Mayor on Duty

There is a recycling crisis in the country, especially plastic. The Highlands Plateau is not immune from this problem that is analogous to an addiction.

American recycling has been a “smoke and mirrors” process. The voracious consumers that we are use copious amounts of glass, paper, cardboard and, yes, huge amounts of single use plastics. And we have been told everything is being recycled. The truth is that much of the recycle materials, again especially plastics, have been shipped to other countries, primarily developing countries, where some of it is recycled. Now we know much is simply thrown away. Recently these countries have told us to handle our own garbage.

The oceans have been inundated with large amounts of plastic creating problems like the Pacific Garbage Patch. Even more disturbing is the emerging research indicating sea life is now being infused with small microfibers of plastic that are compromising the reproductive function of marine life.

One article I read stated that only about 10% of the plastic produced, 8.3 billion tons since the 1950s, actually gets recycled. The EPA estimated in 2015 that only 9% of American plastic was recycled.

That happy, feel good notion that we are saving the earth by recycling is a false narrative. Now some devotees to recycling would counter that at least recycling keeps these materials out of landfills, so it must be a good practice.  Some experts now think putting plastics in landfills may not be a bad idea. The practice would at least keep it out of the watersheds and oceans.

Another alternative is to incinerate plastics. One researcher has developed a nitrogen infused furnace that will break organic waste and plastics down into usable diesel fuel. The drawback is the carbon emissions that would be put back into the atmosphere. The process is similar to burning coal to produce electric energy. What would be the benefits, environmental detriments and costs? Is charging a “green” electric car using power produced from a coal or natural gas electric plant all that environmentally sound?

There are also the issues around contamination.  Plastics, metal and glass materials all need to be washed before going in a recycling bin.  Food stuff can make an entire batch of plastic, glass or paper material non-recyclable.  Also, putting recyclable and nonrecyclable materials in the wrong bins can create problems.  There is a term called “aspirational recycling” where a person just throws items in any recycle bin with the hope that someone down the line will correctly process it.

Single stream recycling where all recyclable materials are thrown together is also problematic. Either a person, or a machine, has to separate the recyclable materials. For instance, plastic grocery bags placed in the wrong container can gum up and bind a recycle sorting machine.

So, what are the solutions? First, it is essential to diligently recycle following the procedures cited above. The country, as well as individuals, need to rethink the value of single use recycling. Take for example buying chopped fruits and vegetables in plastic containers rather than buying whole fruit and vegetables that can be processed with use. Or, multiple recycling of bottles like we once did, instead of discarding them after one use. Instead of using disposable plastic grocery shopping bags, why not use reusable shopping bags? Some communities require that now, why not here?

Our community, like the nation, is facing some difficult issues about how we handle trash. Just saying let’s recycle more may not be the best environmental solution in the long run.

For more information, read this article from The Guardian HERE.

  • Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor

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