Archives: April 2013

Plastics Task Force

                Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling

Misconception # 1: Plastics that go into a curbside recycling bin get recycled.

Not necessarily. Collecting plastic containers at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new containers. In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers from Berkeley are being made into containers again but into new secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all unrecyclable products. This does not reduce the use of virgin materials in plastic packaging. “Recycled” in this case merely means “collected,” not reprocessed or converted into useful products.

Misconception # 2: Curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled.

Not necessarily. If establishing collection makes plastic packages seem more environmentally friendly, people may feel comfortable buying more. Curbside plastic collection programs, intended to reduce municipal plastic waste, might backfire if total use rises faster than collection. Since only a fraction of certain types of plastic could realistically be captured by a curbside program, the net impact of initiating curbside collection could be an increase in the amount of plastic landfilled. The Berkeley pilot program showed no reduction of plastic being sent to the landfill in the areas where the curbside collection was in operation. Furthermore, since most plastic reprocessing leads to secondary products that are not themselves recycled, this material is only temporarily diverted from landfills.

Misconception # 3: A chasing arrows symbol means a plastic container is recyclable.

The arrows are meaningless. Every plastic container is marked with the chasing arrows symbol. The only information in the symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. The attorneys general of 11 states objected to false and misleading claims about plastic recyclability. The recent settlement that they reached with the American Plastics Council paves the way for a first-ever definition of what claims can or cannot be made about plastic recycling and recyclability.

Misconception # 4: Packaging resins are made from petroleum refineries’ waste.

Plastic resins are made from non-renewable natural resources that could be used for a variety of other applications or conserved. Most packaging plastics are made from the same natural gas used in homes to heat water and cook.

Misconception # 5: Plastics recyclers pay to promote plastics’ recyclability.

No; virgin resin producers pay for the bulk of these ads. Most such ads are placed by virgin plastic manufacturers whose goal is to promote plastic sales. These advertisements are aimed at removing or diminishing virgin plastic’s greatest challenge to market expansion: negative public conception of plastic as unrecyclable, environmentally harmful, and a major component of wastes that must be landfilled or burned.

Misconception # 6: Using plastic containers conserves energy.

When the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers from virgin materials, and much more than making glass containers from recycled materials. Using refillables is the most energy conservative.

Misconception # 7: Our choice is limited to recycling or wasting.

Source reduction is preferable for many types of plastic and isn’t difficult. Opportunities include using refillable containers, buying in bulk, buying things that don’t need much packaging, and buying things in recyclable and recycled packages

Plastic packaging has economic, health, and environmental costs and benefits. While offering advantages such as flexibility and light weight, it creates problems including: consumption of fossil resources; pollution; high energy use in manufacturing; accumulation of wasted plastic in the environment; and migration of polymers and additives into foods.

Plastic container producers do not use any recycled plastic in their packaging. Recycled content laws could reduce the use of virgin resin for packaging. Unfortunately, the virgin&endash;plastics industry has resisted such cooperation by strongly opposing recycled -content legislation, and has defeated or weakened consumer efforts to institute stronger laws. Plastic manufacturers recently decided that they will not add post consumer materials to their resins used in the USA.

There is a likelihood that establishing plastics collection might increase consumption by making plastic appear more ecologically friendly both to consumers and retailers. Collecting plastics at curbside could legitimize the production and marketing of packaging made from virgin plastic. Studies of garbage truck loads during the recent plastic pick-up pilot program showed no reduction of “recyclable” plastic containers being thrown away in the pilot areas (in fact, there was a slight increase). Due in part to increased plastic use, glass container plants around the country have been closing, including Anchor Glass Container Corporation in Antioch, putting 300 people out of work

Plastic recycling costs much and does little to achieve recycling goals. Our cost/benefit analysis for implementing curbside plastics collection in Berkeley shows that curbside collection of discarded plastics: involves expensive processing; has limited benefits in reducing environmental impacts; and has limited benefits in diverting resources from waste.

Processing used plastics often costs more than virgin plastic. As plastic producers increase production and reduce prices on virgin plastics, the markets for used plastic are diminishing. PET recyclers cannot compete with the virgin resin flooding the market.

Increasing the capture rates of glass, paper or yard debris in Berkeley could divert more resources from landfills than collecting plastics at curbside. The “recyclable” plastic to be collected in Berkeley at most would only amount to 0.3% of the waste stream.

Five Strategies to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Plastics

1. Reduce the use
Source reduction Retailers and consumers can select products that use little or no packaging. Select packaging materials that are recycled into new packaging – such as glass and paper. If people refuse plastic as a packaging material, the industry will decrease production for that purpose, and the associated problems such as energy use, pollution, and adverse health effects will diminish.

2. Reuse containers
Since refillable plastic containers can be reused about 25 times, container reuse can lead to a substantial reduction in the demand for disposable plastic, and reduced use of materials and energy, with the consequent reduced environmental impacts. Container designers will take into account the fate of the container beyond the point of sale and consider the service the container provides. “Design for service” differs sharply from “design for disposal”.

3. Require producers to take back resins 
Get plastic manufacturers directly involved with plastic disposal and closing the material loop, which can stimulate them to consider the product’s life cycle from cradle to grave. Make reprocessing easier by limiting the number of container types and shapes, using only one type of resin in each container, making collapsible containers, eliminating pigments, using water-dispersible adhesives for labels, and phasing out associated metals such as aluminum seals. Container and resin makers can help develop the reprocessing infrastructure by taking back plastic from consumers.

4. Legislatively require recycled content 
Requiring that all containers be composed of a percentage of post-consumer material reduces the amount of virgin material consumed.

5. Standardize labeling and inform the public 
The chasing arrows symbol on plastics is an example of an ambiguous and misleading label. Significantly different standardized labels for “recycled,” “recyclable,” and “made of plastic type X” must be developed.

Sustainable Consumption

Plastic Bags: What About Recycling Them?

Today most shoppers at grocery stores and farmers’ markets carry home their fresh produce and other purchases in plastic bags. Plastic bags are also commonly used in most retail stores today, and few shoppers realize that the lightweight bags they take for granted cause serious environmental problems.

According to the Marine Conservation Society of the UK it takes 450 -1000 years for plastic bags to break down. Plastic in the marine environment never fully degrades. The end product of the break down, “plastic dust,” is ingested by filter feeding marine animals. The dust and the bio-toxins, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that the plastic dust accumulates, are passed up the food chain to fish and humans.

Biodegradable bags made of cornstarch and other degradable components do exist. However, they need air and light to break down, conditions which most landfills don’t provide. At best, biodegradable bags take months to years to break down, are more costly than plastic, and as a category comprise only a tiny fraction of the market. Some recycling coordinators predict that improvements in biodegradable bags may make them a more attractive and more affordable choice in the future.

Several chain markets and a few independent groceries offer a 1¢ to 5¢ cent per bag discount if customers bring their own bags. Safeway and Albertsons maintain collection bins for used plastic bags. In 2003 Safeway collected 7,000 tons of plastic grocery bags, pallet-wrap plastic, and dry cleaners’ bags. The plastic is sold to a company that makes Trex, lumber-like boards generated from plastic bags and “reclaimed pallet wood and waste wood.” Unfortunately, composite lumber made partly with plastic is not considered to be recyclable even though it may last a long time.

One grocery chain is selling very inexpensive reusable grocery bags made of plastic (non-woven polyethylene.) While these bags may encourage people to reuse grocery bags, they have significant drawbacks. They are estimated to last only two to three years; they are made of virgin (not recycled) plastic; they are not recyclable into more bags, and their plastic will likely be in the environment forever in one form or another. If you sniff these plastic shopping bags you may discover that they off-gas noticeably. In contrast, cloth bags of cotton or hemp will last for hundreds of shopping trips.

Some cities on the Peninsula collect plastic bags for recycling. The City of Palo Alto has collected plastic bags for recycling since mid-2002. In 2004 nearly 18 tons of plastic bags were collected.

Annette Puskarich, Recycling Coordinator for the City of Palo Alto points out that it is a misperception that recycling makes money. The broker who purchases recycled plastic bags from the City of Palo Alto pays the City $20 per ton for them only if they are baled. Considering the process of trucking the plastic bags to and from the recycling center and the expenditure of labor to handle and bale the bags, the preferred alternative to recycling plastic bags is not to use them at all, says Puskarich. She strongly recommends reusable cloth bags instead.

In 2004 San Jose collected 477 tons of plastic bags from a quarter of its single-family dwellings and all multi-family dwellings, according to W. McConkey, Public Relations Director of Green Team, San Jose’s recycling contractor. In contrast to Palo Alto and San Jose, Sunnyvale’s recycling program receives “very few” plastic bags for recycling, according to Solid Waste Contract Administrator Debbi Sargent, although information on plastic bag recycling is included on Sunnyvale’s web site. Several markets in Sunnyvale provide collection bins for used plastic bags.

Gloria Chan of San Francisco’s Department of Environment points out that San Francisco does not accept plastic bags in its single stream recycling mix and that at the present time they end up in landfill. She reports that plastic bags cause problems when they are incorrectly tossed into the single stream recycling mix and become tangled in the sorting machinery. When this happens the machines must be shut down to remove the bags. As in other cities, used plastic bags in San Francisco can be deposited in collection bins at certain grocery stores.

At the time of this writing San Francisco is considering a 17 cent surcharge on both plastic bags and paper bags at major supermarkets to encourage shoppers to use their own cloth bags. A study by the City of San Francisco determined that 17 cents is what it costs to handle each discarded plastic bag. If the surcharge is implemented, San Francisco may be the first city in the U.S. to introduce it.

The Berkeley Plastics Task Force says that plastic recycling programs may give people a false assurance concerning the benefits of recycling because processing used plastic can cost more than virgin plastic. Finding a market for used plastic is challenging, says the Task Force, because the manufacturers of virgin plastic strongly resist legislation requiring recycled content in their packaging products. Less expensive “…virgin resin [is] flooding the market,” thwarting the efforts of recyclers, says the Task Force.

Facing the Dirty Truth
About Recyclable Plastics

The recyclable plastic bags you get at the green grocer are not biodegradable. But product life-cycle assessments, which are about to become more prominent in the marketplace, fail to consider whether those bags will break down in landfills or just end up as litter.

by Steve Euliano

On a visit to India a while back I came upon a fenced empty field that was practically buried in flimsy white throwaway plastic bags, the kind you carry your purchases home in from the store. The locals joked that this was “the garden where plastic bags grew.”

But when I returned to India last month, I was pleasantly surprised to find that now when you shop in New Delhi, no store will give you a plastic bag for your purchases. They’re illegal there, as well as in many other Indian cities and states.

That puts India well ahead of most of the world when it comes to this particular ecological issue. Most everywhere in the U.S., for instance, the throwaway plastic bag remains the ubiquitous way people haul their stuff home from the local store. But those bags never biodegrade into anything that nature can use again.

Worse, the vast majority of such single-use plastic items never get recycled, and even “degradable” plastics may not degrade all that well. On top of that, product life-cycle assessments, which are on the verge of becoming more commonly available and used in the marketplace, do not include either litter or biodegradability as factors.

The news on some once-promising plastic alternatives is not so encouraging. A review published last month in Environmental Science and Technology by a group of scientists — one at the polymer science division of the Indian Institute of Technology — finds that “degradable

The news on once-promising plastic alternatives is not so encouraging.

polyethylenes,“ used in one type of “recyclable” plastic bags, do not really disintegrate back into nature. The polyethylenes in the plastic bags studied are made by adding metals like iron and cobalt to the mix of ethylene polymers, to speed up their oxidation. But while such hybrid plastic bags once discarded do, indeed, break into fragments relatively quickly, those shreds seem to persist for a long time. No one knows just how long — the number of long-term studies is zero.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of how oil and water don’t mix can be found in the middle of the planet’s great oceans and seas in the form of litter gyres, rotating currents laden with countless bits of floating debris, mainly plastic and Styrofoam, all of which were pushed to the middle of these great bodies of water by the currents that circle them.

While the so-called Eastern Garbage Patch at the center of the Pacific has received the most media attention, every great sea now has such a gyre, a rotating ring laden with plastics. The plastic in a gyre eventually breaks down into small bits, called nurdles, which never mix with water. Marine life at the heart of a gyre, reportedly, can subsist (or perish) on a diet of many times more nurdles than krill.

Pitcairn Island, in the middle of the Pacific, offers a particularly poignant testimonial to the toxic impacts of the plastic debris whirling about at the center of our seas. Albatrosses from all over come to these islands to breed and raise their babies. Plastic bottle caps, like those atop kids’ juice containers, are plucked out of the water by albatrosses and fed to their fledglings, killing them.

All this has led me to rethink an OpEd I co-authored in the New York Times two years ago, with an industrial ecologist, Gregory Norris. Using the tools and metrics of his craft, we computed the eco-math over their

Our analysis gave too little weight to the end-of-life consequences of plastic bottles.

entire life cycles to calculate whether a reusable steel water bottle was better or worse for the planet than single-use plastic water bottles. The computations on trade-offs compared their relative impacts. The steel bottle required seven times as much fossil fuel as a single plastic bottle, released 14 times more greenhouse gases, used hundreds of times more metal resources, and posed far more toxic risk to people and ecosystems.

We compared these to the “costs” of the plastic bottle in fuels, energy and emissions. This led us to determine a tipping point: If you were persistent enough to replace 500 plastic water bottles by instead refilling the steel bottle, the steel was the better choice. But now I feel our life cycle analysis gave too little weight to the end-of-life consequences of plastic bottles.

Steel is infinitely recyclable with a robust market. Most single-use plastic — like those shopping bags as well as water bottles — never gets recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tells us that only about 9 percent of plastic bags are ever recycled in the U.S. And a mere 7 percent of all plastics end up being recycled (which would allow a true “cradle-to-cradle” reuse).

“Litter is a blind spot in the LCA [life cycle assessment] world,” Gregory Norris said, when I recently raised this issue with him. “A few industrial ecologists have talked about the need to make this a standard category in LCAs — there’s no reason it couldn’t be.”

Norris suggests this would require a further step, specifically a working group to do some “fate modeling” of products like plastics, zeroing in on their end-of-life impacts. “If we did fate modeling for plastic bags and bottles,” Norris added, “that might mobilize the plastic industry and their B2B [business-to-business] customers to solve this problem.” Tim Grant,

Environmental groups are lobbying for laws that curtail or ban single-use plastic bags.

an industrial ecologist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia, has been raising the issue for a decade. With Karli James of the Sustainable Products division of RMIT, Grant published a demonstration of life cycle assessments on the varieties of shopping bags— paper, standard, and degradable. The LCA compared bags made with six types of degradable polymers (ranging from those made mainly from corn starch, to those with 30 percent starch from cassava plants) with bags made from materials like cotton and paper, including those made from the materials evaluated in the Environmental Science and Technology article published last month. However, the question of biodegradability was not answered by the RMIT study; the article was simply a theoretical demonstration that such a life-cycle assessment could be done.

Including plastic litter in product life cycle assessments may seem a trivial matter. But given the growing interest in making this assessment data transparent and more readily available in the consumer and business-to-business marketplace, this small step could have major impacts. In a world where transparent LCA comparisons could begin to substantially shift purchasing decisions, the inclusion of a litter metric becomes consequential.

In the meantime, nonprofits like the Plastics Pollution Coalition (PPC) are pursuing other strategies. The coalition is campaigning to inspire individuals to refuse single-use plastics and reduce their overall plastic footprint; to urge manufacturers to own the entire lifecycle of plastic products; and to persuade policy makers to formulate regulations like the legislation in Germany that makes companies responsible for their waste, which has boosted plastic recycling rates to 60 percent.

A fourth strategy: to encourage polymer scientists to develop viable bioplastics. “None of the alternatives are what they should be,” Daniella Russo, the PPC’s executive director, says. “For an alternative plastic to succeed, it should be non-toxic over its entire life cycle, fully biodegradable in all situations, and cost competitive.”


Pervasive Plastics: Why New,
Tighter Controls Are Needed


Plastics are in everything from diapers to water bottles to cell phones. But given the proven health threats of some plastics — as well as the enormous environmental costs — the time has come for the U.S. to pass a comprehensive plastics control law, writes John Wargo.

The PPC is one of many environmental groups lobbying for laws like those passed in San Jose and Palo Alto, Calif., that curtail or ban single-use plastic bags, or put a surcharge on them. That strategy makes sense. Laws like India’s have been surprisingly effective. China, the world’s largest user of plastic bags, saw the numbers of bags drop by half with a recent law requiring stores to charge for them. In Ireland, a similar law has seen use of the bags drop from an average of 330 used per person per year, to just 20.

But on my return to the U.S. from Delhi, I stopped on the way from the airport to pick up some groceries for the next day at a “green” branch of a national supermarket chain. Coming directly from the airport, I didn’t have my reusable shopping bags with me — and so ended up lugging groceries home in three single-use plastic bags.

Scientists hatch plan to recycle eggshells into plastic

“Go to work on an egg” was the slogan of a successful British television advert and “green chemists” from the UK are doing just that with plans to create plastics made from eggshells. Scientists from the University of Leicester in England are experimenting with a process that extracts the proteins found in eggshells, called glycosaminoglycans, which are commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry to help people with cartilage and connective tissue problems. The aim of the current project is to adapt the proteins to create a starch-based plastic that could then “bulk up” existing plastics and be molded into anything from shop fitting to supermarket meal trays.