“The Problem with (Recycling) Plastics,” by Susan Eichhorn

Last year, Chinese officials announced that, starting January 1, 2018, they would no longer accept certain trash and recyclables from other countries. This was necessary, they said, to protect the environment and public health of their people.

So how is this policy trickling down to affect us in East Central Indiana?

First, some background: In the early 1990s, China decided it wanted to be the leader of plastic production, and it started by purchasing waste plastics from many different countries. What the country wanted—clean, valuable recyclables—was not what it typically received, however, as it took in more than 60% of the world’s discarded plastics.

In the U.S., 31% of our waste scrap was exported to China. This worked great for waste haulers, as ocean carriers offered a cheap one-way ticket for our waste while paying to get the carriers back to China. One of many problems, though, was that China was not equipped to handle its own waste stream, let alone the millions of tons of waste it received every year.

Not only did China receive far more recyclable plastics than it could handle, but it also received poor quality plastics. Plastics are made of many different types of chemistries and are often too dirty (from food waste, mostly) or are a material that is too difficult for the processing machines to manage. Small pieces of plastics, such as caps and lids, often get caught in the machines that package, ship and process recyclables.

To further complicate the issue, a plastic bottle marked #1 (PET, polyethylene terephthalate) may have a cap that is a #5 (PP, Polypropelene). These two plastics must be handled totally differently to be recycled, but to separate them for recycling would cost much more than the value of the processed material.

Another problem is that 89% of exported plastics are single-use food packaging. This includes items such as take-out salad containers, disposable straws, Styrofoam cups and plastic liners from cereal boxes. The list goes on and on, but we Americans have become so used to the convenience of these disposable items that we don’t think twice about accepting, purchasing, using and disposing of them.

Those who diligently recycle and hope they are doing the right thing may be crushed to learn that less than 10% of the plastic produced globally is actually recycled. Materials processors are lucky to find anyone to take the plastics, let alone pay for them. This leaves many haulers looking for other means to dispose of plastics, such as landfilling, incinerating or, worse, sending them to developing countries that, like China, will also be eventually forced to ban the materials.

Your recycling processors in East Central Indiana are doing everything they can to address such problems, but I expect things to get worse before they get better. So what can you do in the face of such gloom and doom? First, know that recycling is not enough and never has been. It’s still the right thing to do, but it should be your last option.

Really? Yes!

There are two other words tied to recycling—reducing and reusing—and the 3 R’s are always listed in the order of Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle. Finding ways to create and use less is always the best option.

Consider first how you can reduce: Do you really need a straw at the restaurant? Can you bring your own bags to the store? Do you need to put your bananas in a produce bag when you buy them at the store?

Then ask how you can reuse. This one is easier—you just need to be creative. Carry your own water bottle from home to refill. Skip zip lock bags when packing your lunch by reusing containers from home. Wash out and reuse that plastic jar to store other items.

After you’ve reduced and reused, then recycle. Here’s some advice on that one, too: Manufacturers often put recycling symbols on items without knowing whether a recycling market exists for that item. So don’t assume that putting it in the bin is enough to “do your part.” Research what your recycling program accepts and trust that it accepts only what it has an outlet for.

Also, clean your items. Rinsing is very important, as a small amount of food waste can send a bottle to the trash instead of being recycled. Remove the caps. In an ideal world we will eventually recycle those too, but until then, be a courteous recycler and remove caps and lids before placing your items in the bin.

Most important, don’t give up on the process. Just be patient and smart when recycling your plastics. It’s still the right thing to do, and we need to keep trying to do our best for our environment.

Want to learn more about our local and global environment? Come visit the Living Lightly Fair at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on September 29, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.! Admission is free, and the day will offer speakers, vendors, music, kids’ activities and food for everyone who wants to learn more and do more for our Earth.


This article, which appeared in the Muncie Star Press on Aug. 22, 2018, was written by Susan Eichhorn. is Assistant Director of the East Central Indiana Solid Waste District and Chair of Living Lightly’s 2018 Planning Committee.

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