Category Archives: Recycling

Does recycling cause mental illness?

In psychology, there is a mental illness or mental disorder called Delusional Disorder. The main feature of this disorder is the presence of delusions, unshakable beliefs in something untrue or not based on reality. Over the past forty years there has been a growing increase in the feel-good result of recycling. Many sustainability managers today approach sustainability as being synonymous with recycling. The idea is that we should recycle everything no matter the economic or environmental costs. We should do it because it “feels” like the right thing to do. But none of this is based on facts, data or science. In fact, the data and science tell us otherwise and points to the dark side, that this delusional approach of “recycle everything no matter the cost” creates more environmental and economic harm than doing nothing.

Over the past forty years we have subsidized billions on top of billions of dollars, and have increased taxes (bottle bills, bag fees) to subsidize plastics recycling. The result? An industry that doesn’t and wouldn’t survive on its own, recycles less than 10% of our overall plastics and hasn’t even remotely fixed, solved, or made a dent in plastic pollution. All this time, effort and billions of dollars have not even begun to make a positive impact in the massive amounts of coffee pods, sachet packets, personal care packaging and products, zipper bags, plastic bags, plastic film, foam coffee cups, foam and plastic soda cups, lids, straws, utensils, food and product packaging, Styrofoam….. The list goes on and on, to the tune of billions upon billions of these items being disposed of each year and increasing, mind you, because we are adding more and more people to the planet and we continue to consume more and more stuff. None of the efforts that have been made thus far, or that are currently being proposed, to recycle these items have or will change the direction we have been on and are currently heading in.

When sustainability managers develop, and implement ideas and programs such as bring back programs which require additional infrastructure for managing, shipping, transportation to processors which will address less than 5% of a company’s plastic packaging and do so because it feels good or sounds good but neglects the use of facts and data to validate that the overall environmental impact is beneficial, these kinds of programs are hopeful or wishful thinking at best.

One might even ask how it’s possible to perform the responsibility of sustainability guardian’s without the use of facts, data and science? How does one solve a problem of this magnitude neglecting science and data and facts? This “feel good” approach to recycling has resulted in some people becoming mentally ill with Delusional Disorder.

So how do we begin to move in a direction to fix this mental illness? How do we open the eyes of those with Delusional Disorder and get them to start using facts, data and science to develop solutions that will have true environmental benefits and value? Delusional disorder is considered difficult to treat. Antipsychotic drugs, antidepressants and mood-stabilizing medications are frequently used to treat this mental illness and there is growing interest in psychological therapies such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a means of treatment.

These treatments would take years to get society back on track with using science, data and facts in our solutions to addressing humanities plastic waste problem. So how do we (as a society) effectively and quickly treat this widespread mental illness before it’s too late for the environment? We must begin to make reality based science and data driven decisions and develop solutions that will address the plastic waste we humans continue to produce, use and discard so that we can move in the direction of making real positive changes that will have true environmental value and benefit, instead of the delusion of acting on what might feel good but will ultimately never solve plastic pollution.

The “New Plastics Economy” neglects Energy Recovery

When the Circular Economy model was introduced, it was built on finding ways to recoup value, especially as it pertains to the end-of-life. It was about finding ways to derive growth and increase value from existing infrastructures. Better value propositions with predictable results. It was an ‘all options on the table’ approach to looking at our resources through a different lens to ensure materials are “cycling” at the highest level possible, at all levels. Then, the “New Plastics Economy” emerged and something’s not adding up.

I know this is going to be confusing to some, but we absolutely cannot and will not be able to recycle our way out of the negative environmental impact plastics are causing. At their end of use, plastic can be captured, sorted, and it can be processed, all of which takes immense amounts of resources. But in the end, if the commodity is worth less than the processing costs, it’s an exercise in futility. It doesn’t make sense, if it doesn’t make cents.  Besides, recycling only extends the life of plastics (limited in cycles); it is not an end-of-life solution.

Companies like Waste Management (the largest residential recycler) have openly admitted this challenge and fully disclose that, if you want it to be “recycled” it’s fine by them, but both the processing costs and the profits will be baked into the contract… This does not mean that those non-recyclable plastics will get recycled into new products, just simply collected and processed over into the landfill.

And what’s the single largest recycler on the planet telling those in sustainability circles? If they really want the “biggest bang for the buck environmentally,” they should be focusing on the innovations within their “large-scale mixed-waste anaerobic digesters.” Actually, they say “today’s modern landfills,” but the word “landfill” can be a trigger word for some people.

Nevertheless, this industry has harnessed economies of scale and science, improving landfills and making “garbage dumps” a thing of the past. Today’s highly engineered modern landfills operate under strict federal and state regulations to ensure the protection of health and the environment. Today, 85% of U.S. municipal solid waste (including the vast majority of plastics) ends-up in landfills that trap gases which generate power for industries, provides heat for homes and clean burning fuel for vehicles. The industry is also advancing carbon sequestration in landfills, preventing carbon from re-entering the atmosphere.

Ironically, the New Plastics Economy paints itself as the group that’s all about exploring and driving innovation to solve the issues we face, even going as far as offering a $2 million dollar award.   While at the same time, blatantly dismissing the innovations that are available today.

Being unwilling to recognize and utilize the advances that are available to elevate the actual end-of-life value seems to be extremely shortsighted for any economic platform, especially when that value-add is ENERGY. By simply ensuring materials are designed for the ENERGY value that today’s modern landfills provide, not only could we begin to eliminate plastic waste from our environment, but those 64 billion lbs. of plastic going into a landfill each year has a value of over $15.5 billion in base load clean renewable ENERGY – predictable and measurable.

Most importantly, if the idea is to build a sustainable and thriving economy based on plastics, opposing the ability to include the fundamental aspect of recovering ENERGY at the final stage is an enormous lapse in judgement. ENERGY is one of the single-most important factors in economic growth. By its very nature, our economy is predicated on exponential growth. It is under constant pressure by many factors such as debt and population growth to continually and infinitely expand. What many policy makers and, by extension, people, don’t understand is that continued economic growth in our current system is completely reliant on a continuing increase in the availability of ENERGY to perform work. One cannot collect materials for recycling, process recyclate, nor make new products from recycled material without ENERGY.

The last two hundred years of accelerated growth in mankind’s numbers and achievements were only made possible by cheap, easily available fossil fuels.  It’s been reported that in the next 20 years we will need to harness 50% more ENERGY to support our economy. Everything, including the lifecycle of plastics, should be tied to utilizing the resources we have today to produce clean renewable ENERGY in the most cost effective manner as we possibly can.

The New Plastics Economy states that the reinforcing of recycling is economically more attractive than ENERGY recovery.  Systematically, this is not true and flies in the face of the Circular Economy model which is meant to replicate the nutrient cycles in nature. Most all carbon materials in nature are converted into energy during their natural nutrient cycle.  Plastics should be no different. Prosperity and the conservation of our planet will not be reached with platitudes about theoretical innovations in this theoretically-flawed New Plastics Economy.

Study Finds Recyclability Issues In Weight, Labels for PET Bottles

By Martín Caballero, BEVNET

For consumers, the recycling process begins and ends the moment they place a used plastic bottle in the bin.

For brands and bottle manufacturers, that process is considerably more complex. And as a movement towards sustainability and waste reduction continues to shape the industry, both are taking a closer look at how physical characteristics, design, and supplemental materials like ink and glue can affect the recyclability of bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Plastic Technologies Inc. (PTI), a firm that provides package design, development and engineering services to bottle manufacturers, explored this issue in a recent study analyzing how PET bottle weight affects performance, cost, and environmental impact, as well as how other design decisions influence recyclability.

The results concluded that ultra-lightweight bottles can negatively impact the effectiveness of recycling systems, while showing that the a majority of the bottles tested showed significant issues in recyclability, based on Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) guidelines.

The study analyzed 500mL PET bottles, sold individually at room temperature, from the highest bottled water consumption regions where market-leading global brands are sold, including the U.S., Mexico, Europe (France, Italy, Switzerland), and India. Each were tested for weight, pressure, product volume, fill point, top load, thickness, section weights, color and closure types.

In an interview with BevNET, Marcio Amazonas, Director of Latin American Operations for PTI, said that study was partially intended to send a message to the category market leaders that good design, in terms of recyclability, can be a positive influence on the industry.

“We wanted to make this study as a competitive analysis to show who are the best brand owners in terms of a good design for recyclability,” said Amazonas. “It’s also sending a message to our own customers that we can help you improve your design.”

Weight is a crucial factor in determining bottle recyclability, but it has also increasingly become a way in which brands communicate a premium offering to consumers, and attempting to balance these two competing interests can make things even more complicated.

The samples evaluated from the U.S. reflected this stratification. Out of the seven, two samples came from premium-priced packages sold in 6-packs, which were around 22-23 g. The rest came from bottles of mid-range priced water, weighing 13-17 g, and value-priced bottles, weighing 7.5 to 8.5 g.

However, the study notes that the performance was not a direct correlation to the weight of the package.

“Sometimes the best ones were too heavy, so they are good in a way but they are not the most environmentally sound, because they could be lighter, Amazonas said. “But that’s a brand owner choice to position that brand as premium. So they want to go with the heavy plastic; that’s their call, but it’s not ideal for efficiency.”

In recent years, some brands, such as Nestlé Waters, have adopted ultra-thin, super lightweight bottles based on the idea that they are more environmentally friendly because they require less energy to manufacture and transport. Yet according to Amazonas, recyclers are complaining about problems related to those bottles as well.

For example, lighter packaging can increase the number of bottles entering the recycling stream; Amazonas estimated that it could add 10,000 bottles per ton of recyclable materials.

Furthermore, when labels are sorted in a process called elutriation, they are soaked in a large tank of water to separate PET from polyolefins. Afterwards, an air current dries the materials and pushes the labels out of the chamber, but if the bottle is too light, it will be forced out as well.

“The yields suffer not only because of the potential presence of non-PET, but also mechanically speaking, the process is designed for a certain density that suffers with this lightweighting,” said Amazonas.

Besides weight, Amazonas noted that ink and label type as other potentially disruptive factors to the recycling process, as materials, colors, sizes and even the label application process all have an impact.

Of the seven U.S. samples tested, five had polymer labels, one had paper and one had a combination of the two. Five out of seven samples used a wrap-around label, while two used an adhered label.

All seven U.S. bottle samples tested had labels that caused color and clarity change in the wash, and label bleed was the most common issue observed. The study concludes that “the use of soluble inks and glues and the specification of the label substrate could have resulted in much better recyclability scores.”

“I think the ink is one of the big issues because it is so simple to resolve, and of course [the brands] are all competing on price and going for the cheapest thing,” said Amazonas, noting the presence of other non-PET contaminants in labels, such as PVC, that burn at different temperatures can cause recycling operations to reject certain bottles. “So sometimes it’s an economic decision on the design side to get to lower cost labels, inks and glues, and that’s what makes the design a little poor.”

In terms of solutions, Amazonas said the ideal PET bottle from a recyclability perspective would be clear with no colorants and none of the chemical additives that are sometimes used to create a barrier between the plastic and the liquid in bottles of milk or juice.

On a moral level, he noted the efforts of regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in promoting sustainable materials management, and said that brands will seek to capture the market of conscious consumers who expect recyclability to be a key component of a company’s mission.

“The heaviest volumes of bottle-to-bottle use is here, so we have all the good reasons to thank the market leaders like the guys we tested and we keep pushing,” he said. “They are not doing anything horrible, but if we don’t talk about it they will probably go with the most economic solution.”

Yet despite his deep knowledge of the industry, Amazonas said that the most important logistical piece of the recycling process is the simple act of the consumer throwing the bottle into the collection bin.

“If there’s no collection, there’s no recycling — so what’s the point?”

Read original article here: https://www.bevnet.com/news/2017/study-finds-recyclability-issues-weight-labels-pet-bottles?utm_source=BevNET.com%2C+Inc.+List&utm_campaign=37a1f533c8-mailchimp&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f63e064108-37a1f533c8-168618890

Something might be missing in that sustainable packaging playbook.

As we embark on 2017 a number of companies have rolled-out their packaging sustainability initiatives. I have to wonder, what the heck are some of them doing?  Last I checked the major problem is still the environmental impact that plastic waste is having on our planet – right?  I assume so, considering the latest projections estimate more plastic waste in the oceans (by weight) than fish by 2050. Which is plausible since production is through the roof and expected to double in the next 20 years, while we continue to struggle with dismal recovery rates and an antiquated view of recycling.

You might have also noticed an increase in the demand for clean, renewable energy.  With the world needing to greatly increase energy supply in the future, especially cleanly-generated electricity, this has become a top prioritySo, with that being said, how is it that the major producers of single-use plastic packaging seem to be unable to truly define the most common means of disposal and the value that can be achieved by simply complying with this fact?  Instead, they continue to irrationally demonize an asset that sits right under their proverbial noses.

Let’s try this exercise together. Let’s say you’re one of the giant producers of plastic packaging (Unilever, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, Pepsico, Kraft) and I were to ask you, what’s the most common disposal method of the plastic packaging you produce?  The collective and honest answer, albeit extremely basic, is a landfill. However, before panic sets in over this fact, let’s take a moment to define this a little more accurately.  Because today, 85% of all municipal solid waste in the U.S. actually ends-up in well-managed and heavily regulated anaerobic environment that controls and converts biogas into clean renewable energy. This is a fact and these facilities are generating power for communities and businesses, providing heat for homes and fuel for vehicles.

Can we stop pretending that this is a mystery? Recognize the innovations around how we manage waste and see what’s happening today. GM harnesses landfill-gas-to-energy for its 2.08-million square-foot facility reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 5,000 tons a year!  Tammy Giroux, manager of government relations for GM said, “(It’s) good for the environment, good for business and good for the community.” Waste Management’s landfill-gas-to-energy facilities power the equivalent of 470,000 households, offsetting 2.5 million tons of coal and 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. At the 2016 Resource Recycling Conference in New Orleans, David Steiner (former CEO of Waste Management) specified, “When you combine state-of-the-art landfill gas-to-energy systems with best-in-class recycling…That’s where you get the biggest bang for the buck environmentally.”  So why aren’t these major producers of single-cycle packaging including energy recovery as part of the overall “recycling” efforts and ensuring performance compliance with this asset?

Please don’t tell me that the molecules that make-up my bag of chips are far too valuable to waste and that it would make more sense to collect, sort and process this material into a worthless commodity rather than ensuring its removed from the environment and converted into energy.  Or worse, jeopardize both product stability and performance (including the ability to recycle) to achieve performance compliance with the least common disposal method that offers no end-of-life value.

According to the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), consumers are generating 6 lbs. of waste per day. It would take heavy-handed regulations and stiff government subsidies to program consumers into becoming hyper-vigilant garbage sorters.  For the foreseeable future, the political atmosphere does not appear to be conducive for such tactics.  We need to be smarter about the options before us and increase the value that can be derived from our existing infrastructures.  When high recycling rates are touted around the world, they usually include waste-to-energy.  Yet, too many companies still manage to overlook this valuable resource, disregarding the intrinsic environmental and economic benefits that it offers.   Hopefully, as we set forth into a new era, more emphasis will be placed on using LCA’s and factual scientific data to address the sustainability challenges we face.

Is recycling the key to sustainability?

graphThe 2015 U.S. plastic bottle recycling rate posted a slight decrease of 0.6 percent compared with 2014, according to the figures released by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in the 26th annual “National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report.” At the current and projected rate of production, a plateau like this should ring alarm bells!  The data clearly shows we are not going to recycle our way to a sustainable future.

As someone who’s actively engaged in the sustainable management of plastics, I pay close attention to companies that are managing our waste. These companies are on the frontlines of managing the recovery and disposal of solid and hazardous waste materials, which include landfills and recycling centers. I strongly believe that integrating the advice from these groups and working with them hand-in-hand should be an integral aspect to any sustainability program.

For example, at the recent 2016 Resource Recycling Conference in New Orleans, CEO of Waste Management, David Steiner, specifically pointed out that in order to achieve the “biggest bang for the buck” environmentally, coupling recycling with landfill gas-to-energy offers the greatest return value. This is the “environmental” recommendation from David Steiner, not a shareholder perspective. And Waste Management should know, they are after all the ones actually doing all the work in collecting, processing and managing the vast majority of the our waste.

His shareholder perspective is profitability, as it should be.   In a recent interview with Bloomberg, David Steiner explains that when you look at the various commodities that are recycled, there are some that are profitable. Those are primarily fiber (paper) and metals. Once you start moving into organics (plastics) and glass, they become less profitable (and in most cases over the past few years, they have lost money). In places like California they’ll do things to subsidize those types of materials to ensure Waste Management makes a profit, and then people can recycle those materials… Elsewhere, this does not work economically and understandably so. However, Waste Management will do what the municipality wants, just not at the expense of its bottom-line.   They’ll be happy to recycle everything; it’s only a matter of how much you want to pay for it. But buyers beware if the commodity prices do not cover the processing costs, recycling becomes an exercise in futility.

Nonetheless, if the municipalities are willing to pay (increase taxes) for this exercise, Waste Management will be happy to oblige. They will “recycle” it, collect it, sort it and they will process it. For Waste Management, processing costs and a little profit are baked into the contract. If there’s no market, no problem for Waste Management, this material will end up disposed into a form that is not recycling.

Recently at K 2016, Patrick Thomas, chairman of the European trade group Plastics Europe, said that “every tonne of plastic that goes to landfill is a waste. It is too valuable a resource to go that way.” Really, if it needs to be subsidized by the government (tax payer money), what value is he referring to and is it sustainable?

Where exactly is the value? Last year the average bale price of recycled bottles fell by 31%, meaning that the bottles were less valuable last year than the year before. Couple this with oil prices dropping by 47% and the result is a compounded decrease in the “value” of recycled plastics.

Today, 80 million tons of non-reusable/non-recyclable plastic packaging is produced annually. This volume is expected to double in 20 years. If this 80 million tons were simply designed to comply with the primary disposal method (a.k.a. modern landfills), this material could provide enough energy to power 30 million homes for a year!

Nearly 50 years has passed since the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, today only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Meanwhile, in a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish [by weight].  What are we doing?

There’s a pervasive attitude that we must recycle everything at all costs, this is not sustainable by any definition. Plastics, unlike aluminum, can only be recycled 3-4 times; eventually it will find its way into our waste streams and into our environment.   Although recycling does provide us the option to extend the life of some plastics, it is not an ‘end-of-life’ solution. We cannot recycle our way out of the environmental waste problem plastics are causing. If companies continue to ignore performance compliance with todays’ primary means of disposal, facilities that actively control and convert biogas into clean alternative energy (intrinsic return value), progress will remain stagnate. The science and data validate David Steiner’s recommendation; including landfill gas-to-energy provides an environmental and economic value higher than any other option.  We can take the advice or not, Waste Management will come out ahead either way, but will we?

Orange County is packing power in Landfill Gas-to-Energy

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Do it for the OC! Can you imagine the concentration of plastic packaging that’s accumulated in Orange County alone?   Beyond standard recycling, did you know that Orange County has installed four Landfill Gas-to-Energy facilities? The most recent $60 million dollar investment will power 18,500 homes. Altogether, the four facilities will produce 400,000 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to power more than 50,000 homes. These projects are turning our waste into clean energy all over the country and right now they’re the single-most common disposal environment of plastic waste. Ensuring energy recovery in packaging design offers the greatest value in full-scale recycling. Get it out of the environment and into the grid, make today’s waste, tomorrow’s energy!  Design for disposal.

The Top 10 and Not a 1?

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This diagram represents the top ten producers of plastic packaging. The vast majority of the plastic applications that are produced by these brands become waste. All the film packaging, pouches, diapers, detergents, hygiene products, wrappers, coffee bags, food containers and much more, that’s produced by these 10 companies accounts for an astonishing amount of the plastic waste that is certainly not being reused or recycled in any meaningful way.

We hear a lot that environmental pollution is a consumer problem. We get told how to prepare our waste for recycling. “Put this here and put that there. No! Not that, this. Well, sometimes that, but probably not. Maybe, use water and wash it out. No wait – water..? Take it here or actually take it someplace over there.  Otherwise, it may need to be shipped somewhere..?”  And when you stop to take a look at the results of all this effort, you’re left wondering, are you kidding me, is all this even environmental? Enough already!

News Flash: In the last 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in how we manage waste and the infrastructures we utilize. They’re very impressive works of innovation and they’re regulated for environmental efficiency at the highest level. In fact, today 85% of all U.S. municipal solid waste ends-up in an environment that converts biogas into clean energy, generating a valuable alternative resource for our growing energy needs. Some of these companies are actually using the same means to power their own manufacturing facilities! Yet, accountability for this aspect in packaging design is scarce. How is this being overlooked?

We’re now dealing with decades of plastic waste that’s been left in our environment; we see the devastating repercussions and the projected damage it will cause. Plastic production has surged to 311 million tons and is expected to double in 20 years. Currently, plastic packaging accounts for nearly a third of the total volume of plastics used, and unlikely to be recycled. By ignoring the single most common disposal method of this material, valuable energy is being wasted and continues to compound the environmental problem.

If these 10 companies took one simple step to ensure packaging design for disposal compliance, the impact would provide tremendous and measurable value, for company and community. Getting plastics out of our environment and into the grid falls on the shoulders of producers not consumers.

Ensuring energy recovery should be paramount in packaging design, it’s the only opportunity to recoup value and it should be the top consideration in packaging sustainability initiatives. It’s the missing link to creating circularity; it’s recycling at its highest peak. With an immediate 85% capture rate at the fingertips of corporate sustainability leaders, what are you waiting for?

Recycle More? Or…Recycle Better?

Guest Blog by Susan Robinson, Senior Public Affairs Director for Waste Management

The other day, two colleagues from the waste and recycling world asked me to help settle a dispute. These two very smart people—one with a Ph.D.—were debating the composition of a plastic microwave tray and how it might be recycled…or not. Should they just toss it in the bin for the recycler to deal with? Municipal guidelines were unclear, but it felt wrong to just throw it in the trash. In the end, they tossed it into the single-stream recycling bin and hoped it would be recycled.

The episode left me wondering. If even we in the waste management world are so confused, what does this mean for the success of recycling in general?

Changing Habits, Changing Waste

Remember newspapers? Once common in American households, newspapers are increasingly a relic, as more and more of us read our news on computers or portable devices. The result? The United States generates a whopping 50 percent less newspaper than we did a decade ago, and 20 percent less paper overall. That’s a huge decrease for a ten-year stretch.

While paper use has declined, the use of plastics has exploded, with new resins and polymers allowing for new possibilities in packaging. Changing demographics—especially the large Baby Boomer and Millennial generations —mean that more consumers are choosing convenient, single-serve packages for meals and snacks.

At the same time, an emphasis on fresh, healthy, and convenient foods is driving a boom in plastic packaging, which can reduce food waste to the tune of preventing 1.7 pounds of food waste for each pound of plastics packaging. However, there is a loss of recyclability on the back end, after those packages have served their use. Today’s recycling materials recovery facilities were built to process approximately 80 percent fiber and 20 percent containers, not the 40/60 or 50/50 mix that we are seeing today. The new mix of inbound material is leading to increased processing costs.

Prevalence of Plastic in Packaging: Saving Grace or Problem Child?

Plastic packaging is both a boon to the environment and a challenge. It’s lightweight, great at protecting and preserving goods, and as a petroleum-based product, in the current global marketplace, it’s cheap. Flexible plastics packaging—also called “pouches”—offer new levels of convenience and freshness, especially in the food industry.

Plastics offer environmental benefits, too. When you look at the entire lifecycle of many types of plastic packaging, they require far fewer raw materials and less energy to manufacture than do other packaging alternatives. Over the years, as the use of plastics has grown in consumer goods and packaging—increasingly crowding out glass, metals, and some paper—society has reaped these benefits. Yet, if there is a downside to plastics, it’s that they have had a dampening effect on recycling quality.

It’s extremely confusing for consumers to understand how to recycle plastics. For starters, there are all the numbers—1 through 7—each with their own, distinct chemical properties, uses, and recyclability. In addition, many manufacturers are including additives to color their packaging, resulting in low-grade plastics that can’t be recycled. So, for every plastic container that can conceivably be recycled—where facilities exist—there are scores that can’t.

So, what do the numbers mean? Here’s a sample consumer plastics recycling guide from Moore Recycling Associates.

Plastic Resin Codes

Is it any wonder that consumers are confused?

As we all know from experience, it can be mighty challenging indeed to determine how and where to properly recycle these materials. Many of us simply toss plastics into the recycling bin—and hope for the best.

Contamination of the Recycling Stream

The mixing of non-recyclable plastics into the recycling stream—called contamination—is a common occurrence. Types of low-grade plastics are not recyclable, while plastic bags are typically only recyclable by returning them to grocery or retail store for recycling (not curbside), so their presence increases contamination and the cost of recycling across the board. In most communities, an inbound ton of waste now has an average of 17 percent contamination, while some loads can contain as much as 50 percent non-recyclable material.

Lightweighting Adds to the Mix

Lightweighting—using lighter material for a product or reducing the weight of the material itself—is becoming a common practice, especially with water bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate). With lightweighting, a typical water bottle now weighs about 37 percent less than it used to. Lightweighting has many benefits, like reducing the amount of plastics used and therefore produced, and helping to lower freight costs during transport of products. But lightweighting challenges the current economics of recycling.

For example, in the current recycling commodities market, recovered PET plastic feedstock is sold by weight, not volume. This means that we need to process 35,000 more bottles than we used to, in order to create one ton of PET feedstock. Using this formula, we would have to process 3.6 billion more water bottles each year to get the same weight of material that we sold a decade ago. Since our costs are currently based on volume and our revenue based on weight, lightweighting drives up our costs and dampens the long-term economic feasibility of recycling and recovery programs.

The Troubled Economics of Recycling

For the past several decades, our primary customer for many types of recyclables has been China, whose booming economy required an almost constant supply of raw materials. However, as China’s economic growth has slowed, they have started to limit the kinds of recyclable feedstock they will accept, shrinking the marketplace and reducing demand for this material.

At the same time, the strong U.S. dollar makes U.S. recyclables more expensive, and therefore less attractive, on the global market. Low oil prices also make virgin materials more attractive than feedstocks derived from recycled content. In other words, the market for plastic feedstocks is shrinking—just as the costs to create those feedstocks are rising (our next blog will talk more about this).

What Is the End Goal?

As a society, we used to think that if recycling is good, then more recycling is better. We made recycling convenient so we could collect more recyclables and achieve our weight-based goals. In the process of pushing for higher recycling weights, however, many have lost sight of the actual goal: to lessen the overall environmental impacts of the waste we produce. If we go back to this larger picture, we see that success doesn’t necessarily mean recycling large percentages of material based on the weight of the waste stream; rather, success means a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or raw materials extraction. Recycling is one way to achieve this goal, but it is not the ultimate goal. As we all strive to achieve our overall environmental goals, recycling is just one tool in our toolbox.

The popular, newer, non-recyclable plastics test the very goals of recycling. No one wants to put more plastic in a landfill, but when you look at the true environmental impact of different plastic products and uses, the results might surprise you. For example, an EPA lifecycle study looked at different types of coffee packaging to see which consumed the most energy, emitted the most CO2 equivalent gas, and produced the most municipal solid waste. The researchers found that both the traditional recyclable steel can and the large plastic recyclable container performed worse than the non-recyclable flexible plastic pouch. The lightness and flexibility of the plastic meant such savings in transportation and efficiency that it had a smaller environmental footprint overall than did the recyclable materials.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

Flexible plastics aren’t going anywhere, so consumer education is crucial to preventing contamination at recycling facilities. This is why recyclers and cities are devoting large amounts of resources to help people understand what’s recyclable—and what’s not. We will eventually figure out how to recycle flexible plastics. However, we also need to rethink what our goals really are—and how best to measure them. Is measuring recycling percentages based on weight the best way? Or is it time to find a new way to gauge our success?

At Waste Management, we believe that it is time to change our collective thinking around this critical issue. As the waste stream is increasingly filled with more energy-efficient and lighter weight materials, it’s simply not sustainable to continue to set recycling goals that are unrealistic and fail to capture important environmental benefits like overall emissions reductions.

Perhaps the time has come to shift to a new metric: a “per capita disposal goal” that can better account for the full value of waste reduction. That’s to say, what if the focus weren’t just how much you recycle, but how much greenhouse gas you avoid? Instead of recycling for the sake of reaching a weight target, the goal would be to achieve the best overall result for the environment.

Such a measure, reflecting a lifecycle approach to managing materials, could go a long way toward accurately capturing the full picture of materials use, and send the right signal for truly sustainable materials management practices.

Additional comments by Danny Clark, President ENSO Plastics

This was a very informative blog by Susan Robinson.

The biggest issue that I see in the industry and with talking to sustainability managers and consultants across the board is that many of them have mistakenly fallen into the trap of going with the “flow” or “public think” about how to implement sustainability for the plastic materials used in products and product packaging. The knee jerk thought that we should recycle everything approach is based more on a feel good response and not on any science or data.

Its only after our first decade into the “green movement” that we are realizing the key to developing solutions that make sense is to use science and data to our approach to determining what will minimize our environmental impact.

ENSO Plastics is all about the science and data and LCA studies show that we can reduce our carbon footprint with plastics that are designed to be landfill biodegradable. Over 74% of all municipal solid waste is being disposed of into landfills that are already capturing the converting landfill gas to energy. The LCA studies of converting plastics into landfill gas that is then converted to energy reduces the carbon footprint significantly.

As a society we’ve seem to have been pushed into a direction of demonizing landfills while at the same time promoting the notation that recycling everything must be good for the planet. Some of us are just now realizing that the science and data do not support that environmental folklore approach. Its time we get out of our way and rethink the way we address our plastic waste because what we are doing now does not and will not work in the long-run.

Read the original blog here: http://mediaroom.wm.com/recycle-more-or-recycle-better/

Finding Circularity with Single Cycle Packaging

Let’s look at the issue of plastic waste and how we can use the circular economic model to resolve some of the problems that we face, that’s ultimately spilling into our environment.   Some 300 million tons of plastic is manufactured globally each year and “plastic packaging” accounts for about 78 million tons of it. That’s 172 billion pounds of non-reusable, non-recyclable and unequivocally unaccounted for plastic waste. This includes items such as flexible packaging, films, foamed material, small items, contaminated material, complex/multi-layer applications and anything colored, where recycling and reusability are practically non-existent.  These are single use, single cycle, applications.  Also, there’s unanimous agreement that the vast majority of all these applications are destined for a landfill. And these are not the demonized landfills from days gone by; I’m talking about today’s modern landfills that are now energy generating power plants.

This discussion is not for the consumer, this is for the difference makers, the sustainability managers, the leaders that can make a difference. They’re the companies that, according to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), are to be held accountable for the post-consumer aspect of its products and packaging. I’m talking about companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, P&G, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Unilever and all the brands under them.

companies

We all know, or the data tells us, that this is the single most common disposal method of all this material. It should also be known that waste-to-energy has proven to be one of our greatest resources for alternative energy.   Whether it’s an anaerobic digester, a bioreactor or today’s modern landfills, most plastic packaging is ultimately ending-up in a unique anaerobic environment that is controlling and converting biogas into clean energy. Some of these companies utilize the energy from landfills, yet they haven’t put the pieces together to figure out that the very trash that their products produce could be the feedstock for the alternative energy resource they’re already harnessing. Too often, the end-of-life aspect is ignored or swept under the rug with theoretical contemplations about disposal methods that simply don’t exist and senseless confusion.

Yet, nearly all 50 states include landfill gas-to-energy as part of their green energy portfolios. It’s recognized by the United Nations, the EPA, as well as dozens of Fortune 500 companies and government organizations that all utilize energy from landfills.  However, the dots just aren’t being connected.   I recently asked the Director of Sustainability for one of these 10 companies about this topic and they honestly said that they’ve never heard of such a thing and can’t imagine that we’ll ever get our energy from slowly decomposing waste. Yet, three years ago this same company won top honors by the EPA as one of the largest on-site green power generators because of its use of Landfill Gas-to-Energy (LGE) to power its manufacturing facilities! Seriously, why the disconnect between what companies are doing and what companies should and could be doing to think more circular? Imagine if you will, this same company implementing landfill biodegradable packaging and then using the energy from landfill gas.  This is true circular economy thinking, especially when energy needs will increase 50% in the next couple decades.  Without requiring any change to the infrastructures in place today and without modifying consumer behavior, these single use applications can be designed to cycle at a higher level.

I’ve heard the idea that plastics should be made NOT to biodegrade in a landfill because one day we might want to mine for this material. This is completely asinine and assumes that we’ll have a need to mine for this material within the next couple hundred years.  The reason being, plastic will eventually biodegrade, we just won’t be able to capture the gases produced if we wait too long. Instead, if these applications were designed to biodegrade within the managed timeframe of these anaerobic environments, for every million pounds of plastic waste that enters a LGE facility, it offers the equivalence of over 422,000 pounds of coal, 52,000 gallons of gasoline and more than 1100 barrels of oil, which is used to power homes and factories, as well as fueling vehicles!

The technology is readily available to make most any polymer application anaerobically biodegradable, or commonly referred to as Landfill Biodegradable.   The technology does not change any processing parameters, there’s no change in any performance characteristics, and it’s not expensive. In fact, for about the price of a Tall Cappuccino, tens of thousands of Starbucks Coffee cups can be designed to biodegrade in a landfill.   These multi-layer applications are not being reused or recycled, but they are going to a landfill. So what gives, is it because of the misguided concept that landfills are bad? Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the integral role of this disposal method that rely so heavily on; a lot has changed since the 80’s. In fact, you could say that we’re now diverting 75% of all MSW away from landfills, because the type of landfills that are being vilified are becoming obsolete – quickly.

A single loop system for handling our plastic waste is impractical, circularity does not mean singularity, there’s too much at stake, too much potential, and the infrastructure is already in place so there’s no need to implement Cass Sunstein’s “nudging” tactics to change consumer behavior. Besides, the fact that none of this material can/will be recycled is not because of consumer behavior, its feasibility and market demand, and it’s just not there. A company wanting to take accountability for its packaging needs to answer one candid question: What is the common disposal method of the application? Then, do what can be done to take advantage of this fact and understand the value in having our waste integrate into our waste infrastructures instead of working against it. The facts, the science and all the data, prove that there’s an enormous opportunity being overlooked.  I believe the circular economic model can work for plastics, but not if it’s simply a rebranding of the last 40+ years of rhetoric.

Are we recycling too much of our trash?

Thomas Kinnaman – Professor of Economics, Bucknell University

A recent credible study suggests the amount of waste Americans dispose in landfills each year is over twice what the EPA had been estimating.

Although this news may not surprise the country’s disposal facilities (who already knew the quantity of waste they take in), the study may strike an old nerve for many Americans – that our society generates too much garbage. The answer, we have been repeatedly told, is to recycle our waste. In fact, plans for zero waste or 100% recycling have been hatched in places including Berkeley, California and Indianapolis, Indiana.

But is more recycling always better than less recycling? Is it conceivable that society can recycle too much? What does the research say about the costs and benefits of recycling?

Unfortunately, not much is available. We may sense that more recycling is better than less recycling, but we really do not know. Our recycling habits developed not in the wake of a scientific understanding of these matters but perhaps, as John Tierney describes in his recent New York Times piece, on a leap of faith.

Last year, I coauthored a research study to estimate society’s optimal recycling rate. Results surprised us – society’s best recycling rate is only 10%. And only specific recyclable materials should be included in that 10%. What drives these results?

The literature on recycling

First, dozens of published economic studies from across the globe estimate that landfills depress neighboring property values, although this negative impact appears to diminish for small landfills. Second, a growing number of published life cycle analyses suggest that mining raw materials is damaging to the natural environment, and manufacturing goods with recycled materials rather than their virgin counterparts can be beneficial to the environment. But the magnitude of these benefits varies across materials.

Finally, the economics literature suggests recycling requires more economic resources than simple waste disposal. The value of the extra energy, labor and machinery necessary to prepare materials for recycling can double the value of those resources needed to dispose the material in the landfill.

Our study made the first known attempt to combine these various costs and benefits into one analysis to estimate what recycling rate is best. Our conclusion was that recycling up to 10% appears to reduce social costs, but any recycling over 10% costs the environment and the economy more than it helps. The environment and economy suffer as we transport some recycled materials to destinations as far afield as China.

It’s generally cheaper to send household garbage to a landfill than to recycle because there are lower processing costs.

These provocative results certainly require confirmation from future independent and objective research before broad policy goals can be adjusted. Also, many of the benefit and costs associated with waste disposal and recycling vary across regions of the country and world, and thus optimal recycling rates may also vary. For example, we used municipal cost data from Japan for this study because the United States and most European countries do not keep such data.

But if these results hold for other developed countries, then society should collectively rethink how to approach recycling.

Detailing the costs of waste and recycling

This paper identified several factors that help justify possible reductions in the recycling rate.

First, the environmental damages associated with both modern landfills and incineration plants turn out to be less than traditionally imagined. These facilities certainly depress neighboring property values – on average each ton of waste deposited in a landfill or incinerated is found to reduce property values by about US$4.

But modern disposal facilities in most developed countries are required to abide by strict environmental standards, and air and water pollutants such as methane and carbon generated by these facilities (and the carbon monoxide and consumption from the trucks transporting waste to these facilities) appear less than previously expected. These environmental standards have increased disposal costs (tipping fees) paid by waste generators by as much as $50 per ton, but the remaining external costs have fallen to roughly $5 per ton disposed. Thus, collectively waste disposal facilities generate just $9 per ton in external costs borne by society ($4 from depressed property values plus $5 from remaining air and water pollutants). Economists had once imagined external costs of $67 per ton to as much as $280 per ton.

But because these costs do not appear on the balance sheet of the disposal facility, the assessment of a corrective tax of $9 per ton disposed is necessary for disposal facilities to consider these costs when making decisions. Once this tax is in place, then laws requiring municipalities to recycling can be lifted.

Municipal programs have greatly expanded recycling in the US.

Second, recycling is rather costly to municipal governments. The cost for New York City to process one ton of materials for recycling markets is about $300 more than the cost of simply taking that same material to the landfill, according to the recent New York Times article. In many cases, the travel itinerary for recycled materials, which increasingly includes final destinations in developing countries, exceeds by large margins the distance that garbage is transported.

Third, we found the primary benefits of recycling accrue not from saving landfill space but from generating materials that, when used in production, are less costly to the environmental than mining those materials from the earth. Our study concludes that using an average ton of certain recycled materials in the place of a ton of virgin materials generates environmental spillover benefits of as much as $400 per ton.

By the way, this monetary estimate (and all dollar estimates associated with environmental considerations) is calculated using two processes. First, the life cycle analysis identifies the physical quantity of carbon, sulfur, nitrates and other pollutants associated with the entire life cycle of waste and recycling systems. Second, the economics literature has developed per-dollar estimates of the impact each unit of pollutant costs society. Each ton of carbon, for example, has been estimated to generate $25 of damage to the natural environment.

Targeted recycling

But the substantial environmental benefits outlined above of using recycled materials in production vary substantially across materials. Aluminum and other metals are environmentally costly to mine and prepare for production. Paper, too, is costly to manufacture from raw sources. But glass and plastic appear relatively easy on the environment when manufactured from raw materials.

These differences are vital. Although the optimal overall recycling rate may be only 10%, the composition of that 10% should contain primarily aluminum, other metals and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other source of fiber. Optimal recycling rates for these materials may be near 100% while optimal rates of recycling plastic and glass might be zero. To encourage this outcome, a substantial subsidy offered only on those materials whose life cycles generate positive environmental benefits should be applied.

In the end, the economy and the environment, speaking in one unified voice, may wish for society to reduce the overall quantity of waste recycled. Perhaps recycling efforts need to surgically focus on only those specific materials that really matter to the economy and the environment. Other materials can be simply disposed of in modern facilities.

Read original article at: https://theconversation.com/are-we-recycling-too-much-of-our-trash-48724