Plastics under attack–but so is recycling

by George Stubbs

A couple of items from the news of June 5, 2018–one offering encouragement, another a cause for concern.

The BBC reports that, according to a recent report by the United Nations, some 50 nations around the world are taking aim at plastic products, with measures designed to reduce their use, require their proper disposal, and, ultimately, keep plastic waste off beaches and out of waterways and marine environments. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that measures by these various nations are not always being adequately enforced.

There are many factors compelling countries to encourage reductions in the use of plastic products. Sometimes, it’s simply bad press, as in the United Kingdom, where media coverage is highlighting the negative impacts of improperly disposed of plastic wastes.

In other countries, the harm caused plastic waste is more directly or immediately felt, the BBC says. In some jurisdictions, plastic waste is causing flooding by clogging storm drains. In others, cattle are eating the waste, causing–to say the least–health problems.

Countries that need to get their regulatory regimes right include Botswana, where a charge to retailers that offer plastic bags has not been enforced, and the program has been deemed a failure. In Vietnam, a tax on plastic bags has not reduced their use, so the government is considering raising the tax by a factor of five.

There have been successes. A ban on plastic bags in Eritrea has helped to clear storm drains. In Ireland, a tax has led to a 90% reduction in consumption. Morocco has banned plastic bags and conducted seizures–up to 421 tons in one year–and consumers now use fabric-based bags.

The authors of the UN report suggest that more needs to be done to engage businesses in helping to make the switch from plastic bags and other plastic products to more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Separately, a front-page story in the June 5 edition of the Boston Globe offers some brim news for proponents of recycling. The Globe reports that several Massachusetts municipalities are taking a hit on their recycling budgets in the wake of China’s ban on imports of recyclable materials that don’t meet purity standards. The materials are piling up at recycling facilities for lack of options on where to send them, leading to rising costs for the waste management companies, which are passing those costs onto their municipal customers.

China’s new policy was announced last summer and took effect on January 1 of this year. As part of the policy, according to the Globe, China is banning outright 24 categories of material, including mixed paper and certain classes of plastics. As a result of the pressures that some waste management companies exerting, including dramatic increases in the prices of recycling services, some municipalities are taking drastic measures. Plymouth has suspended its curbside recycling program. New Bedford has filed a lawsuit against its vendor, ABC Disposal Service, which has threatened to cease the collection of recyclables in that city and surrounding communities.

Obviously, the terms of existing contracts will be a factor in how municipalities and their vendors deal with the respective situations. But without question, the issue is a serious one, and not just confined to Massachusetts, as is evident in this recent article in Williamette Week in Oregon. Recycling proponents everywhere with be tasked with working closely with the city officials to ensure that the circular economy model keeps working.

One pressing need is for added capacity in the United States to turn secondary materials into new products. A look at the literature suggests that there is no shortage of ideas out there, but more capital investment will be necessary.

Just as importantly, we need to do a better job in sorting the materials, and that begins on our own curbsides. Melrose residents have done a good job in heeding the advice of the DPW and the Melrose Recycling Committee–by getting plastic bags out of the recycling bins, for example–but a lot more work needs to be done.