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Recycling: How Much Trouble Is It In?

Oct. 8, 2020
CLARK'S REMARKS: The plastics industry is drawing heavy criticism this year, and rightfully so. But remember, the green movement is about much more than just plastic recycling.

Most of the news lately is either the pandemic or politics – and, quite frankly, I can’t always tell the difference – but there has also been focus on the serious issues facing the recycling industry.

Plastic recycling, in particular, has been the subject of serious scrutiny and criticism. Having served six years on the City of Pompano Beach Recycling and Solid Waste Advisory Committee, and being in my fifth year on the City of Fort Lauderdale Sustainability Advisory Board, it’s a topic that I have frequently heard discussed and debated.

One recent story, posted on Minnesota Public Radio’s MPRNews (https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/09/11/npr-how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled) was especially harsh. According to that story, most (in some places all) of the plastic trash collected for recycling ends up in landfills. According to Laura Sullivan, the article’s author, journalists from NPR and PBS’ investigative TV show FRONTLINE, scrutinized internal recycling industry documents and interviewed former industry officials over the course of several months, concluding that the industry intentionally misled the public.

According to Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter for The Intercept, who covers health and the environment, based on her 2019 investigation of the plastics industry, “The vast majority of plastic that has ever been produced — 79% — has actually ended up in landfills or scattered around the world or burned, but not refashioned into new products, which is what we hope for when we talk about recycling. For plastic bags, it's less than 1% of tens of billions that are used in the U.S. alone. And so overall in the U.S., our plastic recycling rate peaked in 2014 at 9.5% so that's less than 10%.”

Beginning in the 1990s, we were inundated with commercial ads – paid for by the big oil companies – that sounded like public service spots. These ads promoted the important benefits of recycling plastic, knowing full well that most of it would be landfilled, incinerated, or even dumped in the ocean. In fact, as far back as 1974, the premise that plastic recycling could ever be profitable was being questioned by those with inside knowledge of the industry.

For an already-dysfunctional industry, China’s National Sword policy, banning the import of foreign recyclables, was the death blow. In a one-year period, used plastics imported by China fell nearly 96 percent. Now, as a result of the MRP story, we have learned that Big Oil is still misleading the consumers, noting that it costs less to make plastics from oil than from recycled plastic. With $400 billion dollars a year at stake, we shouldn’t be surprised.

So if we can’t rely on traditional recycling of plastic, what are the alternatives. One promising solution is the use of plastivores, the polyethylene-consuming caterpillar larvae of the greater wax moth, that we discussed last month (https://www.hpac.com/clarks-remarks/article/21140910/plastivore-caterpillars-that-eat-plastic-and-offer-hope). Another is a new super-enzyme that works at room temperature and can degrade plastic bottles six times faster than before (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/28/new-super-enzyme-eats-plastic-bottles-six-times-faster?CMP=oth_b-aplnews_d-1).

Plastic recycling may be DOA, but there is still a viable market for recycling products such as scrap metal, aluminum cans, used car batteries and tires, empty printer ink cartridges, old computers, and aluminum foil. And it’s important to note that the green building rating systems with which our firm works – LEED, Green Globes, Florida Green Building Coalition – all have a recycling component. It is certainly discouraging for recycling advocates to find out that some of their efforts have been futile, but we cannot give up on the practice. We can – and should – emphasize the other three of the four R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose.

A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board since 2012, Larry Clark, LEED AP, O+M, is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability. Email him at [email protected].