Does recycling even work?
Is the push for recycling, recovery, and reprocessing of waste worthwhile or is it simply adding more stress to global environmental efforts?
Beth Porter, Climate Campaigns Director at Green America, join NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg to talk about the American arm of the global recycling movement and the confusing myriad of systems consumers must navigate to lead sustainable, eco-conscious lives.
*Due to COVID-19 safety protocols, this episode was recorded remotely. Audio quality may not be consistent throughout.*
Transcript: Does recycling even work?
Sally: Hi, this is Sally Greenberg. I am executive director of the National Consumers League and host of today’s ‘We Can Do This!’ Podcast for the National Consumers League. My guest today is Beth Porter, she is Green America’s Climate and Recycling director as well as the author of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System.’ She is going to answer a lot of our tough questions today and give us some guidance as to what the world looks like if I were really to have an effective recycling system and how we can get there as consumers.
So welcome to you Beth Porter, delighted to have you; let me start by asking, other than the obvious need for advocates of sustainability, what got you interested in this field?
Beth: Thank you so much for having me on the show Sally, it’s lovely to be here. Great question, taking it back to the beginning; I was fortunate enough to be able to really spend a lot of time outside as a kid. I grew up in North Carolina so spent a lot of time outside playing in the woods and really developed a love of forests and nature throughout childhood. That eventually led me to focus my education on environmental studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in the mountains.
And in that time my education really flourished and I became passionate about advocacy work and sustainability. Getting involved on campus, volunteering and even coming up to DC where I now live to take part in youth activist conferences or lobbying against mountaintop removal, coal removal on Capitol Hill and that sort of thing. So yeah, my education is really ongoing and what started kind of as a childhood love of forests has really grown into a large passion for environmental advocacy that works to really uproot practices and systems that threaten communities and environmental health.
So I’ve been a campaign director as you mentioned at Green America for several years and I’ve worked on issues ranging from waste and recycling to clean energy to working to eliminate climate polluting greenhouse gases in different sectors. So a wide range of really different systems and solutions, a lot to be excited about, and a lot of work to do.
Sally: Well yeah and that’s great, I think what you do is really the intersection for us of environmentalism, sustainability but also a very important consumer issue. And I think consumers are really interested in how they can be part of the solution, but it’s just confusing and you read a lot of things that seem contradictory so let’s start with some basics though. Can you define for us what is meant by environmental sustainability?
Beth: Yeah, they are sort of general definitions of course that are really widely accepted, I think a main one is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Their ability to meet their own needs and I think that’s really a common definition but I think it’s a personal journey in many ways.
And to me I think this also means ensuring that all communities are able to meet their needs and really thrive and that we’re operating as a society in ways that ensure clean air and water for everyone. And that we’re using resources in a way that really operates in more of a sustainable and kind of circular process rather than the linear methods of extract, use, throw away, repeat as we’ve seen so often.
For me sustainability, I just think of it as eliminating those extractive and unjust systems that degrade the environment and pollute public health, and disregard public health. But instead really looking to live and build systems that sustain the continuation of life for all communities and ecosystems.
Sally: That’s really helpful and as you know, we did a report last year called ‘Examining Sustainability Consumer Choice and Confusion in Food and Beverage Packaging.’ One of the conclusions of the report was that we have a problem with plastic and the plastics industry has been very clever in couching various plastic products as heavily recyclable knowing full well that that was not the case. Then we’ve got the aluminum industry and the cans and the more recyclable products that either do or don’t have a lot of direction behind how to actually recycle them but could be much more focused on that.
So what we came away with was plastics are really not terribly recyclable; the can industry and aluminum much more so but nevertheless, a lot of stuff just ends up in the landfill. So can you give us your perspective on plastic versus aluminum and then we’re going to get to some questions about what consumers can actually do to be part of the solution.
Beth: Oh absolutely; yes excellent reports, I was excited to read it and you all identified some really key solutions so my appreciation for that report, it’s excellent. But yeah, plastics are truly a mess, truly and I think plastics in many ways are kind of a significant burden on the recycling system. So I guess looking at the larger recycling system and how plastics are a burden or how other materials kind of perform better quote-unquote “in the system.”
Most communities in the U.S. with recycling programs now practice what’s called ‘single stream or commingled.’ So all the recyclables go into one bin and the sorting of our recyclables generally takes place at a material recovery facility or MRF. Then recyclables are sorted out by material type and then sold to secondary markets to be used in new products ideally. These items are sorted through a combination of waste management professionals’ hand sorting them, trying to remove items that can’t actually go through the recycling process well. There’s also the use of different machines that are designed to separate them out.
So often these recycling programs, the guidelines within them, the ones that we try to follow at home and say what can I put in the bin and what can’t I are really designed around what these programs can collect, sort, and sell. Plastics, there’s a really wide range of plastics out there but the main plastic items that really have a market, that really can be more effectively collected and sold through this current system are plastic bottles commonly known as the ones and the twos which we’ll get to in labeling later.
But there’s this vast array of other plastics that can’t navigate the current system and that’s either due to their composition or shape or the fact that they just have a dismally low market value so nobody wants to buy them. So as you mentioned, they end up being landfilled or incinerated and this is just of course, the products that go through waste management. As we’ve seen time and again, plastic is often mismanaged and pollutes out into the environment to our waterways, threatening wildlife, breaking down into microplastics over time and we’re still even really learning about all of the effects of plastics in our environment.
But yeah, there are negative impacts on communities and the environment from production to disposal of plastics. So I think in the past few decades as plastics has grown to kind of take up more space in our waste stream, the recycling system hasn’t really been able to evolve and keep pace with the range of plastic items out there. So manufacturers are kind of flooding the system in a way with whatever kind of plastic packaging or product you’d like to turn out and there hasn’t been a lot of accountability for the end of life of those products.
So I want to give great credit to organizations and individuals and communities who are really pushing back against that and calling for that accountability and looking back to the design stage. Because on recycling, we really tend to kind of look at the end of life; how do we manage this stuff but really putting the pressure back on the production side and how are we designing products to really flow through the recycling system? I have to say that I think the plastics industry has really escaped that accountability for a very long time. And we’re seeing the effects of that now with so much in our waste stream that can’t actually be recycled so I think it’s great to see state and local level policies identifying certain non-recyclable plastic items.
Pushing for efforts to really require manufacturers to address the impact of their wastes and other measures like that so I guess that’s how I would sort of say plastics, I view it in the larger system and how it kind of operates as a bit of a burden on the system itself. And so other materials as you mentioned that have higher recyclability, have a bit stronger value in the market like aluminum products, kind of prop up in many ways. The costs associated with managing plastics that don’t have a high market value for a number of reasons really.
That’s a bit of a complicated issue but I think a big part of why plastic isn’t valued is because of those externalities, the impacts of extracting and disposal of the item isn’t baked into the cost of brand new materials like virgin plastics. So recycled content really is sort of on an uneven playing field in the market with a virgin material extraction and I do think there’s been a history of the plastics industry working to keep that uneven playing field operating.
So there have been a lot of focus and public efforts so to speak on behalf of the plastics industry saying they want to improve recycling. But it really seems like what they want to do is make collection of recyclables better but not necessarily the actual use of that recycled content to displace the need for that virgin material content.
Sally: Now, let me drill down on that; we’ve just got mounds and mounds of plastic. You go to any trash can anywhere in the U.S. and you see if you’re lucky, if it’s not on the ground or been thrown willy-nilly into the ocean or it’s not washed up in a stream somewhere. You just see ungodly amounts of plastic bottles everywhere and we all know that during COVID people are using them more because they don’t want to use drinking fountains. My gym shut down all their drinking fountains, I was just at a homeless shelter giving out food and they used to have a fountain but now everybody’s getting these two big plastic bottles of water.
I think the worry for a lot of people is, we’re beyond the tipping point and there’s no coming back from it, what would you say about where we are now in this lifespan of these products that aren’t terribly recyclable?
Beth: Yeah, I think there is so much potential to make a lot of improvements to change the trajectory of where we’re going in our materials management and our waste and use of plastics. I definitely think there’s a return or not even a return but just a transition into something better. And I do think it is because there’s been so much arising awareness I should say amongst the public about plastic pollution, about these impacts. Those sobering images of plastics in the ocean and seeing them like you just said, overflowing from garbage, bins on the sidewalk.
People can really identify it and see it as a problem and are really starting to push. So people will contact companies and businesses on social media and call attention that way and say “I want you to use only recyclable or compostable packaging or things like that.” There’s this pressure that’s been mounting in the last few years that I think is very powerful and new and that I think is going to change us in a positive trajectory and there are some legislative movements happening. I tend to work more on sort of the market-based corporate accountability side, but I of course am very pleased and excited to see policy moving forward on the issues that I work on.
One particular example that was introduced exactly a year ago is the break free from plastic pollution act that was introduced at the federal level. It’s this really comprehensive bill that covers a lot of different mechanisms that we can use to reduce plastic waste and that we can use to reduce waste overall and some of that is extended producer accountability. So really making sure that producers are paying in to building a better recovery system so that these waste items don’t end up in the environment, we don’t see that level of pollution.
One that I think is really crucial and important, kind of touches on what I mentioned earlier with the economic levers of having recycled content be as competitive in the market as virgin content. Is looking at recycled content minimum requirements for products that currently have little to no recycled content in them; that is a lot of plastic products frankly. I think those areas are really some interesting policy mechanisms that can be used to push us in a new direction.
And I think there are a lot of great groups out there working on building up, reuse and repair and making sure that we’re looking at those first two hours of reducing, reuse just as strongly and just as importantly as we’ve been looking at recycling for many years.
Sally: I see that that bill is comprehensive, it’s a House bill; does the senate have a champion, is that the Udall bill?
Beth: It was the Udall bill, yes, and then I am not yet certain who the next champion in the senate will be. I think there are some folks who I would assume would take it on but we haven’t seen that yet because Senator Udall did not run for re-election.
Sally: But you like these bills, tell us what they would do and in a little bit more detail. They go to the manufacturers and insist the manufacturers build in something from the inception of the product, they build in some sort of a sustainability model; what else do these bills do?
Beth: Some of these bills will look at elimination of certain items that are non-recyclable. A common bill that’s happened at the state level and in a lot of places is around Styrofoam and working to eliminate the use of Styrofoam and to-go containers and things like that because it is a plastic product that has been notoriously difficult to manage and there’s minimal. I think minimal is a generous word, demand for that material in the markets as well so really just kind of come back to that demand for these materials to close the loop.
Sally: So in other words, the blowback from Styrofoam which you know, we all look a scan to Styrofoam coffee cups or take out materials that are in Styrofoam and I’m not sure what goes on in the rest of the country. I know that I live on the east coast and probably some of our companies or restaurants are more sensitive to concerns about sustainability and so they’ve moved to other products. Is this something that’s really a national movement, have we seen a far reduced reliance on Styrofoam for to go and for coffee and things like that?
Beth: I think it’s at the state level right now and I think what is exciting potentially about these bills is to really see that national effort. Sort of a bit of a coordinating effort at the national level to try to drive up sustainable initiatives because right now it’s been a bit we could call it kind of a patchwork approach of a lot of states. California is a great one, DC not officially state yet but we eliminated Styrofoam many years ago and we would have been the first state to do so I believe if we had been a state at the time. But all this to say that I think taking a national-level approach can really drive a larger system change.
And from my understanding, the breakthrough from plastic pollution act really looked to a lot of these state and local bills, and these kinds of innovative ideas that were happening at the local level to try and inform the legislation they developed at the national level. So it’s a bit of learning from what’s already working at the state level and really seeing how we can scale that up for bigger impact.
Sally: Tell us overall, is recycling helping or hurting and tell us why.
Beth: So I think recycling needs many changes to take place in it as a system for the full potential of environmental and social benefits from it to be realized. Recycling is helping in the way that it’s certainly pulling many materials out of the waste stream for recovery, particularly metal products and paper which have pretty strong recycling rates. That’s level of success varies a lot between materials as we mentioned but there are aspects of recycling that are functioning but I wouldn’t say that it’s thriving as a system up until this point.
We’ve been hovering at a national recycling rate of about thirty-two to thirty-four percent for the last decade or two and last year we actually saw a decrease in our overall recycling rate so it’s kind of stagnated in many ways. I think it’s helping but to a very real limit and I think we need to contend with that for it to help in a much bigger way. But the act of recycling, the act of collecting items, breaking them down, using them in new production, that drives down greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction of natural resources.
That drives down energy usage at the production level and of course it works to keep materials out of landfills and incineration which all have very positive things for people on the planet I would say. I’m sort of cheating because I’m saying both; it’s helping and it it’s hurting but one thing I do worry about recycling I guess quote “hurting isn’t so much the act of recycling itself but the way we talk and think about it.”
So I think recycling is often portrayed as a magic bin where we put trash in and then shiny new things pop out perfectly and there’s a complex system behind those bins; so even though recycling has these clear environmental benefits, there’s still impacts. There’s still impacts of collecting these items, there’s impacts for the actual recycling process and I think in many ways it can tend to overshadow those first two R’s of reduce and reuse which have far greater environmental benefits.
So I think the emphasis on recycling has in some ways maybe distracted us, a collective us of course from having more of that emphasis on reducing waste through the start. Through redesigning of products, making less stuff, reusing materials, repairing goods; so while recycling is a far better option than burning or burying our waste, I think it’s necessary to collect materials for new manufacturing. I always remind people that it’s the third R for a reason, it has an impact and recycling doesn’t just disappear our waste into thin air nor does it erase the original impacts from producing the goods in the first place.
I urge for recycling strategies to operate in service to those larger goals of overall waste reduction. So we want to make reduce and reuse primary fillers in managing materials sustainably and not kind of the add-ons that I think may be recycling and then having such a large emphasis on recycling has resulted in. But I do think that’s changing and I think people are really seeing the benefits of overall reduction and exploring sort of creative ideas for reusable packaging and package-free and just all of these things in a way that’s opening up a lot of new ideas.
Sally: So we should continue as consumers to recycle because it does remove things from the waste stream but much better to reduce our consumption. Which means if you’re trying to be a good consumer and sustainable you maybe fill your water bottle up; I’m just thinking about I haven’t taken a plastic bag from a store in maybe four years even though I’m always offered one. And I think to myself “well, it’s a little thing” but I’ve said to friends, “I have not taken probably 2,000 plastic bags in that period of time.” So that’s something, but I’m just thinking the little things like “so that’s reduced.”
In terms of reuse, most conscientious consumers and I don’t know what the percentage of conscientious consumers who were really focused and concerned about the environment is; do you have a ballpark number?
Beth: I think it depends on the issue. Maybe 75 percent of Americans surveyed think recycling is important. They believe that it matters but there’s also a hefty amount of those folks who don’t quite understand how it works or are confused by the labeling and things like that. The values and the thinking of recycling, thinking of waste reduction as a priority is generally pretty high amongst individuals in the U.S. but it’s like “how do we do this?”
Sally: So what are some things that people do recycle but they shouldn’t or things that simply aren’t recycled properly?
Beth: So this is my time to always encourage people to look up their local recycling guidelines and that helps to avoid contaminating our bins at home of course and sometimes cities or counties might have their own search engines set up. I know DC where I live, you can go to Zero Waste DC and then plug in whatever item you’re looking to recycle and it will tell you how you can dispose of it in the district. A general resource is earth911 and that’s a really great resource where you type in the item you’re trying to recycle and the zip code and it will advise you on the best thing.
That includes sometimes unique items so stuff that shouldn’t go in the bin, it can be recycled through another channel like batteries or something like that that just has a different channel for recycling. So that’s a great resource but I think oh man, things that people often recycle but shouldn’t. One big example I have to say is the b-plastic bag; so tanglers which includes plastic bags or maybe garden hoses or holiday lights, these items that sort of act as tanglers go through the recycling.
They get collected in our curbside bins, they get taken to a sorting facility, and then can really get stuck in the machinery at sorting facilities which actually causes the entire sorting facility, this massive production to halt. Then workers actually have to climb into the machines and manually cut out tangled up plastic bags and things like that so I always advise people to consider the folks on the other side of the bin and what they’re having to contend with and try to keep the tanglers out of the bin so that’s one. I think another problem is just putting stuff in the bin that’s not emptied out so empty and dry is kind of a good rule of thumb.
For example, like an orange juice bottle that’s not emptied out and stuff like that. Sometimes recyclers have told me that they’ll find half-full ketchup bottles and it decreases the market quality and value of the container that it’s in. But it also could in a single stream system risk getting some ketchup or saturating cardboard or something that’s a more porous item. So yeah, just try to empty out items and keep out the tanglers is a great starting point but of course, always look up your local guidelines because recycling really does vary by community.
Sally: I’ve been riding down the block in my neighborhood and I see two mattresses that have been out for months that people put out; what happens to a mattress?
Beth: So mattresses, from my understanding there is a lot of potential. There’s wood in a mattress, sometimes metal’s in a mattress and I think there are different materials that can be used from it.
And I know that, I believe it’s the mattress, some sort of mattress council, it’s a name like a mattress recycling council or something to that effect has really tried to grow awareness about how much potential there is in mattresses. I, unfortunately, can’t speak to the detail of exactly what materials are in there but it’s sort of thinking about those items that we have in our homes that are really just like a complex mix of different materials and there can be markets for all of those.
Sally: Oh, that’s good so I’ll call and make sure that they get hauled away, that makes me feel a lot better. One day I was thinking about razors because razors are scary stuff, you don’t want to just throw them in the trash right?
Beth: Paracycle is a company that collects things that are hard to recycle basically. So razors might be one, contact lens cases, guitar strings, candy wrappers, all sorts of stuff that doesn’t go into our curbside bin. Paracycle is a company that tries to operate at a smaller scale than our typical packaging would operate in through a larger recycling system. And really try to identify buyers for some of these products that don’t really happen as much on the larger market level. So Terracycle, they do offer I think a great benefit and they’re trying to provide that service and capture these materials for recycling or repurposing or different things based on what material it is.
But I think it does get to that point where we’re looking back at the production side and we’re looking back at how we’re producing items and how our recycling system itself is able to modernize the infrastructure challenges there. I think Terracycle and these sort of drop-off programs we could say are like special mail-in programs, are really great and that they’re just trying to address a problem. They’re trying to address a symptom of maybe a larger systemic issue so I think there’s a lot of benefit to them definitely.
Sally: And they’re run by industry players as I understand it like some of the big three or four industry players that make household products have gotten together. And I’m very glad to hear that you think they’re important and they’re doing a good job and play an important role in the whole conception of how we improve our sustainability. For consumers though, are they a viable option for the average consumer to use it, a Terracycle?
Beth: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think Terracycle, depending on what you’re looking for you could find on their website, they generally have maps so it might be for example, contact lenses because wear contact lenses so I’ll go with that. The packaging that those lenses come in, Terracycle has a partnership with a contact lens company that helps fund this process basically. So it’s sort of like a special owned little recycling system that’s carved out and you can go on the map and look and enter in your zip code and see “okay, who’s collecting them near me?”
“Oh, maybe your ophthalmologist is collecting them, maybe there’s a store nearby” so there are opportunities for drop-off that are sometimes free. But I do want to emphasize that the boxes themselves if you decide that you want to collect toothpaste tubes or something through one of the Terracycle boxes, those do come at a cost. People would have to pay for the box and then covers the shipment to send it back but there is that sort of barrier to participating in some of these processes.
I think that’s a challenge for operating in this way, but again I think things like Terracycle are sort of filling a need that maybe speaks to a larger issue of looking at that design stage. How are we designing these things, how are we modernizing our recycling collection and what are our markets doing? How are we incentivizing more demand for recycled materials to really make sure that we’re closing that loop in the broader sense?
Sally: If you were appointed Czar of Sustainability Beth, what are some of the moves you’d make to improve the sustainability practices in America? And I think you should be appointed now that we have czar’s in the White House, many czar’s, why not sustainability right?
Beth: Yeah, why not? And I think again, my involvement with the policy side of things is a little limited but I have been optimistic I will say about what I’ve seen in just the last couple of weeks with the new announcements from the Biden Harris administration. The priority of climate specifically and there’s climate czars and committees and really spreading that throughout the government rather than keeping it in one agency or one program. Really identifying that, addressing the climate crisis as a whole larger issue to even talk about but it requires so much thinking at all of these different levels because it affects everything.
So I guess if I were appointed Czar of Sustainability, there would be a mountain of things I would love to do. I think I would have to say because of the work I do on climate and greenhouse gas emissions, I think we’d want to identify how it can serve the fight on the climate crisis and to really work to reduce emissions. And to really try to identify practices that have that balance between cutting down climate polluting emissions and also promoting circularity and waste reduction and there’s just a lot of I guess fertile ground in that area to really satisfy both of those goals.
So everything would be in service of addressing the climate crisis, but I think looking at sustainability I’d really look at some of those system-level changes we were talking about. Trying to work on standardization of labeling at that level even just so people can understand what we need to do really trying to drive up demand for recycled materials to make sure we’re not just collecting them but we’re actually using them. And to try to build up those second-hand markets and really emphasize repair; a lot of things we’ve talked about I think would be very beneficial at the national level.
And to see that that grow to become the norm rather than the exception and to really make sustainability the default rather than this sort of unique or niche market or action like this. That we are operating within systems that really just encourage us to do that specifically as the default so there’s a lot that I think we can do for sustainability but I have full faith in what I’ve seen so far coming out of the new administration.
Sally: Yeah, that’s encouraging but I think one of the things we pointed out in our report is there’s a lot of confusing information as you’ve said and not really clear direction to consumers. So even though we have that Mobius loop that is brilliant, it in practical terms is rather meaningless. I’m looking at a bottle that is from Florida and it’s called Zephyrhills and the bottle is water and it says “I’m not trash” on it and so it has a little QR code and you go to the QR code and scan it. But what’s interesting is it says “I’m not trash” it says “Made better” and when you go to that QR code it’s not really clear what they want you to do with the bottle.
I’m pointing that out because I think there are so much confusion and consumers who want to do the right thing are not really given good guidelines for doing it so what’s your best advice? You’ve given us some tips about you can call earth, earth911 and put in whatever it is that you might be interested in recycling. I mean even oil, let’s say you fry up a bunch of chicken or something and you have leftover oil, what do you do with that? I was visiting a friend in Cleveland and I called up Cleveland Heights Municipality and they said “if you put it out with your recycling we’ll pick it up” but Washington DC doesn’t have that option.
Beth: Yeah, it definitely depends on where you are and I think that there might be a different market for restaurants for example with disposing of cooking oil in New York. That’s really common that they are directed to put out their cooking oil in a specific container I believe so that it will be reused in a new way, but I think that the note you made about labeling is really important because it is. One of the classic examples of the three arrows, the Mobius loop is that they are used on plastic products like bottles, everything with that small number in the three arrows.
Those numbers are supposed to be an identification signal to show what kind of plastic resin was used in a product of course but like placing it within the recycling symbol is so confusing and very I would argue misleading at this point. Because we know that it causes this confusion, so whatever the intention was when that was decided to be used as a resin identification symbol. Now we know what the impact of it is and it’s time to try and change that because it confuses people to think they can put anything in the recycling bin and it will be recycled.
And that doesn’t look at the larger picture of the market demand or actual recycling capabilities that we currently have and so I think clearer labeling is important. But transparent and honest labeling is so important that yeah, I think we definitely need to address that. There is a label called the ‘How to Recycle Label’ with the number two so some folks may have seen that popping up on items in the store. And that provides I think a bit more context where it tries to look at what’s widely recyclable or what’s not widely recyclable in different communities and identify what it’s talking about.
So on a plastic bottle for example, it would be widely recyclable, most recycling programs take plastic bottles and it would advise you to make sure it’s emptied out, replace the lid and put it in the bin. So it sort of tells you not just like if it’s recyclable or not, yes or no but also what you might need to do before you put it in the bin to really help out with that process. I think things like that are helpful cues maybe more so than a QR code that doesn’t tell you what to do.
Sally: Well actually, I stand corrected so what they did at the beginning and I’m just using this as an example. In the beginning they tell about how wonderful their water is and where it’s from but at the bottom, it says “Designed for recycling. Our bottles are designed to be 100 percent recyclable when empty. Remember to put the cap on, we use number one pep plastic which can be recycled over and over and over again.” Is that true?
Beth: I definitely would challenge the notion of infinite recyclability for plastics, so this is something that has been coming up and we’re going to see it more. I would say with the rise of something that’s called chemical recycling, which I’m not a chemist so I can’t speak and link to it. But it is basically right now what we do is mechanical recycling so it’s sort of like breaking down materials into their raw state through using a mechanical process. But this is looking at more of a… I want to say just like molecular level even, it’s really changing the composition of a material back to its original state but there are a lot of concerns around chemical recycling of plastics.
Because of it’s far more energy-intensive than our current recycling processes which is of course a concern; you don’t want to drive up another very real and important environmental impact there. And also just the concern that the end product, the end amount of plastic that you get is just far lower than we would through a mechanical recycling process because of what gets essentially like burned during the process of chemical recycling. So the chemical recycling is something that I think classics industry folks are…many might be really hopeful about.
But that would be when we see a plastic item that says it’s infinitely recyclable, I would bet almost anything that they’re talking about chemical recycling which is very new; not fully understood, not fully developed. And I don’t think we have a clear sense of all the real impacts and risks of this as a process but plastics in general really degrades during the recycling process so you might get one or two uses out of a bit of plastic before it’s not usable anymore. Or you need to bring in what’s called a modifier of kind of virgin plastic to make it stronger enough to be used in a new product. Paper is a bit different so paper fibers are really strong that’s like a magazine, weaker paper fibers is like tissue paper. So the paper grades are sort of in this cascading process where you can use paper fibers for different products that require different strength levels.
Sally: Can I recycle my magazines then, does it make sense to throw them in the recycling bin even if they’re color?
Beth: Yeah, absolutely.
Sally: Okay, that’s really good to know. We’re coming to the end of our hour, it’s gone really fast.
Beth: I know, you’ve asked some great questions, thank you so much.
Sally: It was a lot of fun to talk to you and it’s so important but we really want to be laser-focused on consumer information that’s accurate and helpful. I think you started out by saying consumers have really changed the dynamic by using social media to write to companies. And say maybe the Coke or Pepsi or your product has too much wrapping on it and packaging on it for something so small, I’ve got to go through many layers; that’s wasteful.
So one of the tips would be to use social media, that Twitter or Instagram or Reddit or what have you, Facebook, to go onto the sites of companies where you have concerns as a consumer; tweet at them or write that you’re concerned about this. You’ve seen that make a difference?
Beth: Yes, absolutely and another thing I would suggest is maybe just searching on the internet for a company name you might be curious about and sustainability or campaigns or petitions or something. Then you would see if maybe an organization is actually working on a particular issue so you can contact them on social media. And then also signing a petition and using kind of a collective voice so to speak through petitions and online actions to really urge a company. That does bring attention from a company perspective in my experience and in the campaigns that I’ve worked on.
Those petitions can really make the difference between an organization going to speak to a company as an organization and then going with thousands of individual consumers saying we want something better. We want something better for the planet, we want something better for public health, whatever the issue is and really pushing that pressure point in a very collective way so I think that’s really powerful. Folks will write directly to companies through email, whatever works for them because I talk to people who are like I’m not on social media which is totally fine.
Sally: But there’s usually a 1-800 number on a lot of products, we really want there always to be a 1-800 number on products, I think that’s a sign that they’re actually open to hearing back assuming somebody’s answering the phone. In terms of incentivizing sustainability from the beginning, San Francisco band plastic bottles right?
Beth: Oh yeah, we have a bag caps.
Sally: That has reduced massively from my understanding the number of plastic bags people use.
Beth: Yeah, it does help and I haven’t seen hard numbers on this but I do know that there’s been a bit of a push back. I think there was a lot of push back at the start of the pandemic because we weren’t sure exactly how this virus is transmitted, we wanted to be safe and so there was a push to use single-use plastic bags. And sort of like push back against some of those bands and then the industry has done a lot of work to really try to keep that in place.
They want to see more single-use plastic products in demand even though we’ve seen a lot of evidence, we’ve seen folks from all around the world, and different scientists say reusables are fine as long as they’ve been washed; it’s okay. But still that continues to be a challenge.
Sally: Do you like bottle deposits for reducing waste?
Beth: Yeah, the results of bottle deposits I believe speak for themselves. I think they really do drive up recycling rates and they from what I’ve seen have been shown to reduce contamination within the system particularly around like glass and things like that. So I think there’s a lot of potential with bottle deposits. Right now, I know there are just a few states that have them, I think there’s interest from a few folks in Congress to really try to see if we can get a national container deposit system passed. Whatever that might look like, I think it could be really beneficial.
Sally: We’d be interested in working on that. I’m sure we’ve missed a few items and one thing I want to make sure people know is that we do have federal legislation. Right now, unfortunately, it’s only democrats; break free from the plastic pollution act. Before we go just tell us about that divide, is this like a blue issue, is this a bipartisan issue? If it’s not bipartisan, why isn’t it and what can we do about that?
Beth: What’s interesting is I’ve found in my research and work that recycling tends to be pretty bipartisan and it is an area where there’s a lot of overlap or recycling or waste reduction, pollution, there is that. But it’s really the approach of how do we go about fixing it.
There are some legislation that’s been introduced that’s got a lot of industry support but that environmental groups including myself would say don’t go far enough, don’t look at the larger system. Don’t really identify the roots of the problem so to speak in the way that a bill like break free from plastic pollution act does, but a bill like that would require a lot of change on the part of industry. It would be pretty sweeping change I would say and so there’s a lot of hesitation from my understanding from folks on the industry side. And that tends to be I guess more democrats to maybe focus on the advocacy and the environmental side based on what we’re seeing and in the way that support is divided up on this bill.
There’s one bill that I’ve seen wide support for called ‘The Recycle Act’ and that really focuses on education and providing financial support to states and municipalities for more comprehensive recycling education and working to reduce contamination. I think that is a particular area where it seems like almost everyone tends to agree including myself that is really important.
Sally: Beth, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about this. If consumers want more information from your organization or they want tips, I know you’ve written this great book. Is there anything that we should be telling consumers that we haven’t discussed that might give them better sense and guidance about how to be more sustainable in their own daily lives?
Beth: Yeah, absolutely and I did work to really try to include ideas for the three R’s in the book but beyond that, looking at the larger environmental movement; greenamerica.org, the organization I work for. We work on a lot of different issues; climate, food, labor issues, so if folks want to go to our website they can learn a lot more about ways to get involved with our different campaigns. There’s a ton of resources for how to kind of green your home, your community and beyond and so I would really recommend folks checking that out. And working to reduce buying from our houses so to speak, using what we already have but when we do buy something new, trying to support small green businesses.
Really looking to support businesses that prioritize being environmentally and socially responsible. We have a lot of great information on our website as well about some of those businesses all across the country in different areas that folks can support so a lot of great information on the site. I hope everyone will go check it out and reach out to us with more questions.
Sally: Thank you Beth Porter, the author of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Re-imagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System’ for spending the time with us.