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The Problem with Plastics

In Breaking News, Featured, Morning Magazine, Zero Waste

 

Most of the plastic we produce goes to the landfill where it sits in perpetuity or gets washed out to sea. A recent publication in the Journal Nature reports that a mass of plastic six times the size of Colorado is floating in the ocean between California and Hawaii. And, if nothing is done about it by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean – by weight – than fish.

So why don’t we recycle more than 9% of all the plastic we produce? The answer, says Jack DeBell, the Development Director for Recycling in the CU Environmental Center, is that not all plastics are created equally.

“Fiber is fiber, glass is glass, aluminum is aluminum, but when it comes to plastics, there’s a host of different resin types,” he says. Those differences mean plastic can’t be mixed or matched to create a post market product; each type has to be separated per those numbers at the bottom of the containers. But even then, we can’t recycle everything. “We lack the infrastructure and technology,” DeBell says. But that’s not all, according to Boulder-Based EcoCycle’s Harlin Savage.

“There are plastics that nobody wants so they are not recyclable because there’s not a market for them. That would be things like single use convenience items: straws, takeout containers, food grade Styrofoam. So it’s not recyclable, it’s not valuable.”

China used to buy a lot of the United States’ discarded plastic, but a new initiative called the “National Sword Policy” put an end to that. Now, China has banned 24 types of solid waste and imposed high standards of cleanliness on recycled containers. So, high, says DeBell, that recycling facilities here just can’t meet.

“[China is] necessarily concerned what the quality of the export recyclables have become due to single stream recycling and other failures of some of our technologies to get this stuff clean for their markets.” – Jack DeBell

But DeBell says it’s not time to panic; we have other opportunities in Vietnam and Korea… as long as we can get most of the product clean.

In Boulder, that’s not a problem. The trash we do recycle gets fairly clean, says Harlin.

Cleanliness combined with identified domestic after-market options puts Boulder on good standing. So far, none of the recyclable items sent to EcoCycle ever see the landfill. That said, Boulder County still only recycles 30% of its trash, at most.

Plastics number 1, 2 and 5 are marketed domestically. Plastic number 4 is a foam that can be recycled at the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, but not in your single-stream cart.

For a complete list of what you can recycle in Boulder County, click here.

KGNU is partnering with Eco-Cycle in a year long series on zero waste issues, funded by a grant from Boulder County.

Listen to the whole story here: