Monday, October 12, 2009

The Hidden Truth of Plastics Recycling

By Deanna Matzen

This blog post is long overdue. The seeds of this blog started at an event I spoke at in April 2007, when a pastor of a small church located in the foothills of Mt. Rainier said that his church members didn't want to institute recycling because it all gets sent to China. Then this spring, while at a church softball game, a friend started complaining about Seattle's new recycling laws and how it all goes to China anyway. To both of these comments, I asked if they meant electronics recycling not plastic, paper, glass, etc. They both indicated they were sure that regular recycling materials were sent to China.

As one who loves to research and one who does not like to be wrong, I filed this question away until I had time to dig into the depths of the internet. My first step was to ask my coworker, Jessie. She thought as I did that they were referring to electronics recycling. It wasn't until July of this year that I finally took the time to skim the internet and it is only now that I have time to write up my findings. My first search attempts produce a lot of results on electronics recycling in China or the wonderful efforts of the Chinese to recycle plastic bags. As I scrolled through pages of results, I finally came upon the article, "The Problem with Plastics: Recycling Overseas Poses Risks to Workers Doing It Here Just Doesn't Pay" by Emily Gurnon posted on

What I learned was quite surprising. But before I get into the details of the most shocking and interesting facts, I just have to say that reading this article didn't dissuade me from wanting to recycle despite the fact that it's not as great as it's made out to be. What this article did make me want to do is this: avoid buying plastic at all because it's not just an environmental value, it's a human health and rights issue.

Okay, back to the facts. Here are some of the striking things I learned from Emily Gurnon's article.
  • "The recycling of plastic has a dark side — one little known to most consumers. The majority of the plastics we recycle, regardless of type, end up in China, where worker safety standards are virtually nonexistent and materials are processed under dirty, primitive conditions. And the economics surrounding plastic recycling — unlike those for glass and aluminum — make it a dubious venture for U.S. companies."

  • "What is clear is that plastic recycling presents myriad problems. In addition to safety and environmental questions, technological and economic hurdles have complicated plastics recycling efforts in the United States. The result: Plastic containers get turned into new products at a much lower rate than glass bottles or aluminum cans. The can you recycle today, for instance, will make its way back to the supermarket shelf in just six weeks. Because of health concerns, a plastic bottle will never become another plastic bottle. Recyclers often have a hard time making ends meet because the demand from manufacturers for recycled plastic — and, consequently, the money paid for it — is considerably less than for virgin material."

  • "Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can't be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a "durable good," such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.""

Reading this article makes me really mad. It makes me question the recycling system we have in place and where all of Seattle's recycling is going. I once tried to take an environmental science class I was teaching on a field trip to our local recycling center, but wouldn't you know it, they don't offer tours. You can tour dumps, waste water treatment plants, and composting facilities, but you can't tour the recycling center. I wonder why? Because we might learn the dirty truth?

Interestingly, one of our local NPR stations had a story this summer about an MIT project that was seeking to track where our trash goes. They were using volunteers in Seattle to GPS tag items in their trash to be tracked through the system waste removal system. They asked the question, "Why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the 'removal-chain'?" Good question, MIT. As consumers of supply and removal chains, we should demand more transparency and we be more mindful about how much stuff we consume!

No comments: