Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Recycling Myth

Today was going to be my collection report for December 29. Then something happened. Last night, I discovered this in the bag of junk I collected from Zone S:
(Added 1/6/11: The stamp on top reads "Made of 100%
recycled PETE")
And suddenly, everything I've been learning all these months came into focus. The #1 plastic (PET, or polyethylene terephthalate) I held in my hand managed to go successfully:

  • from synthesis
  • to plasticizing
  • to pelletizing
  • to shipping
  • to factory
  • to product
  • to more shipping
  • to retail warehouse
  • to more shipping
  • to retail shelf
  • to 1st consumer.

Then a fairly rare thing happened. This lucky bit of plastic was among the 28% of #1 plastic that was recycled last year. (The number comes from the Natl Assoc for PET Container Resources 2009 report found here.) Remember, the plastic industry has pushed recycling as a panacea for 20 years. And even now only 28% is recycled.

From the hand of the conscientious consumer that recycled it, it successfully went:

  • to recycling bin
  • to recycling truck
  • to recycling center
  • to sorting/cleaning process
  • to bundling/sale process

This now luckier bit of plastic was then among the 44% actually sold to U.S. reclaimers. Most "recycled" #1 plastic is dumped on developing nations, who use their own laws & methods of oversight. (From the same report, p. 3.) That makes 12% overall of #1 plastic that was both recycled and remained in the U.S.

Passing this next big hurdle, my bit of plastic went successfully from purchase:

  • to shipping
  • to factory

At the factory, only 76% of recycled #1 could be used, the rest was waste. Now we're down to 9% overall of #1 plastic recycyled, remaining in the U.S., and returned to usable flakes. These quite lucky usable flakes then went:

  • to product

What product? Fibers, sheet, strapping, resins, etc. Oh yeah, and a little bit -- 29% -- went to making new #1 containers. (Same report, p. 8.) Now we're down to 2.6% of all #1 containers sold in the U.S. actually being made into new #1 containers. Now, my extremely lucky plastic traveled successfully:

  • to more shipping
  • to retail warehouse
  • to more shipping
  • to retail itself
  • to second consumer.

At some point after this second consumer bought it, it escaped. It was lost at the beach, or blew out of a garbage can, or was tossed out a window, or got scavenged by an animal, or blew out of the recycling truck, or got swept out at the recycling center, or flew off the trash truck on the way to the incinerator. And it ended up in the ocean.

Even if this consumer had successfully recycled it, it would still have had to negotiate the path all the way back to product. What are the chances that a #1 plastic will get recycled twice into more #1 plastic? 2.6% of 2.6% = .068%.

Only 7 out of 10,000 #1 containers will get recycled -- really recycled -- more than once.

#1 plastic is held up by the plastics industry as a model. Its numbers are often cited to show the success rates of recycling.
Here is the truth: It's a downward spiral. There is no end to it, other than in the fires of an incinerator. We pat our backs when we take that old Coke bottle and put it in the recycling bin. But its fate is solely to move on, and down, until it winds up in the ocean, lays dormant for millennia under a capped landfill, or dies in a raging fire.

As it spirals downward, much of it will end up fouling the rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, shores, and oceans we hold dear. No matter our best intentions.

Just like the recycled piece I picked up on December 29. Do you think the person who recycled it the first time envisioned where it would end up?
The triangle is a lie.


  1. it's sad. it really is.

    i think one major weak point in the whole operation is the part where a lot of it gets sent to developing nations. I don't mind that developing nations are the ones doing it, because the people there are just happy to have some way to earn money, no matter how crappy the job. the problem is the lack of safety laws in those areas. if that part of it could be handled, then the plastic that those countries recycle can be counted in the total, and that would help a lot.

    and, obviously, we have to figure out how to keep all the rest of the missing plastic from going missing :/

  2. I completely agree. If there were laws & systems in place to keep a product safe no matter where it went, it'd take the sting out. As an American consumer, it hurts me to know that, here I think I'm doing a good thing. I take my bottle, rinse it out, recycle it. And yet, more than half of what I recycle might be sent to places that really have no protections in place -- either for the health of the plastic workers, or for the consumers of the plastic products they produce. It's just not right.

  3. OMG founders are embarking on a Plastic Bag Ban Initiative in our community and suggest everyone tries the same. We can make a difference.

  4. Thanks for the enlightenment. I kind of figured it was all a lie to get us to forget the real problem of being a throw away society. I think we better just stop buying plastic when ever possible. Bag ban should be brought up again in Hawaii. Can't believe our council voted that down. Every one should go to south point and there they can get the Picture.

  5. I don't follow how to tell that the piece of plastic had been recycled once.
    - Hilary

  6. This week I have been contemplating how I could not buy plastic. I am stunned! Just breakfast would be difficult.
    Where would I buy coffee beans without plastic in the packaging? Soy milk cannot be had without plastic, same for breakfast cereal. Eggs, no problem. My farmer friend reuses paperboard egg cartons. Bread?! I can get bread in paper-only bags at Whole Foods.

    I thought about fruits and veggies: everything at the grocery store has a plastic sticker or twist tie.

    So, my contemplations remain a thought experiment at this point.

    1. Living plastic free is possible, it takes more thought, planning and effort but it is possible. We live plastic free now for over a 6 months, we buy all our food in bulk, everything - from cereal to coffee to rice and beans, we buy all our veggies in bulk and we only buy soy milk, juice in glass. I do guess it depends on where you live too though as not every city has bulk buy stores..

      I have become so dedicated to living plastic free that I even started my own company about it. Have a look -

      we must all try to do our part, raising awareness is the start!

  7. Cynthia, good luck with the bag ban. I think it's a wave that's on its way. There are just too many easy, better alternatives than billions of bags blowing around.

    Hilary, the stamp on the plastic in the pic says "Made of 100% Recycled PETE" on the top. But the pic is kind of fuzzy, I should have put that in the text of the post too!

    And it really is frightening how plastic is everywhere, isn't it? Like you say, eggs are no problem. We've started baking more of our own bread, so less plastic there. Being a cow-milk family, we can get those in glass bottles at the local farm too. But yeah, cereal, coffee - and like you say, those ridiculous plastic stickers now on every single piece of fruit.

    There are a couple Web sites of folks succeeding in living plastic-less. I'm not ready to do it yet, but more power to them! I'll forward them along.

  8. According to a study cited by the EPA, 103,000 jobs, or 2.7 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the Northeast region of the U.S., are attributed to recycling. Recycling works, we just need to figure out how to do it better! And definitely use less plastics along the way!! Work with us to figure it out...and really solve the problem!

  9. We could figure how to do it 10 times better, and still only -truly- recycle 1/4 of the millions of tons created each year. Those manufacturing talents would be better served working with newer -- and in some cases much older -- technologies. Things that can make sturdy, versatile equipment but that also, you know, -break down- if & when they escape into the environment. In less than 1,000 years.

    Because things escape into the environment. I pick them up by the hundreds each week. Each time a piece of plastic is recycled, or downcycled, or upcycled, increases the chances of it escaping. Then one day, this recycled product, this marvel of sustainability, lodges in an albatross's gut or washes up on our beach. It's just silly.

  10. Harry, you gotta walk before you run...there are a lot of struggling small businesses out there trying to solve this problem, and need your support. A milk jug's shelf life is about 3 weeks +/-; when you turn it into fencing, it lasts a lifetime (or longer). At the end of it's life, it can be ground up & remade again & again ~ cradle to cradle technology is the way to go.

  11. I admire anyone who's trying to keep persistent waste out of the environment. I admire the person who recycled the #1 plastic that was remade & ended up polluting my beach. They probably thought they were doing a good thing. When in truth it would have been better for that plastic to have burned in an incinerator. No doubt many of your products have escaped the loop too, because no matter the care you put into it, it moves on into hands that may not be as sensitive. It's simply a product that will not die, barring incineration.

    And we're so addicted to it, at all levels. I mean, we're individually wrapping organic potatoes in plastic now! We can't recycle our way out of this. So, I do admire what you're doing, but my biggest support goes to any struggling business who is trying to move us beyond the very idea of thermoplastics.

  12. Harry -

    You are my hero for being diligent and thoughtful about this issue. You are in my Day 183 post on The Daily Ocean.

    thank you thank you thank you

  13. You're way too kind Sara! I just see all the work you and Danielle and Bonnie Monteleone and others are doing, and it just helps motivate me to do my part too. Plus it just bugs me when the industry talks sustainability on one hand and then keeps increasing virgin plastic use on the other.

  14. Depressing. So what are we suppose to do?

  15. Vote with our wallets. If two restaurants have similar menus, but one uses, say, paper cups and the other uses styrofoam, go with the paper. If you have a local farm or farmer's market with fresh, unpackaged foods, shop there. Try making a few staple foods from scratch once in a while. (For us, buying milk from glass bottles & baking our own breads has been both fun & a huge way to cut waste.) Skip the plastic straw at dinner. Buy or make handmade toys instead of plastic ones packed in plastic wrappers. (Those wrappers are more than likely made of plastic you "recycled," thinking you were saving the planet.) Our daughter has a Leapster. They pack this -tiny- game cartridge in this ridiculous huge plastic package, which itself is wrapped in plastic. And ironically, she much prefers 99-cent kid apps on an iPhone, which uses zero plastic.

    Follow sites like to get ideas. And most important, cut yourself some slack. You're gonna use plastic, it's almost impossible to avoid. But if you use less, and support more companies that use other packaging, you're making a difference and sending a clear message.

  16. "What are we supposed to do?"

    Some milk and cream is sold in glass bottles, with a deposit around $2. You bring it back (get your $2 back) and it gets inspected, scoured clean, disinfected, and reused. Such bottles tend to contain organic / grass fed milk, which is good for you anyway. More expensive, yes. But you get what you pay for. I'd rather half my milk intake if that means I can get real milk, not that stuff that's taken apart and then reconstituted for retail.

    Heineken bottles in Holland come in a sturdy plastic crate (designed to JUST fit on your bike's carrier). Both bottles and crates have a deposit. Most bottles have a ring of wear marks where they've been clinking against each other, or their crates; the width of the wear rings tells you how often they've been around the cycle: now THAT's recycling.

    So Start buying your beer, milk, tomatoes, beans in glass containers with a deposit on them and (hopefully) wear marks. If enough of us do that, manufacturers can be counted on to catch on.

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