A Story of Recycling
By Melinda Small
Nothing has been as satisfying as my trips to the dump (aka Harpswell Recycling Center and Transfer Station). Despite her sometimes gruesome masks, Donnette’s greeting was always welcoming. And once again, I had finished a task that is a grateful diversion from my isolation.
At the Center, a very visible sign lists all the materials that are recycled. Paper, for instance, is recycled in many forms. Books, both soft and hardcover, surprised me. Recently, our increased online shopping has made cardboard boxes a valuable resource.
Every visit, I recycle at least 10+ pounds of mail. I get so much junk mail that I use a large Hannaford paper bag to collect and transport this mail to recycling. Right now, I have four days of this paper collected; it weighs seven pounds, and this does not include catalogs. Free, promotional address labels are useful, but not hundreds of them each week. Even a brief consideration of the paper, ink, and energy wasted to produce volumes of such unwanted mail is provocative.
It has frustrated me that I can unsubscribe from junk mail on my phone but cannot readily stop the paper junk mail without using more paper. Harry Hopcroft’s recent column in The Times Record offers a solution. The website ecocycle.org/junkmail provides information on how to contact organizations to stop such mail. It may take some effort to start this process, but eliminating my 10+ lbs a week of this waste makes it worth it.
For years I have maintained a compost pile, so it took me a while to appreciate the significance of the fact that Harpswell also recycles compost. It does require a little effort to save ‘anything that grows’ into a separate bucket. Still, it does mean this valuable resource is not buried in a plastic bag somewhere. The other day I donated my collection of corks to the compost bin. With time it will contribute to a rich compost available for a reasonable price, with buckets delivered to the car.
Except for returnable bottles, I thought little about glass. When my daughter-in-law introduced me to a delicious French-style yogurt that comes in a small clear glass cup, I came to appreciate that in Harpswell this glass yogurt container would be recycled. Unlike many towns, it would not be trash buried in landfills somewhere. And I would not be buying my yogurt in a plastic container.
A Google search of paper, cardboard, and glass recycling demonstrates that recycling these types of waste requires sorting, extensive machinery, energy, and staffing. Such recycling requires ingenuity and does not come cheaply. The Natural Resources Council of Maine reports that “recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, 4000 kilowatts of energy and 7000 gallons of water.”
The value of recycled paper and glass is reflected in the increased rate of recycling. In 1970 15% of the paper and paperboard generated that year was recycled; by 2018, 68% of this paper was recycled. During this same period, recycled glass represented 1% of the glass generated in 1970 and reached 25% in 2018.
The picture for plastics is quite different. As illustrated on the sign, many types of plastics are recyclable. These types are distinguished because each has a different chemical composition. And it is the chemical structures that make proper recycling of plastics difficult and expensive. Each type of plastic must be processed separately. People and machines must sort, wash, shred, melt and remold each kind of plastic.
Although the amount of plastic recycled in the US has increased from < .05% to 9% in the same time period, the vast majority of our plastics end up in landfills (Science News).
Plastics are designed to be durable and for a single-use. The durability of plastic has been evident at the top of the earth and the bottom of the ocean. It is this durability that makes plastic challenging to recycle. Since China stopped accepting our waste, the US has 262 million tons of plastic waste, 234 pounds per person, to process each year.
Using a process first developed in 2001, several countries, including India, Indonesia and United Kingdom, are mixing plastic waste with asphalt to resurface their roads. In recent years, one Indian city used 1,600 tons of plastic waste to construct 1,035 kilometers of roads.
With the invention of plastic bottle bricks, plastic waste has been used for construction in many countries. Indeed, the production of such ‘ecobricks’, in which clean and dry plastic bottles are packed with clean and dry non-biodegrable materials (plastics), is described in a YouTube video. Ecobricks have been used in planters, furniture, buildings, even boats. In the Philippines the Circle Hostel chain used ecobricks to build bathroom walls and shower stalls.
Recognizing the challenge of plastic waste, chemists are beginning to seek solutions with a new type of recycling, chemical recycling, which “involves taking plastic apart on the molecular level.” This approach can be used to develop a new type of plastic when chemical bonds are broken down into the basic units, and these units are reused in a new arrangement. Another seeks to treat plastic with enzymes that compost the plastic.
Others have sought to transform plastic into a new product that has value added. One, for example, aims to transform some types of plastic into a carbon-based material, called graphene, which is similar to graphite but is lighter and stronger. Sixty possible uses of graphene range from solar cells to medicine.
Research from the University of Edinburgh reports on using a modified bacterium to recycle plastic soda bottles into vanilla. This vanilla is not edible, but is a valuable chemical widely used in pharmaceuticals, cleaning products and herbicides. In 2018 37,000 tons of vanilla was used in various products; about 85% of this vanilla was derived from fossil fuels.
As the status of plastic waste is recognized more widely, more efforts to control this form of waste will be generated. These efforts and many others that will follow offer solutions to our plastic waste. Development of these solutions will, however, require time to prove their value on a commercial scale. Until then, a Maine law that became effective July 1 will prevent plastic single-use carry-out bags. Although this law does not cover all single-use plastic, it takes one common form of plastic out of circulation and advances the value of reusable shopping bags. Maine is also banning the use of Styrofoam, and the legislature has passed a bill prohibiting the release of multiple balloons.
As we recognize the need for legal actions to control the commerial use of plastic and that some plastics in our waste can be ‘upcycled’ into a valuable product, consumers are part of the solution. We are in a better position to question the use of plastic and demand action from the producers of plastic and companies that use the plastic.
A bill, Maine L.D. 1541, An Act to Support and Improve Municipal Recycling Programs and Save Taxpayer Money, is now on Governor Mill’s desk. The law would require producers of packaging to assist in the cost of recycling and disposal of their products. The monies collected from producers of packaging would reduce the present cost to taxpayers of recycling and disposal of packaging. The question remains, however, whether the producers will pass those costs on to consumers.