By Shera Dolmatz
Plastic waste has become a global crisis. Science magazine reports that “by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight.”
In 2018 the EPA announced that the US made over 35 million tons of plastics, but only 8.7% of plastics were recycled, leaving 91.3% of plastic headed to the landfill or escaping to pollute oceans and streams.
Although recycling plastic waste may seem like an answer, it is challenging.
Recycling labels are not at all as simple as they appear.
On the bottom of many plastic items is a chasing arrow logo with a number, which consumers have been led to believe indicates that the item is recyclable. Initially, the purpose was to identify the kind of plastic resin used to make the container so containers could be sorted for recycling. In practice, the resin number does not mean a container gets recycled.
Even ASTM International–the organization that administers the Resin Identification Code (RIC) system–states that the “Resin Identification Codes are not recycle codes.”
In fact, the labels are so misleading that the Sierra Club has decried them as deceptive.
On June 16, the Sierra Club and a group of California consumers filed federal lawsuits against Coca-Cola, Niagara, and a subsidiary of Nestle, BlueTriton. The suits allege that labelling claims about the full recyclability of their bottles are false and violate consumer and environmental protection laws.
Consumers have been led to believe that everything that has a chasing arrows logo will be recycled. To address this confusion, ASTM International in 2013 altered its symbols to a triangle instead of chasing arrows, but manufacturers are not required to use the new symbol.
In the South Bay the waste services, Athens, EDCO, and Waste Management accept all seven types of plastics in their recycling bins, but not everything accepted is recycled. They don’t accept plastic bags, but your supermarket may take them, along with popped air pillow packaging.
The unfortunate truth is that in many cases it’s cheaper to manufacture a new item than too recycle materials.
What can we do about it? One way to increase recycling is to monetarily incentivize it. Enter bottle bills.
These laws provide an incentive to capture enough material to meet manufacturers’ needs so they can incorporate more recycled material into their products. However, passing or strengthening bottle bills can be challenging and recently redemption centers have been disappearing, exacerbating the situation.
In January 2020, the Los Angeles Times, reported that 45 of Los Angeles County’s 88 cities have no recycling centers. When RePlanet closed recently the state lost 20% of its can and bottle deposit redemption centers. To make matters worse, last year a bottle bill proposed in California failed.
Good news may be on the horizon. On July 21, the non-profit environmental research and advocacy organization, Californians Against Waste announced that a new measure that provides a proposal to solve the state’s plastic waste crisis will appear on the November 2022 ballot.
The measure addresses product manufacturing, disposal and recycling, polluted habitat restoration, and neighborhood clean-up via a one cent per item fee on manufacturers of plastic goods. The funds will be raised for investments in communities and natural resources to mitigate the harm caused by plastic pollution. In addition, there is a national effort to create a new recycling label that will be clearer which is spearheaded by a group called How2Recycle. This group is part of The Sustainable Packaging Coalition and is a membership-based collaborative working with corporations to make packaging more sustainable.
There is hope for a manageable plastic future on a national, legal, and corporate level. At home we can support organizations such as How2Recycle and legislation that addresses the crisis. We can do our part to limit plastics by practicing the environmental golden rule: reduce, reuse, recycle and renew.