In our previous column we listed the numerous ways in which our lives are dependent on oil and products derived from oil. For several reasons this dependence has become problematic.
First, our supply of oil is limited and is rapidly being depleted. Secondly, the consumption of oil as fuel in our homes, businesses/factories and automobiles/trucks/tractors has become a major source of air and environmental pollution.
Finally, waste from oil-derived products, particularly in the form of plastic, is clogging landfills and accumulating in our environment at an alarming rate. Incineration of plastic, as a way to address this waste, contributes to air pollution as it releases cancer-causing dioxin and benzene.
There are many ways we can begin to reduce our dependence on oil and their products, but let’s begin with one that has been around since the 1980s and most of us are familiar with – recycling.
Many of us have been recycling paper, glass, aluminum cans and plastic for many years. Some of us even recycle steel, copper and aluminum scrap metal. These recycling programs have functioned relatively effectively with one glaring exception - plastic.
Plastic recycling has largely failed and, even worse, has contributed to environmental pollution. Here’s why. Plastic is recycled in several ways. If processed here in the U.S., only type 1 and 2 plastic (mostly bottles) are regularly reprocessed. These are converted into plastic pellets and used to make carpeting, clothing, plastic packaging, etc.
Type 3 through 7 plastic (about 70% of plastic) is incinerated or discarded in landfills. An even more disturbing concern is that much of our recycled plastic is baled up and shipped to Asia for processing. Once in Asia, companies remove what is of value and discard the rest, frequently with few regulations. Some is even discarded in streams and rivers.
This is how some plastic we recycle ends up contributing to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” floating in the Pacific Ocean and ultimately ends up in some of the seafood we eat.
A second concern about plastics recycling is that, unlike metal, glass and paper that can be recycled repeatedly, plastics can only be recycled once or twice. The reprocessing degrades plastics and they become a lower quality of plastic. Therefore, a plastic bottle cannot be recycled into another bottle but may be used to make a plastic bag or a piece of carpeting.
Further, recycling has not been supported by the federal government or by the plastic industry. The federal government continues to heavily subsidize the oil and gas extraction industry, keeping the price of crude oil low so recycled plastics cannot compete with the low price of plastic derived from fresh crude oil.
The plastic industry has done little to nothing to make their plastics more recyclable nor have they promoted uses for recycled materials or invested in recycling processes. The industry continues to promote single-use plastics, and every day more and more glass and paper containers are changing to plastic.
Even non-plastic items are frequently packaged in excessive amounts of non-recyclable plastic materials.
Is there anything you and I can do to improve the recycling of plastic? Yes and no.
First of all, for reasons described above, recycling is not an effective answer to the plastic waste problem. Our only real hope of reducing the harmful impact of oil-based plastic waste in all its forms is to reduce the production, and use of, plastic products.
How do we do this?
If purchasing plastic packaged products, we can make sure they are type 1 or 2 recyclable plastic or are products that are made from recycled plastic. We can choose to use paper or reusable cloth shopping bags rather than plastic bags. We can choose to not use single-use plastics, including bags, straws and tableware.
We can talk to our local store owners about our desire to purchase goods that are not packaged in plastic. We can lobby our local officials to ban certain types of non-recyclable plastics, including packaging, as a way to decrease the amount of material going into landfills and decreasing environmental pollution.
These steps will put pressure on the plastic industry, retailers and government to rethink the ever-increasing use of non-recyclable, single-use plastic.
(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.