries in my fridge. Score, right? 100% recycled PET, the system works, hooray?

No. This particular kind of #1 has been "thermoformed." Its shape, makeup, and susceptibility to contamination means that, in NAPCOR's own words, "a variety of technical issues have prevented existing PET bottle reclaimers from including PET thermoforms in the bottle stream" (same report, p. 10). A lot of the so-called "bottle-2-bottle" recycling ends up actually making stuff like this clamshell. From there? Mostly a dead-end. Tubs like this will, at best, become part of the cheap "mixed stream" of junk recycled plastic.

Funny, isn't it. Companies know the tiniest bit of contamination means a batch of #1 isn't good for food anymore. Yet more and more plastics manufacturers are stamping a big #1 on their detergent, cleaner, oil bottles, etc. What possible benefit can there be to confusing Joe Consumer about what to put in his bin?

What possible benefit can there be to a company in China stamping a big #1 on the side of a cloudy, gunky Zooble package? It's junk. Its only path is down.

And there's the answer. The Downward Spiral. Here, again, on NAPCOR's site is the list of things they like to make from your recycled #1 plastics:
How much of -that- will ever be recycled again?
The point of plastic recycling isn't to close the loop. It never was. The point is to provide free labor and a cheap resource. The industry has spent the past 30 years thinking up ever newer ways to repackage and resell plastic to us. All the while they've been thinking up ever newer ways to repackage the idea of recycling as somehow earth-friendly.

And we've bought it.

So now we have plastic Zoobles packed in plastic packages, wrapped in plastic wrappers, shipped with plastic strapping, carted through the aisles in plastic shopping carts, sent home in plastic bags. We sit down to play with our daughters on plastic chairs, thumbing through their plasticized books. We eat fresh, healthy yogurt from plastic tubes and drink from plastic sippy cups. We tap away on plastic-bodied computers with plastic keys. We admire the plastic plants we don't have to water and the plastic picture frames on the wall. We buy plastic jackets (polyester is just another variety of #1 PET plastic) and plastic gloves to keep off winter's chill. We put on our boots with plasticized rubber soles, so we can walk down the plastic composite steps of our plastic-sided condo, and step into our plastic cars, gently pulling their plastic door handles closed. When we get home we scrape our feet on the plastic welcome mats so that we don't track dirt into our polyester carpets (also made from recycled #1 PET). Maybe in the summer we go to the beach and buy plastic shovels and plastic pails and wear plastic sunglasses and throw plastic frisbees to each other. We open a plastic tub of cheese & crackers by peeling off the plastic cover. We dip our chicken nuggets into a plastic sauce pack and drizzle ketchup from another plastic pack onto our fries. We get home and brush our teeth with plastic toothbrushes, run a plastic comb through our hair, click the plastic remote control and turn on the plastic TV set. We order a pizza with that stupid little plastic "crush protector," and a metallized plastic bag of chips. We pre-wash our dishes with a plastic scrub brush, then pull the plastic handle of our dishwasher to open it. In the evening we play with our kids again, this time maybe the plastic model train set with the plastic Stop signs we want to paint using plastic brushes. Before bed we take a shower in our plastic tub-and-shower surround. We squirt out shampoo from a plastic bottle, shave with a plastic razor. When we're done, we step out, put our towel up on the plastic countertop, put on deodorant from a plastic tube. We toss our plastic recycling into the plastic recycling tub. And at last we lie down on our nice, polyester Blank-o-Pedic mattresses.

And we wonder why there are plastic oceans and plastic beaches.
photo by Rick Loumis
part of "Altered Oceans" series
The triangle is a lie.

* This document was originally crafted in 1996-97, but it appears that it has never been bettered. It has been updated with modern URLs, and is still listed as the best practices at many plastic advocacy sites.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Dead of Winter

The blog radio silence got a little too pronounced. A quick rectifier here.

It's been a week of goodbyes:
RIP Spike, 15 1/2 years really wasn't enough
Goodbye '02 Santa Fe, my time with you really -was- enough
4 snowstorms (5th tonight) + below-zero temps = no useful
beachcombing last week, maybe this as well. Enough!
That doesn't mean I've been sitting idle. An ailing cat has been sent on his tearful farewell. An ailing car has been exchanged for one with a warranty and new-car-smell. (No tears were shed.) And I'm starting to wrap my mind back around the business at hand. I have Jan. 14's Collection Report to post soon. A couple teasers:
Frequent find in Pacific, my 1st
Trap confetti
And I also am working the 3rd installment of The Triangle is a Lie. Because there's "recyclable," and there's "recyclable."
Which "recyclable" #1 plastic is this?
All coming soon, I promise. Til then...
"THIS is the moment of creation."
-- John Muir
Farewell to what's gone, welcome to what's on its way.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ex Uno, Plures

When I stroll the sands at Bay View, I pick up bits of trash one at a time. When I'm home in the evening, cleaning & sorting & counting my finds, I tally them one at a time. And then I create my collection reports and my list, touting all the individual pieces of garbage I've found.

But all flotsam is not alike. Compare this...
1 piece of flotsam this:
1 piece of flotsam
Of course that tiny piece of plastic didn't start off so tiny. Whatever it was, it was once much bigger. Maybe as big as the balloon above. And if I had found it intact, on the beach, I would have registered it as "1 piece of flotsam." The question is: How many pieces has it broken down into? Where did they go? The answer is: Who knows?

An analogy. Here's your basic styrofoam packing peanut.
1 piece of simulated flotsam
Here's what it looks like after being rolled around in my hand for a few seconds, to simulate being ground up by the surf.
Far more than 1 piece of simulated flotsam
Suddenly, it's gone from one piece of garbage to hundreds of little floatable flecks, like these I found at the beach one week. Ex uno, plures.

Here's another analogy. This is a lobster trap.
img "Catching lobster.jpg"
from Wikimedia Commons
These are bits of vinyl trap coatings washed ashore last week:
Lots of bits
Traps get scraped & dinged, the steel exposed. Many traps (maybe hundreds of thousands) are lost at sea. The exposed steel rusts slowly on the sea floor. Rust expands, bursting the vinyl coatings. In time, the steel will all rust away to dust. But the vinyl bits will live on. One lobster trap can generate thousands of them as it slowly disintegrates under the waves. Ex uno, plures.

So what? What's the point of this ramble? It's to make a distiction that's often missed, between big flotsam that disturbs our eyes, and tiny flotsam that disturbs entire ecosystems. And to connect the former to the latter.

An intact trap, or balloon -- we can see that, it's obvious. We can clean it up. 1 piece of flotsam.

The small stuff is far more insidious. Tiny flecks elude us. They get into the guts of small-bodied (read: small-brained) fish & filter feeders. Bigger creatures eat them -- and their plastic-laden friends. Now the bigger creatures have a bigger dose of plastic chemicals in them. And on and on, polluting every stage of the food web, eventually ending up on our plates. (Similar to how mercury from coal-burning now poisons so much of the tuna in our oceans.)

All large pieces of plastic are trying to break up into countless small pieces of plastic. Given time, they'll succeed. Every balloon, bottle, measuring cup, shovel, glove, recycling bin, buoy, chunk of foam, or broken boat hull (!) that ends up in the ocean... it isn't really just one piece of flotsam. It's 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 pieces of flotsam, just biding their time.
What were you?
Ex uno, plures. Out of one, many.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Collection Report Jan 6, 2011

Happy New Year!
After the "Christmas Storm," the weather of Dec. 30 - Jan. 6 was uneventful. What would it be flotsam-wise? It didn't take long to find out. For starters, any beach that looks like this...
Organic mush recording a receding tide
...will contain plenty of this:
Glove for scale, lines point to plastic debris in situ
along just one small section
Plus, this withered & sunbleached menu suggested that Mother Nature was still in the midst of serious detox.
Withered & sunbleached, but intact, because
it's coated in plastic!
What's the big deal about a seaside restaurant menu lost in the sea? Because The Pier Restaurant is (or was - it seems to be defunct now) in Bar Harbor, 125 miles to the northeast.

Anyway, the previous week I collected 478 finds from my utterly deserted, frozen beach. I was hoping that would come back down a bit this week. Did it? Here's Zone N:
360 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 94 (35 claw bands, 2 band fragments, 35 bits of rope, 20 lobster trap coatings, bead, bumper)
  • Food-related plastics: 58 (28 bottlecap seals, 13 silverware scraps, 6 polystyrene (#6) cup scraps, 7 random cup scraps, slotted spoon, 2 sauce packs, label scrap)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 7 (can + can scraps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 187 (everything, just... everything)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 3 (2 cigarettes plus wrapper)
  • Paper/wood: 1
  • Misc./unique: 10 (6 fabric scraps, 2 bits of cord, 2 other)
As with last week, no commentary needed here. Just a few pictures will do:
The confetti of life
The day of the bottle-cap seal;
and how does a slotted spoon get lost?
Another Jul 19 tag?!
Some of the fishing rope is very old
And then down to Zone S:
136 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 1
  • Fishing misc.: 52 (12 claw bands, 21 rope scraps, 18 lobster trap coatings, shell wadding)
  • Food-related plastics: 13 (2 bottlecaps, 2 #6 cup scraps, 3 bread tags, knife, wrapper bit, sauce pack, 3 scraps)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 4 (can scraps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 54 (inc. weatherstrip, tent rod segment, duct tape, shovel fragment, Clorox cap, 2 bits of red/white/black vinyl scraps like those found in Zone N last week)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 4
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 8 (glove, 4 fabric scraps, 1 hand warmer, 2 bits of string/cord)
Even in winter Zone S stays lighter than Zone N. Does this mean Zone N's waters are filled with remnants of busy summers, slowly regurgitated back in winter? Does it mean that the micro-currents around Zone S lend themselves to less garbage? The shore at Zone S is a bit narrower than Zone N - does that matter? Don't know -- but I'm working on it. I do know that the kinds of debris at both are very similar. Here's a few closeups:
Zone S's colorful confetti
Mmmm, toxins
And much more fishing debris
Including this ancient piece; yes, that
furry loop has a heart of rope
And there you go. The find count did come down. From 478 finds to 476.

In two weeks in the heart of winter on a quiet Maine beach, I've plucked up nearly 1,000 pieces of manmade garbage. Along 500 feet of tideline. Some may be remnants of summer's revelry; some has clearly washed in from many miles away. And it just keeps coming.

A parting thought for this week. I pulled up 242 pieces of fishing debris in the past two weeks. What's missing from this picture?
Surf, Isle, ...
That's right, fishing buoys, fishing boats, fishermen. To the edge of the horizon at Saco Bay I have never seen a buoy, trawler, lobster boat. There is no commercial scale fishing in Saco Bay as far as my eye can make out.

To reach my shore, each claw band, shotgun wadding, coating from a ruined trap, or fragment of rope has to travel for miles. When you think about the vastness of the Gulf of Maine, and the tiniest of my bit of shoreline, each scrap in my hand is an impossibility -- it's hitting PowerBall. If I've hit PowerBall this many times, how much else is still out there?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Collection Report Dec 29, 2010

Here at last, long-delayed. December 29, two days after the fabled "Christmas storm." Though the mid-Atlantic was hit hard, Maine saw an average -- even light -- nor'easter. I arrived at Bay View beach late morning, low tide, to this:
A long morning - kelp beds carry far more than kelp
This report will have limited commentary. The pictures are enough. Keep in mind, this is from tide line, a few hundred feet of beach in southern Maine, in 28 degrees F. The same stretch of beach I've cleaned fastidiously nearly every week since June.

First, "Zone N" - the northerly of the two sections I clean, closest to the public access, and more populated during the summer months.
341 finds:
  • Building materials: 3
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 3
  • Fishing misc.: 75 (36 lobster claw bands, 14 bits of vinyl trap coating, lure, "Lunker Fishing" packet scrap, 1 webbed basket, sinker bead, 2 monofilaments, 19 bits of rope)
  • Food-related plastics: 55 (11 scraps of #6 drinking cup, 17 bits of cutlery, 13 bottlecap seals, 1 "medium-well" steak tag, 2 bread tags, 11 misc.)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 9 (7 can scraps, 2 bottle caps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 180 (you name it, it's there)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 1 (golf tee)
  • Misc./unique: 14 (13 fabric scraps, 1 piece of cord)
Summer's fare, lurking offshore til the storm
Misc. confetti of modern life
Closeup of some misc. plastic
Shovels, pail bits, umbrella bases, etc.
Broken ruler helps size other flotsam
Whither the missing comb teeth?
Aluminum cans degrading
The cost of a robust fishing economy
Many bands had apparent bite marks
On to "Zone S" -- the southern zone, separated from Zone N by a private patio built out slightly onto the beach, and thus much quieter & less-traveled in summertime:
137 finds:
  • Building materials: 1
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 21 (12 claw bands, 3 vinyl trap coating bits, 1 shotgun shell, 5 bits of rope)
  • Food-related plastics: 15 (7 bottlecap seals, 3 bread wrapper tags, bottle cap, spoon, fork tine, 2 scraps of drinking cup)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 9 (can scraps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 89 (a little of everything)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 2 (1 cigarette and one plastic cigar end)
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
More confetti
More fishing debris
July 19, what year?
Recycling doesn't close the loop;
it restarts it
My highest weekly total ever. 478 pieces of trash washed up from one storm. And it's simply not possible that I got it all - the kelp was too thick and sandy to turn over every last bit of it, try as I might.

An aside:

Last week there was a dustup when a researcher in Oregon suggested that the extent of plastic pollution was exaggerated. Here's how you can really find the truth. Look down at your feet. That's all you have to do.

Maine is nowhere near a great ocean gyre. Its currents are fed from the north by waters that flow along the least populated parts of the Atlantic Ocean. And yet here is the waste of modern life washing around me. Nearly 500 pieces of plastic along 500 feet of beach, when Maine's tidal shoreline is 3,500 miles.

So fine; it's true that the plastic doesn't swirl in a vortex twice the size of Texas.

It swirls everywhere.