Let's Fix This Country
environment

We’re Getting Buried in Trash but Americans Are Oblivious

Devoted recycler? Sorry. It's just getting burned or buried

On the first day of 2018, China announced that it would no longer accept "loathsome foreign garbage". The world’s largest importer of trash had decided to deal instead with its own "towering mountains of waste”. Beginning in the 1990s, as it grew into an industrial behemoth, China would ultimately take in 40% of America’s plastic, glass, metals and waste paper to feed its insatiable demand for raw materials. It was cheap to ship in otherwise empty container
Trash-pickers in Turkey. An industry elsewhere, we don't want
that here, but waste is going out of control.

ships, returning to China after unloading the products into which the trash had been converted, and low-cost labor made it economical to sort the imperfectly separated shiploads coming from the U.S. into clean stocks. The U.S. and other countries shipped 106 million tons of plastic to China over the past 25 years. But what we were sending to China was so contaminated with so much trash and food that it had become an environmental matter, said the Chinese.

No easy answers

Americans barely knew that China was taking in our trash. Picked up at the curb, its disappearance from daily lives was and is taken for granted. That most now stays behind in the United States serves to make this country face up to a responsibility which global markets have allowed us to pass off to others. For as long as it is left to market forces, the problems will become formidable.

We think that the aluminum cans we toss in the proper bin after downing a soda or a beer are all being recycled. Aluminum lends itself well to melting and reforming into sheets. But aluminum rollers, as they are called, prefer to chase after the profitable market for making auto and aircraft parts. However, car and plane manufacturers don’t want parts made of aluminum recycled from cans. That leaves soft drink producers and brewers without a sufficient domestic supply, forcing them to import tariffed aluminum sheet while America’s discarded and supposedly recycled cans go into landfills.

Plastics are a worse case. Only 9% of all the plastic produced in the last 68 years has been recycled. They come in many different types and it is costly to extract from the waste stream the few types — plastic bottles, for example — that are worth recovering. This country does not have the legions of waste-pickets found in other countries. Americans are unwilling to take the jobs at recycling plants to sort through what is called “mixed waste” to filter out the useful material that China might once again accept. With no labor willing to sort, Western reprocessing companies need cleaner inputs than their Chinese counterparts, with the result that almost all is going into landfills or incinerators. That should be evident enough to those of you who take your trash to a town “dump” where you discard bagged food waste separately, and sort out glass, but pretty much everything else, including those soda and beer cans, goes together into a dumpster marked “single stream”.

Americans do a poor job of sorting at home. To begin with, most of us don’t know what is recyclable, and are likely to throw old clothing in with the rest, reliably jamming the machines where recycling plants are still operating. Paper can be recycled, but not if lined with plastic, such as paper cups, and not if it’s the coated stock of glossy magazines or packaging.

In fairness, few homes have room for the bins needed to properly sort waste — separate bins for food waste, glass, cans, paper, clear plastic, flattened cardboard, other trash — and a Harris poll said that 66% of Americans wouldn’t recycle at all unless it is made “easy”.

The added problem for would-be plastic recyclers is that everyday polymers can be made cheaply from petroleum relative the cost of recovering useful plastic from waste. Added to that, in a free market, plastic recyclers are subject to swings in commodity prices. They can’t get the price they need to extract and convert it to pellets for further use when the cost of natural gas or oil — feedstocks for plastic — drops to make the price for virgin plastic too low for them to compete.

bury it

With no takers, municipalities are left to send waste to landfills or incinerators. Only 20 years remain before America’s existing landfills will reach capacity, and they are being gradually regulated out of existence anyway. To give an idea of how massive that approach can become, the Fresh Kills landfill in New York is five square miles (12 square kilometers). Regulated or not, hazardous material such as mercury, solvents, lead, pesticides winds up in landfills, and organic matter (food waste) can transform into methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide that can catch fire or explode.

burn it

Many cities, towns and counties are now incinerating up to half their plastic and paper waste as well as the glut of cardboard scrap China no longer takes. The question is: how is this trash getting burned? Open to the sky incineration can release the nitrogen and sulfur that contributes to acid rain, soot to cause respiratory problem, and carcinogenic dioxins that can damage nervous and immune systems. Incineration in plants built for that purpose is not all bad because, given that something must be done with waste, incineration can produce power to light our homes. One of the world’s biggest is in Fairfax, Virginia. It takes in a million or so tons of waste a year and generates up to 80 megawatts, enough to power 75,000 homes. Plants on the Fairfax model constantly read the level of toxins as they convey waste through their furnaces while adjusting the temperature to ensure a thorough destruction of pollutants. The volume of the resulting waste ash is a tenth of the original input.

But a big plant can run to $200 million to build. They are not popular — nimby protests are all but guaranteed — and rare is the politician who will promote them as a solution. Proof enough is that none have been built in the United States since 1995.

what can be done

Certainly, creating less waste is at the top of the list. To begin with, there is the staggering fact that some 30% of our food is thrown out. None of that can be recycled, of course; all of it goes into landfills. We salute the “ugly food” movement which tries to make people aware that food that doesn’t grow up pretty is just as nutritious. Humans foolishly reject it, even though it can be had for less money, hopefully at a co-op near you.

Walmart has announced plans to reduce plastics used in 30,000 of its house-branded products. Environmental awareness and recycling have been part of the national ethos for decades now, so one wonders why this improvement is only now occurring to Walmart.

There are ways to improve recycling. Saying that is not to knock the commendable recycling habits the public has adopted. In 2013, before the Environmental Protection Agency became unconcerned for such matters, the EPA calculated that recycling and composting prevented approximately 186 million metric tons of CO2 from release into the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 39 million cars off the road.

A proliferation of bins filling the household is not needed for improvement. Just a rearrangement. All bottles — glass as well as plastic — and all drink cans could be combined in a single bin, which makes for items easily identified for rapid sorting, relatively clean jobs at municipal collection centers, and highly resalable stocks to recycling companies.

Cardboard and newspaper could be stored in our garages for occasional bundling and pickup. China has such acute need, now that the country refuses our waste in the form we send it, that Chinese companies have bought mills from Wisconsin to Maine to Georgia to obtain scrap newspaper and cardboard to turn into boxboard for shipment to China.

Most towns require that electronics be disposed of separately. They can be sold to U.S. recyclers who extract gold, silver, and other substances from computers, televisions, and smart phones. A Tokyo study calculated that in 2017 some $55 billion of value had been extracted from what is called “e-waste”, a boost to America’s recycling industry which grew to $20 billion in 2016.

More imagining of reuse possibilities could make a significant difference.

As we know, the oils used in the deep fat fryers of fast food chains can be burned as fuel in vehicles, but how much of that is happening, and can it be mandated?

A conscientious brewer realized that grain from beer-making makes for livestock feed.

Two Dutch firms have been pioneering the use of recycled plastics as road surfaces. And why not? Just as asphalt comes from petrochemicals, so does plastic. The modular sections, prefabricated at a factory and trucked to a site, are hollow to allow for utility lines or drainage pipes. Similarly, it’s estimated that plastic used for railroad ties would outlast traditional wood by a factor of six.

Such reuse could dispose of a great deal of plastic while leaving that much petroleum in the ground; it could even be thought of as returning to the ground hydrocarbons that we borrowed.

Policy advocates argue that manufacturers should contribute to the cost of their products’ disposal, a program called “extended producer responsibility”. The logic is irrefutable, but its practicality seems dubious. Questions arise as to how collected monies find their way to municipalities, but the movement hasn%ore the Environmental Protection Agency became unconcerned for such matters, the EPA calculated that recycling and composting prevented approximately 186 million metric tons of CO2 from release into the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 39 million cars off the road.

A proliferation of bins filling the household is not needed for improvement. Just a rearrangement. All bottles — glass as well as plastic — and all drink cans could be combined in a single bin, which makes for items easily identified for rapid sorting, relatively clean jobs at municipal collection centers, and highly resalable stocks to recycling companies.

Cardboard and newspaper could be stored in our garages for occasional bundling and pickup. China has such acute need, now that the country refuses our waste in the form we send it, that Chinese companies have bought mills from Wisconsin to Maine to Georgia to obtain scrap newspaper and cardboard to turn into boxboard for shipment to China.

Most towns require that electronics be disposed of separately. They can be sold to U.S. recyclers who extract gold, silver, and other substances from computers, televisions, and smart phones. A Tokyo study calculated that in 2017 some $55 billion of value had been extracted from what is called “e-waste”, a boost to America’s recycling industry which grew to $20 billion in 2016.

More imagining of reuse possibilities could make a significant difference.

As we know, the oils used in the deep fat fryers of fast food chains can be burned as fuel in vehicles, but how much of that is happening, and can it be mandated?

A conscientious brewer realized that grain from beer-making makes for livestock feed.

Two Dutch firms have been pioneering the use of recycled plastics as road surfaces. And why not? Just as asphalt comes from petrochemicals, so does plastic. The modular sections, prefabricated at a factory and trucked to a site, are hollow to allow for utility lines or drainage pipes. Similarly, it’s estimated that plastic used for railroad ties would outlast traditional wood by a factor of six.

Such reuse could dispose of a great deal of plastic while leaving that much petroleum in the ground; it could even be thought of as returning to the ground hydrocarbons that we borrowed.

Policy advocates argue that manufacturers should contribute to the cost of their products’ disposal, a program called “extended producer responsibility”. The logic is irrefutable, but it

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