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Mislaid faith—Plastics and Recycling

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

Kat and Bella tug at their leashes, but I'm backtracking to recover a plastic water bottle at the curb. After rerouting the dogs to a neighborhood alley, I lift the lid of a random recycling bin, and just before tossing the bottle, peek inside. Is it the correct can? Yes. But a Styrofoam tray lies on top of the bottles and yogurt containers. Hmmm—Is that recyclable now?

Some days the single-use plastic containers I find littering the streets of my neighborhood send me around the bend. I generally cannot in good conscience walk past and leave plastics to wash down the storm drain in the next rain. I confess to being that strange woman walking by with dogs in one hand and trash in the other. Oh well, I am pretty good at hand washing.

On another morning, I sat at the kitchen counter drinking my coffee and noticed the recycle symbol on the oat-milk container. Wait, what? I thought coated papers go in the regular trash, but an internet search confirmed they can be recycled—sometimes. I guess I really haven't been keeping up. But as that peek inside a neighbor's bin confirmed, I'm not the only one having issues.

I called our local recycling center for clarification on the oat-milk containers and recycling in general. The man who answered only identified himself as a John Doe who works on the collection truck, but he was happy to answer a few questions. First, those waxy oat-milk containers might be recyclable in some places, but not in the Lower Merion district of Pennsylvania. Styrofoam still isn't recyclable at all.

In describing his work, my anonymous friend explained that if there are problems with someone's recycling, the collectors will leave the can with a write-up slip about the problem. Generally, the issue is an obvious sorting error, but he said, "We grab the cans and keep moving, so if the problem is buried in the middle, like a piece of Styrofoam, we won't see it. If we do, sometimes we can just put the bigger pieces in the regular trash," rather than leaving the can.

In answer to my question about a recycling wish list, he said trash collectors just want people to pay attention to the how-to mailers. For example, don't put out containers gunked-up with food. Wipe them out. And know that plastic shopping bags can't be recycled with hard plastics; neither can broken glass. Just because we wish to recycle it, doesn't mean we can.

Most people I speak with put a lot of faith in recycling. I try not to be a zealot; really, I do. But I cannot always help chastising family, friends, and strangers about their single-use plastic water bottles. Often the refrain that comes back is, "But I recycle them."

Yeah, Yeah—You think you do, but as it turns out, a lot of what we put out on the curb doesn't actually get recycled. Plastic bottles are a petroleum product, and big-oil companies know that it's very expensive to recycle them. For many years the most cost-effective thing to do was to ship it off to China. But China no longer wants our trash.

According to an NPR report, "After 30 years (of US efforts) less than 10 percent of plastic HAS EVER been recycled." Industry leaders say we're going to do better, but it's always been so much cheaper to make new plastics rather than to reuse recycled plastic, which easily degrades. And because the companies make money by creating new products out of oil, the public should be skeptical about future promises.

"...the petrochemical industry says it will likely double its plastic manufacturing capacity from 2016-2024. According to industry documents, they'll spend 25 billion dollars by 2025 to make more plastic."

So what do we, the consumers, really need to do? (Hold on please while I adjust my zealot hat.) We need to get as much plastic out of our lives as possible. We can begin by giving single-use plastics the boot. Even armed with the knowledge that my containers may not be recycled, I'll keep trying, just in case. Please share, what are your recycling thoughts?

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