Written by Sally Speech
The problem with plastics is money. Yes, the root of all evil. Until we figure out how to make more money from used plastic products or that there is more to life than being able to buy pre-packaged product, we will continue to inundate our environment with plastic.
Very, very little actually gets recycled.
According to Consumer Reports of the 35 million tons of plastic waste created in the U.S. in 2018 only 10 percent was recycled. To make that large figure more real, let’s say that one-half ton of plastic is all squashed up into a bale about 2.5 foot x 5 foot x 3 foot. So about 40 bales or 20 tons to a semi-trailer that is 50 feet long. Now imagine the area that 1.75 million semi-trailers would take up. You would have to put six trailers side by side and line them up end to end from Portland Maine to San Francisco (as the crow flies 2,723 miles). And that is just the U.S, waste for one year, While the math is a rough estimate, the idea is that we are literally smothering our planet in plastic. Why not recycle more? Money. It is still more profitable to continue to make new plastic from oil than to recycle.
So where is all that unrecycled plastic going? Around 15 to 20 percent is burned causing even more carbon dioxide and other pollution in the air. About 80 to 85 percent is in landfills. The U.S. has for the most part stopped dumping into the oceans but the same is not true in the rest of the world. More on that horrible aspect later. Maine is one of 10 states that has a law that requires a bottle deposit. This has significantly helped to reduce the number of plastic bottles that would go into a landfill and these bottles are instead recycled into new bottles. In forty states, people thinking that it all can be sorted when recycled, don’t sort out the #1 bottles from the other types. But, most of the recycle plants don’t have the specialized optical sorting equipment to sort plastics. The plants dump the bottles into the trash with all the other plastics which are less profitable to recycle. Then it all goes to landfills or to be burned. Here in Maine most #1 and #2 clear and #2 colored plastic is recycled. Most towns have contracts with specific waste haulers or have formed groups that have a facility of their own and a landfill. Farmington’s contract is with Archie’s. Archies does take #2 plastic if it is sorted out but #3 through # 7 goes into the general waste stream. Again, this either goes to an incinerator (there are three waste incinerators in Maine) or to a landfill. There are still 35 public landfills in Maine. They are supposed to be phased out.
Which brings me to ecomaine, a non-profit facility which does sort out plastics. I talked with Matt Grondin who is the educational director there. This company has a facility that takes single stream waste and actually sorts out into all possible recyclables. According to their website they have kept over a billion tons of waste out of landfills since 2016. Their website has a video on the process which shows how the sorting is accomplished. Eighteen tons of waste is processed every hour. They use a variety of equipment but also many manual sorters. Being a non-profit allows them to hire more people for this process. The biggest issues are waste items mixed into the recyclables. They have created an app for your phone that is an encyclopedia of recyclables to help people to determine what can be recycled. As far as plastics are concerned any plastic without a symbol is not recyclable; pen caps, straws, to go coffee cup tops are all examples. Also any bottle or jug that has liquid or solids left in them are put into the waste stream.
They do recycle #1-7 rigid plastics although the money they make selling #3 through 7 just covers their costs. Once they have sorted out all the recyclables the majority of what is left is burned in their waste incinerator producing energy. They are at full capacity when it comes to the waste they can burn. They do have more capacity to take on recyclables and the ecomaine website shows where they have drop off points. None are close to Farmington.
The Beer Shed in Kingfield has recently brought an ecomaine “silver bullet” dumpster on to their property. They have to do fund raisers in order to pay for the rather expensive fees involved. There is $100 monthly rental, tipping fees per ton and paying the hauler to take the dumpster to the transfer station. You would need to call ahead to see if a particular drop off will accept your recyclables.
In order to get the big oil and chemical industries to see the light, consumers will have to make it more expensive to make new plastic than to go to recycling. We should speak up about our objections, pass more laws that require the producers to pay for the mess they have created and in general use less of the new stuff and more of the recycled and recyclable plastic products. Maine is the first state to pass a new law that will levy fees on companies that create or use packaging to help towns defray the costs to create better recycling facilities. The fees will be lower for practices with less environmental impact; that use more recycled materials. Oregon and six other states have followed suit in passing similar laws.
While this is a step in the right direction, the real solution is to use less plastic to begin with. Consumer reports October 2021 issue has a several page “How to quit Plastic” article. They quote Deb Singer, a leader of the plastic bag ban, who suggests “you don’t have to become an eco-warrior overnight. Take it one product at a time and work your way up.”
Some suggestions that look pretty easy are; use your own re-usable cup for coffee or tea instead of the take out cups; when getting take out request that they don’t include plastic cutlery or straws; opt for brands that use paper, glass or metal packaging; use a re-usable water bottle and fill from your tap instead of buying bottled water; shop local instead of ordering on-line; use aluminum foil or a bowl with a lid for saving leftovers instead of plastic wrap and avoid single wrapped foods such as small chip bags. Buying in bulk and storing in reusable containers is often cheaper as well. While it might not seem like your individual efforts amount to much, it is the effect on the general public opinion and in turn on public policy that will turn the tide.