I was going to go on to other subjects, but just saw in the Seattle Times that the whale that washed up on a West Seattle beach last month was discovered to have 3.2 lbs. of garbage in its belly – including 20 plastic bags and 37 other kinds of plastic (read entire article here.)
If you’ve been reading my posts for the past two weeks (On 5.5.10 and 4.28.10), it has hopefully dawned on you that we have a dilemma with regard to plastic: Recycling presents problems, yet not recycling hardly seems an option. Whether you see plastic as a boon or a bane, plastic is the fastest-growing portion of our waste stream and now makes up the second-largest category by volume (next to paper) of trash going into our landfills, according to a draft report prepared for the California Integrated Waste Management Board called the “Plastics White Paper.”
Plastics make up 17.8 % by volume of what’s thrown into California landfills. While consumers are increasingly snapping those Evian bottles off the shelves, they toss the empties into the trash bin more often than the recycling bin. The recycling rate for plastic bottles is only 16 percent — miserably low compared to glass and aluminum — even though consumers can redeem their used plastic bottles for the same CRV (California Refund Value) rate as other containers.
California cities and counties have an incentive to recycle as much material as possible. A 1989 law requires that municipalities reduce the trash they send to landfills by 50% or face hefty fines.
Diversion, then, becomes the magic word. But from the point of view of recyclers, accepting some types of plastic is more trouble than it’s worth. For example, plastics coded 3 through 7 — cottage cheese, tofu, salsa and yogurt containers — are particularly difficult to recycle profitably. So why take these additional containers at all, especially when their volume is low? According to Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center, the answer is public pressure.
“I fought it. There are no domestic markets for it. At a point you get tired of being harangued by people coming in trying to quote unquote “do the right thing.’” They don’t want to throw anything away, he said, and that’s all well and good. But a more appropriate position might be, “I shouldn’t buy it in the first place,” he suggested.
The plastics trail
The plastics collected at the Arcata sites are baled and stored for about a month until they fill a 12-ton truckload, Loughmiller said. The truck typically contains 5 tons of milk bottles (the number 2s), 7 tons of soda and water bottles (the number 1s), and about three-quarters of a ton of the so-called “mixed plastics,” the 3s through 7s, which are baled together.
They then make their way to Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento (which also takes all of the plastics from Humboldt Sanitation in McKinleyville). Kenny Luong, president of Ming’s, said his center has 40 or 50 suppliers in California and another 30 to 40 elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Almost all of the plastics that come into Ming’s are sold to brokers in Hong Kong, who pay to transport it via container ship from the Port of Oakland to China. The transport is cheap because China exports far more to the United States than we do to them; the ships traveling back to China have plenty of room.
The mixed plastics don’t make Luong very much money, he said, which explains why the cities of Arcata and Eureka get nothing for their mixed plastic bales. (A ton of milk jugs, by contrast, pays about $200; a ton of soda bottles, $160.)
“It’s enough to cover the transport to the harbor, that’s pretty much it,” Luong said of the mixed plastics. He would prefer not to take those at all. But a change to state law in 2000 expanded the list of beverages included in the California Redemption Value program. And if the bottle has a “CRV” on it — even if it’s a number 3 or 4 plastic — a certified recycling center must accept it and pay the refund to the consumer.
“It’s really a pain in the butt,” Luong said. “There aren’t a whole lot, but we are required to purchase them by law. It prompted us to find a market for it.”
That market, it turns out, consists of recyclers in Shanghai and Guangdong province. Luong said he has never seen the China facilities and knows little about them. “Once it’s loaded on the ship, it’s out of my hands.”
Recycling in Guangdong
One of his brokers has visited some of the locations in China where plastics from Humboldt end up. Doug Spitzer is the owner of Monarch Enterprises of Santa Cruz, which is affiliated with the gargantuan paper company Boise Cascade. He sells plastics to Chinese recyclers and ran a plastic film-recycling factory himself outside of Guangdong in the early 1990s.
“Most of our material goes through Hong Kong into that closest province [to Hong Kong], which is Guangdong,” Spitzer said. One factory will typically limit itself to one type of plastic, and one village might have most of its residents involved in that type of recycling, he said.
“Within this one town outside of Guangzhou [in Guangdong province], when I was there, my partners were telling me there were at least 3,000 plastic film processors there, and they’re right next door to each other. It’s a small village; they all process it.” The facilities range from a mom-and-pop operation that takes one container-load per month to very large, comparatively modern factories.
One Spitzer saw when he visited four years ago involved soda bottles: The workers would break open the bales, women would sort the bottles by color, a “guy with a machete” cut the tops off, two other men scraped labels off, then the bottles were ground into pellets and melted down.
It was not the kind of place that would be approved by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Spitzer said.
“OSHA would go nuts. The place is noisy, it’s crowded, it’s just amazing. Not that they’re killing people off. They’re safe, and all the time we were running the factory there were no major accidents,” he said. “Do people engage in unsafe practices to try to make a living? Yeah, all over the world.”
He said his current business provides a valuable service. “What I’m doing is I’m supplying a raw material that can go to a Third World country.”
There are some facilities in the United States that recycle soda bottles and milk jugs “if the material is clean enough,” said Luong of Ming’s Recycling. But the market for recycled plastic makes it difficult, if not impossible, for recyclers to make any money. The reasons are many. Since plastic is made from petroleum, virgin plastic makers have a large supply of raw material available to them. When manufacturers can buy virgin plastic pellets or flakes for about the same amount of money as recycled plastic, there is little incentive to use recycled (the italics are mine!).
There are also limits to the products that can be made from recycled plastic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not allow food containers to be made into new food containers because they can’t be heated at temperatures high enough to sterilize them. (The FDA has said it will allow a layer of recycled plastic sandwiched between layers of virgin plastic in soda bottles.)
A numbers game
Plastic recyclers must also face the issue of contamination. Recycling the number 1 (PET) plastics — the soda bottles — could work economically were it not for the number 3s that enter the mix, said Peter Anderson, a recycling consultant in Madison, Wis., who has worked with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. Number 3 plastics are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short.
“PVC presents enormous problems because it looks just like PET physically,” Anderson said. “A single bottle of PVC will contaminate the entire [10,000-bottle] load” aesthetically, causing the new PET bottles made with the material to be yellowed or, with more contamination, to have black streaks, he said. There are X-ray scanning machines that can detect the PVC intruders, but those are too expensive for many recyclers.
“You can’t make plastics recycling work with PVC in the mix,” Anderson said. So, he argued, taking the 3 through 7 plastics makes no economic sense. “Who the hell knows what China’s doing with them? I don’t think anyone can make a case without a smirk on their face that they’re recycling 3 through 7s.”
He called the idea of recycling all plastics “a serious mistake.”
Some recyclers take the 3 through 7 plastics because, they reason, they’ll get more of the “good stuff” — the soda bottles and milk bottles — if they advertise that they accept a wider range of recyclables. Eel River Disposal in Fortuna, for example, accepts numbers 1, 2 and 3, which they send to Smurfit Recycling in Oakland.
Eel River owner Harry Hardin said he doesn’t collect enough of the number 3s to make a separate bale with it, so he bales it with the number 2s. “I even put some 4s in there,” he said.
Asked about the PVC contamination problem, Hardin said, “It depends what market you send it into. Smurfit’s — I’m not quite sure what they do with theirs. But they will allow some number 3 and 2 together.”
Not so, said Don Kurtz, plant manager for Smurfit in Oakland. “If we identify that there are 3s in there, we reject the bale,” he said. Eel River was recently told to come and get one of their bales that was turned away for that very reason. “We really don’t want number 3s. It really doesn’t make sense for us to mess with it.” (Unlike Ming’s, Smurfit is not legally bound to take any particular recyclables because the company is classified as a “processor,” not a recycling facility.)
Another Humboldt County recycler sells his material to a middleman in a different part of the state. The man, who did not want to be identified, said he does not collect enough 3 through 7 numbered plastics to bale them separately, so he mixes them with the bales for the numbers 1 and 2. “Don’t advertise that,” he said. “It’s garbage plastic, but a lot of people like to recycle it.” His company then sells it to a broker who sends it overseas.
“If they’re putting it in with the PET [number 1s], I guarantee they’re getting thrown out,” said the broker, Patty Moore of the Sonoma-based Moore Recycling Associates.
All in all, plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.
“With plastics recycling, we’re just extending the life of a material. We’re not creating a perpetual loop for that material,” like we do with glass and aluminum recycling, said Loughmiller, the Arcata recycling director.
“I think people really need to have a reality check on plastics,” said Puckett of the Basel Action Network. “The mantra has been, `divert from the landfill.’ What we’ve been saying is, divert to what? Dump it on the Chinese? Plastics recycling needs to be looked at with a jaundiced eye,” he said. “It’s not what it’s touted to be.”
If you’ve ever looked on the bottom of your plastic juice bottle, detergent bottle or tofu tub, you’ve seen the little triangle of arrows with a number inside. That symbol — contrary to popular belief — does not indicate that a container is recyclable.
Back in 1988, “the trade groups managed to get into law the resin [type of plastic] identification,” said Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center. The numbers indicate which category of plastic the container is made from.
“The triangled arrows imply recyclability,” Loughmiller said. “The plastic industry denied it was trying to mislead the public and cause confusion.” But that’s what happened, he said. People regularly come to his center and demand to know why their plastic lawn chair with a number on the bottom can’t be recycled.
And why can’t it? Because, even in one category, such as plastics labeled with a number 2 (high density polyethylene or HDPE), there are many variations. Milk jugs and yogurt containers, for example, may both be made with HDPE, but because the recycling process requires melting of the old containers, and they melt at different temperatures, they may be incompatible.