From Kate O & # 39; Neill
A worldwide plastic waste crisis arises with major consequences for health and the environment. Under the so-called & # 39; National Sword & # 39; policy, China has greatly reduced imports of foreign scrap materials. The result is that stacks of plastic waste accumulate in ports and recycling facilities in the United States.
In response to this, national and global support is growing for banning or limiting consumer plastic for single use, such as straws and shopping bags. These efforts are also stimulated by horrific findings about how microplastics travel through oceans and waterways and through the food chain.
I have studied the world trade in hazardous waste for many years and am currently working on completing a book on global waste policy. In my opinion, the unprecedented level of public concern today is an opportunity to innovate. There is a growing interest in improving plastic recycling in the United States. This means consumers have to be tidied up and sort recycled materials, invest in better technologies for sorting and reusing plastic waste and creating incentives for producers to buy and use recycled plastic.
Critics for recycling are not new, and there are many criticisms about recycling plastic, but I still believe that it makes sense to expand and not leave the system. This requires large-scale investments and, in the long term, the implementation of upstream policies, including product bans.
Easy to use, difficult to destroy
Plastics make products lighter, cheaper, easier to assemble and more disposable. They also generate waste, both at the beginning of their life cycle – the petrochemical industry is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – and after disposal.
The largest domestic use for plastic resin is packaging (34 percent in 2017), followed by consumer and institutional goods (20 percent) and construction (17 percent). The useful life of many products can be measured in minutes. Other, particularly technical and industrial plastics, have a longer lifespan of up to 35 years for building and construction products.
After removal plastic products take between five and 600 years to break. Many are broken down into micro-plastic fragments that ultimately last forever. Seems much like J.R.R. Tolkien & # 39; s One Ring, plastics can only be permanently destroyed by burning at extremely high temperatures.
Why the US recycle so little plastic
Less than 10 percent of discarded plastics landed in the United States in the recycling stream in 2015, compared to 39.1 percent in the European Union and 22 percent in China. Another 15 percent of US plastic waste is incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. The remaining 75 percent goes to landfills. These figures do not include dumping or illegal disposal.
Even the easiest recyclable plastics have a long journey from the trash to their final destination. Many barriers have become painfully clear since China, which until recently accepted half of all American plastic scrap, carried out the hard action on 1 March.
First, there are many different types of plastics. Of the seven resin identification codes stamped on the bottom of plastic containers, only ones and 2 & # 39; s are easily recyclable. Information campaigns have lagged behind, especially with regard to cleaning and preparing plastics for recycling. It is crucial that consumers commit to stricter systems. But abuse can be counterproductive, as shown by the experiences with food waste.
Another factor is the dependence of the US on single-stream recycling systems, where all recyclable materials are placed in the same container. This approach is easier for the consumer, but produces a mixed stream of materials that is difficult and expensive to sort and clean at recycling facilities.
The US currently has 633 recycling facilities for materials, which can clean, sort and pack a total of 100,000 tonnes of recyclable material per day. Nowadays they are under increasing pressure as the waste accumulates. Even before the restrictions of China came into force, operators of material recycling facilities threw about half of what they received due to contamination. Most are not equipped to meet the stringent new pollution standards of China and their processing speed has slowed, but the production figures for waste are not.
Finally, because China was the main buyer of the US plastic scrap market, this ban has eliminated an important revenue stream for municipal authorities. As a result, some waste collection agencies suspend curbside pickup while others raise prices. All 50 states have been affected to some extent.
More than 70 percent of American plastic waste goes to landfills. USEPA
No silver bullets
Numerous public and private entities are working on a more feasible solution for recycling plastics. They include plastics producers and recyclers, companies such as Coca-Cola, colleges and universities, foundations, international organizations, advocacy groups and state governments.
Upgrading of recycling facilities for materials and expansion of the domestic markets for plastic scrap is an obvious priority, but requires large-scale investments. Increasing waste-to-energy incineration is another option. Sweden relies on this approach to maintain its zero waste model.
But incineration is deeply controversial in the United States, where it has declined since 2001, partly as a result of strong opposition from host communities. Proponents of zero waste and anti-combustion have heavily criticized initiatives such as the Hefty EnergyBag program, a recent pilot initiative in Omaha, Nebraska to divert plastics to energy production. But small companies like Renewlogy, based on Salt Lake City, are working on developing newer, cleaner ways to turn plastics into energy.
Attempts to reduce the use of plastic in the United States and other rich countries are focused on single-use products. Initiatives such as plastic straw and bag bans increase familiarity, but can not significantly reduce the problem of plastic waste per se. Plastic straws, for example, account for only 0.03 percent of the plastic that is likely to enter the oceans in a given year.
The industry is starting to push back, with companies like McDonald's that oppose straw bans. Some US states have taken measures that prohibit plastic bag restrictions.
In order to combat plastic pollution by the ocean, better land-based waste management is crucial, including steps to combat illegal dumping and manage difficult-to-recycle plastics. Examples include preventing leaching of BPA from discarded products, dechlorinating polyvinyl chloride products, on-site recycling of 3D printer waste and making new plastic from used polypropylene.
The European Union is working on the development of a circular economy platform with a multi-part strategy to increase the recycling of plastics and the control of waste. It includes making all plastic packaging fully recyclable by 2030 and reducing the leakage of plastic products into the environment. It is unlikely that the US will follow such a drastic policy at national level. But for cities and states, especially those where support for environmental protection is strong, it could be a more viable vision.
Re-posted with permission from our media employee The Conversation.
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