Study Finds World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan

by George Stubbs

Sometimes, to make a point, proponents of a particular position will supply analogies, numbers, or statistics that are designed to dazzle you into agreement. “Millions of dollars spent on lobbying”; “thousands of birds killed by wind farms”; the numbers can sound impressive, but without some context, it’s sometimes hard to know what the real level of concern is, or how outraged we should feel.

Then an analogy or a stat comes along and pops your eyes wide open, and context seems to matter less. If true, the claim is stunning and almost unbelievable. Except when it is totally believable.

The Associated Press reported on July 19 the findings of a study concluding that the volume of plastic waste generated to date around the world could bury Manhattan in a pile of waste that is two miles deep.  That’s nearly six times as high as the new World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, from the base to the tip of the tower.

Remember when comedian Steven Wright quipped, “It’s a small world—but I wouldn’t want to paint it”? Perhaps burying Manhattan in two miles of plastic isn’t so impressive in the scheme of things to some people, but I wouldn’t want to be the one tasked with finding a responsible way of disposing of all that waste.

The study cited by AP was conducted by researchers at the Bren School if Environmental Science and Management at the University of California-Santa Barbara, the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, and the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole. It was published in the July 19 issue of journal Science Advances. (Atlantic monthly recently published an article on the same study.)

The researchers estimate that, of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic that have been produced, nearly 7 billion tons are no longer in use. They also found that only 9 percent of that plastic waste has been recycled, while another 12 percent has been incinerated. That leaves 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste that has been disposed of in landfills or has simply been recklessly tossed aside, on land and in the water, including our oceans.

The researchers based their findings on the plastics industry’s own data, as well as publicly available records. One key finding: The volume of plastics produced and discarded is increasing. Producers generated 448 million tons of plastic in 2015, more than twice the volume in 1998.

“The growth is astonishing, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down soon,” AP quoted industrial ecologist Roland Geyer of UC-Santa Barbara as saying. “At the current rate, we are really heading toward a plastic planet. It is something we need to pay attention to.”

Pay attention indeed. Geyer’s characteristic scientific conservatism notwithstanding, there’s quite a lot we know about the harm plastic waste is doing to the environment—and quite a lot we can do to reduce our own use of plastics. Switch to reusable cloth or canvas bags when shopping. Purchase a refillable water bottle. Select non-plastic packaging for as many goods as you can. You can do all this, and more, and it doesn’t have to mean a reduction in your standard of living.

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Where Do I Put This? Answers and Complexities

by George Stubbs

Many residents of Melrose are very dedicated recyclers; of that we can all be proud. But that dedication can generate issues, especially when the avid recycler comes across an item that he or she does not want to throw out, thinking, “Surely, this is recyclable.” So the item goes in the curbside bin—when perhaps it shouldn’t. Or our plucky recycler, concerned that the item is dubious and might “contaminate” the recyclables, throws the item in the trash, when there might be better options.

About 30 people attended a workshop on a warm July evening recently at the Milano Senior Center to find out more about the proper way to recycle in Melrose and find answers to their questions about what can’t be recycled, what can, and how. The event, titled “Where Do I Put That?”, was sponsored by the Melrose Recycling Committee (MRC) and led by MRC volunteer Robin Snyder-Drummond.

The big take-away from the presentation for many attendees was the realization that, while more and more items can be recycled all the time, not all of them can go in your curbside bin. That’s because the city’s hauler, JRM, has only certain kinds of equipment to process materials at its GreenWorks facility in Peabody, as Ms. Snyder-Drummond explained. Waste sorting is a capital-intensive business, and the typical materials recycling facility (MRF, pronounced “merf”) can’t afford to adopt and install all the different kinds of equipment and technology to recycle all the different types of materials that, theoretically, can be recycled. In short, no one hauler is likely to be all things to all people.

The big no-no for curbside? Plastic bags—specifically, those plastic bags that grocery stores and other vendors put your purchases in at checkout. Some people, thinking they are doing the right thing, put their recyclables in a plastic bag and drop that bag into the curbside bin. Up at GreenWorks, however, those plastic bags can jam the sorting machinery, forcing a shutdown of operations and making it necessary for a worker to go into the machinery to remove the tangling substance—a job with some hazard. The workers on the conveyor belt bringing the material into the facility can get some of the bags, but things move fast sometimes, and they can’t get all of the improper material. (To see the operation at GreenWorks in action, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrKUD8N8sOE.)

So what can you do with those single-use plastic bags? Grocers like Shaw’s, Stop n Shop, and Whole Foods now accept these bags for return, typically providing a bin at the front of the store where you can unload the bags you’ve accumulated.

Or you could simply use fewer of these bags, as the Recycling Committee, through its BYOBag (bring your own bag) Initiative, strongly urges. Alternatives include canvas or cloth bags, which can be re-washed and are becoming increasingly available from non-profits and other sources.

Another curbside no-no: “tanglers.” These would include hoses, wires, and even clothes hangers, wire or plastic. These items pose the same kinds of operational headaches at the MRF as plastic bags. Fortunately, many dry-cleaners will take back your hangers, and the wires and cables for electronic equipment can be dropped off at the Melrose Department of Public Works (DPW) Yard with their associated electronic equipment, or returned to stores, like Best Buy, that accept used electronic equipment. Hoses, alas, are trash.

The attendees at “Where Do I Put This?” had many excellent questions, thus demonstrating how complex and challenging a thorough and dedicated recycling regime can be. One popular question: How clean do my recyclables have to be? Indeed, some effort is required to eliminate the “yuck” factor. For example, peanut butter jars or other containers with thick, hard-to-remove residues should be pretty thoroughly cleaned, but most items—whether glass or aluminum cans—can be quickly rinsed. Even thin-film plastic bags, like the bag your bread comes in, can be returned to the grocer with your other bags provided you’ve done a reasonable job removing any food (a few crumbs shouldn’t hurt).

A note of caution: Some of the plastic wrapping on products may come with a recycling label on it, such as a #5. Sure, these items may be recyclable—using some process somewhere. But our curbside regime is not appropriate for them, at least not right now. And of course there are “green-washers” out there who may say that their packaging is recyclable, but often those claims require careful investigation.

A further note: some packaging that seems like plastic, at least in part, but is kind of “crinkly,” is likely to be packaging with some kind of moisture seal, and it is trash.

In addition to doing her best to answer these and other questions, Ms. Snyder-Drummond provided some on-line resources that can be of help to those who want to squeeze all they can out of their trash. Websites include Earth911 (http://earth911.com/)  and Zero Waste Home (https://zerowastehome.com/). There’s also a phone app available, called iRecycle, that lists options for recycling or returning many items in your locality.

It’s hard to answer all of the questions about recycling that dedicated citizens may have, but those attending the MRC event certainly came away informed and better armed to do battle with their waste.