Confounded by Plastic Threats and Unclear Recycling Rules


I remember watching the film “The Graduate” years ago. The movie begins with a young Dustin Hoffman as a college graduate. There’s a party scene at the family’s swimming pool. What field should this young man pursue in the mid-1960s? Someone whispers in his ear, “Plastics!” Today it would probably be software, but the business acumen was on the mark back then.   

Have you ever thought about the long-term effects of plastic building materials on the environment? To be honest, I’ve never thought about it until lately when I bought some new deck chairs and outdoor furniture. I don’t have a lot of storage space, so the fact that I could leave them outside in the elements was appealing. I really didn’t pay attention to what they were made of. I was told the vinyl was long lasting, and that idea was fine with me. 

Many of the beach houses on Long Beach Island have been “Disneyized” to look retro or quaint. In fact, most of the world is beginning to look like the 1900s only bigger, better and plasticized. Think shopping centers, amusement parks and our houses and yards. Think old-fashioned-looking gazebos with modern materials. Many homes sport vinyl siding, decks and the ubiquitous white picket fences. To be honest, I have never considered the consequences of using these materials.

According to a group called Safe Markets, PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a toxic material. This group claims it is unsafe for our health and environment. Such materials expose children and all of us to harmful chemical additives. Yikes, I just bought a cute “plastic” rubber ducky for my baby granddaughter!

An article by Safe Markets sums it up this way: “There is no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of this highly hazardous plastic.” It claims that “many of the world’s Fortune 500 companies have adopted cutting edge policies to phase out and eliminate its use. This includes big box retailers like IKEA and Target as well as Apple and auto manufacturers including Honda and Volkswagen.”

Really? I wonder about my laptop, my car, plastic dishes and my new long-lasting deck furniture. The chairs are made of high-density polyethylene (nicknamed HOPE) and will last outdoors in all sorts of temperatures. It is not the same as PVC and I get the idea it is safer, but I would have to be a chemist to know the difference.

There is also the issue of toys, dinnerware and all the vinyl things we use every day. Plastic forks, boats, inner tubes and furniture are the new normal. I frequently don’t know what to recycle. I puzzle over the containers holding salads, dips and foods from the grocery store. Yogurt containers, sour cream, hummus, potato salads – you get the picture. What should I  do? Should I toss them in the recycling can, or will this mess up the whole system? Is it better not to waste water washing out a peanut butter jar and just toss it in the garbage?

Much has been made of the ban of plastic bags and straws on the Island, and I’m all for saving dolphins, turtles and all ocean life. I have read, however, that a greater problem is fishing line, which is often made of PVC and is killing all sorts of wildlife in and out of the sea. I don’t know what we can do about this problem, if anything. We certainly need to fish, but I would like more input. The Audubon Society suggests cutting leftover monofilament line in 6-inch pieces before disposing of it. 

I have read the Long Beach Township calendar’s recycling instructions. “No gray pizza boxes, no margarine or yogurt containers, etc.” Am I being silly to puzzle over white pizza boxes? The instructions state “no microwave containers.” That leaves a lot of other containers up for grabs.

Are the numbers on the bottom of plastic dishes and boxes still viable? Are the Ocean County rules the same as the towns on Long Beach Island? On and on my questions go, but perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. It might be a good idea to have a township-wide talk with some instructions on how to throw out stuff properly. Is there something I could Google? Am I the only one confused?

I spoke of an old movie and segued to present time. Even an older and wiser “graduate” might be confused about how to handle this plethora of plastic. 

Kathleen Donnelly lives in Beach Haven Terrace.

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