Below is a perspective written by Andy Gale for the Oryana Newsletter a few months back. This perspective is what we have learned about recycling plastics in the past few years. We are intersted in your thougths and comments…
The Story of Plastic
When Steve Nance and I met a few weeks back we spoke about the next year of BARC recycling with Oryana. As you may know, the drop station provided by Oryana to take in their members plastics #3-7 is the only one of its kind in the area. Oryana flips the bill for the recycling these hard to recycle plastics.
The curbside recycling provided by the counties and what the local waste haulers take are the plastics #1 and #2, mainly drink containers, milk jugs, and laundry soap containers makes up about half of the post consumer plastics in the area. The other half of the plastics is the #3 through #7, including plastic bags, polystyrene (Styrofoam), and such. Since these items do not have a good market like the #1 and #2’s, they seem to take a path of their own.
As you know, all plastics are made from oil. With the recent and ongoing environmental challenges of mining oil, it is uncertain on the sustainability of plastic. Plastic starts as oil, but finishes (usually after one use) in a land fill, or into an incinerator. There are also compostable plastics, that are made from plants, and we will discuss this later in this story. This is the light we seek at the end of our tunnel.
Regardless of the type, plastic to be recycled needs to collected, sorted, baled, and shipped into the marketplace. This process requires more labor than the easy way out; land filling. Land filling is most likely the waste haulers most profitable way to handle plastics, and in reality, all of our trash. The process requires a truck, a driver, and a hole in the ground, preferably close to the source. It is a fact that recycling creates jobs, lots of jobs. These are the jobs we need right here in Michigan.
Once the plastics are sold into market, they are either recycled here in Michigan locally, or shipped out to where they are being demanded…Usually that place is overseas in China. Most of the #1 and #2 are used here in the US, but the global demand set by China dictates the price that we are paid for this material. Ships of recyclables are shipped from world ports to Asia, and then Asia ships us back the products we demand, and the cycle continues.
One problem with this is that all the plastic shipped back to Asia is not recyclable, so they sort out what they want and most likely burns the rest. Some places burn for energy, other to just dispose of unneeded plastics. Due to the lower labor rate in China, they can inexpensively sort out what we can’t. The new packaging made from recycled plastic can only have a small percentage of post consumer plastics in it because of the contamination of our old shampoo bottles and yogurt cups.
OK, so that’s the system in place for the most part. What do we do now, how do we fix this? Well, since there’s never a magic bullet to take care of all of our woes, it will need some fights and battles on different fronts. The three front plan that I would propose are reduce, reuse, and recycle. I know this sounds like I took an easy way out, but let me explain.
Reduce: The old RRR adage is in the right order. We first must vote with our dollars to buy products base partially on its packaging. Buying in bulk is great, buying non plastic items such as card paper containers made from recycled content helps too. Send emails and letters encouraging companies to change their packaging, but at the same time give positive support when suppliers do the right thing is an important message to send also. Personally, I am ready to head down the road to try a life of zero plastics. I don’t think it is 100% possible to do this, with so much of our lives surrounded by this material…but it would be an interesting story unto itself.
Reuse: At home I am encouraged to get a 2nd use of that yogurt container, in lieu of buying more Tupperware. Although most of the packaging we use today has been engineered to make only one trip, and often turns into a melted mess in the dishwasher. So, the big picture is this: Waste to Energy. I know that this is controversial, but hear me out. The end use of plastic is the landfill or incineration. Well, being made from oil, plastics have a very high BTU rate, meaning they produce good energy. The downside to this is the chemicals that are off gassed and released into our atmosphere. Can there be a way to cleanly burn our plastics for energy, getting one last bang for our buck for those plastics destined for China? I guess we count on them to burn it cleanly? In the time when we are considering burning our woods for a very inefficient, dirty, destructive energy, are we overlooking the obvious? In Europe they have invested in this technology and now burn a majority of their waste into energy, very cleanly.
Recycle: The recycle market for the #1 and #2 plastics is strong. We need to encourage this market with our spending habits. Now, I would not go out and stock my basement with water bottles, but look into what is made from those recycled products. From the lawn chairs at Green Island (your welcome Sean), to the countless other products made from post consumer products, whether they be paper, plastic, glass, or metal. Our creativity as humans is boundless and I am confident that we can create the new markets and products that will eventually make us sustainable.
The plastics made from plant starches, (like the ones you see on the shelves at Oryana), are the future. This material uses fast growing renewable sources to create a poly chain like that of oil based plastics. The only difference is that compostable plastic makes great dirt. BARC is ready to lead the way to a sustainable habit when it comes to disposables. Be on the look-out this year as BARC expands its compost operations with the help of a grant from Rotary Charities.
So that’s where we are at. I can’t see any easy way out, but if we make the subtle changes and start pushing in the right direction, we can make this change. As BARC finishes its second year this August, we are beginning to see the direction of this grand experiment. The support from our over 200 residential, commercial, and industrial partners is the fuel that we use to keep it all running. The $5000 Oryana Community Grant that we were so happy to receive this year added 4 new (new to us) trailers, and a down payment on a 2nd baler at our Maple City facility. Thank you for all again all of your support.
In 2010 we see the amount that we recycle from the Oryana pick up to increase, and with that comes the costs to process. Oryana has shown commitment to continue to pay for this service for their members, which is not an inexpensive feat. So if you are not a member, or know non members that that use the recycling there, please consider becoming a member. For those of you that are getting tired of humping your recycling to this place and that, BARC offers an inexpensive full service recycling for your home or office too…We go with our recycle trailers and truck where waste companies dare not.
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