Zero Waste Team, SIERRA CLUB, Bluegrass Group
Our Mission: To positively impact our environment, human health, and the economy by educating and inspiring our community to commit to Zero Waste practices, and by forming partnerships with local leaders to promote a Zero Waste model of living.
Keep up with developments in the Zero Waste Campaign at our facebook page https://www.facebook.com/zerowastejourneybluegrass/
We Can't Recycle our way out of this 190 Million Ton Problem
Despite the divisive issue facing our country today, one thing U.S. citizens largely agree on is recycling. This activity is embraced by members of a range of groups strongly polarized on other issues. While many municipal recycling facilities operate al loss, recycling is so popular with citizens that administrations often choose to keep the doors open regardless. The benefits are threefold: (1) Some of the products captured (cans and cardboard) can generate profits due to a robust market for resale; (2) the use of recycled products in manufacturing reduces the requirement for more costly virgin material; and (3) everyone can enjoy the feeling of “doing something” about the problem.
While we should never abandon our recycling practices, research indicates that we will not be able to “Recycle” our way out of the single-use plastics crisis. At this point in our history, multiple factors combine to make recycling a minor player in the overall solution.
- Volume: EPA figures show that the US generated 37.5 million tons of single-use plastic material in 2018, amounting to approximately 231 pounds annually per person. EPA data also indicate that the US and Great Britain lead the world in the production of single-use plastics waste.
- Infrastructure: The costs of operating a “Materials Recovery Facility” can be prohibitive for cities, leading to the decision to forgo this amenity in the community. This can be especially true in rural areas, where city administrations must prioritize other services.
- Convenience: In the absence of a convenient MRF and curbside pick-up, citizens are faced with the challenges of storing plastics and other recyclable until they can be transported to a collection site. In today’s busy world, it can be simpler just to send them to the landfill.
- Complexity: Single-use plastics come in a range of compositions, including multiple grades of plastic in a single item (i.e., potato chip bags and sachets). These cannot be broken down economically for use in a new product. A Greenpeace survey of the MRFs in the United States `found that only plastic bottles are regularly recycled. Unfortunately, as a tour through any major grocery will reveal, bottles and jugs represent only a fraction of the packaging and other products contributing to our waste. Because of complexity, the fate of most other types of plastic, from clamshells to packaging, is usually landfill or incineration.
- Global Market: For many years, U.S. MRFs shipped billions of pounds of plastic waste annually to China. China closed its doors in 2018, citing contamination. The U.S. and other Western countries then located new markets in Asia, including Vietnam and Indonesia, and Malaysia. While it may seem that these new markets offer our waste a useful second life, a closer look reveals that this is an illusion. Sadly, the volume we dump on these countries overwhelms their minimal infrastructure, with the result that our plastic waste ends up in clogging their rivers or joining the plastic pollution slowly choking the ocean.
- Our Throw Away Culture: Most US citizens are habituated to the weekly disappearance of household waste into a landfill they never see, leaving the magnitude of the waste problem well concealed. Without a high-impact reality check, there may seem to be no cause for alarm. Sadly, whether the root cause is lack of education or lack of concern, we continue to recycle only between 9-12% annually of the plastics which actually could be used in another product.
For Sierrans committed to stewardship, there are proven ways to make an impact with these steps:
- REDUCE: This is the single most important step we all can take. We can honor our planet every day by making alternative choices that decrease our personal volume of plastic waste. Avoid disposable products that will continue to pollute, long after you and countless generations of descendants are gone.
- RECYLE WITH CARE: Follow you r MRF’s guidelines and avoid “Wish Cycling.” Use less, instead of pressuring your city to underwrite a wider range of plastics recycling.
- GRASSROOTS POWER: Speak out to governments, corporations, and institutions. As the petro-chemical industries plan to expand production, worldwide Grassroots movements are becoming a powerful force for change!