Plastic Bottles Could Become Environmentalists’ Next Target

China No Longer Taking Them for Recycling, Creating a Logjam
Aug 08, 2018

The fight over whether or not to ban single-use plastic bags from stores has been a big battle in Southern Ocean County, engendering multiple letters to the SandPaper editor for months. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article headlined “The Summer of Plastic-Straw Bans.” In recent months, the WSJ reported, cities all over the country, including New York, San Francisco, Miami Beach, Santa Barbara and Portland, Ore., have proposed or passed bans on single-use plastic straws while last month Seattle became the first major U.S. city to put such a ban into effect. Major companies such as Starbucks and Disney have announced they are phasing out plastic straws.

Bags, straws, what’s next?  Plastic bottles are a prime suspect.

As of Jan. 1, China banned the importation of 24 types of foreign waste, one of which was plastic bottles. The ban had nothing to do with President Trump’s trade war. Instead, a Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection statement explained why – “We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used for raw (recycling) materials. This has polluted China’s environment seriously.”

Much of the problem, experts say, was caused by the growing popularity of single-stream recycling, which allows consumers to toss all recyclables into the same container, thus making home recycling far easier. Recycling centers, such as the one owned by the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste, were left with the unenviable job of sorting the materials. Despite their best efforts, cross-contamination was an unintended consequence of single-stream recycling. In other words, an increase in quantity led to a decrease in quality.

Indeed, the problem had become so bad in New Jersey that the state Department of Environmental Protection shot off a letter in May to all New Jersey mayors, administrators and clerks about recycling contamination issues. It started by praising municipalities for their three-decade-long recycling efforts. Then, however, it addressed contamination.

“Despite these successes, we know that recycling programs like the one in your town are facing a significant new challenge that undermines the success of our state’s recycling efforts. This challenge stems from the troubling increase in non-acceptable items that are mixed in with designated recyclable materials collected at the curb. These non-acceptable items that make their way into residential recycling buckets include everything from plastic shopping bags and garden hoses to polystyrene cups and plastic toys. Such ‘contamination’ creates serious quality control issues and negatively impacts the marketability of the materials collected, as well as the economics of recycling. We want to make you aware of a few strategies available to help remedy this situation and hope you will consider implementing them as part of your recycling program.”

The DEP, citing examples such as the recycling program of Fair Lawn, recommended increased public recycling education, a.k.a. notification, and enforcement that includes inspection of garbage and recyclable containers that can result in warnings and violation letters.

China had announced its policy in July 2017 in a notice filed with the World Trade Organization. Many WTO members objected, with the U.S., European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada asking for a transitional period of up to five years.

China stuck to its guns. The effect on other countries was almost immediate.

Since 1992, China had imported about 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste. Perhaps other developing Asian nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia will eventually pick up the slack. But in the meantime cities, states and nations all over the world are coping – or not coping – with growing piles of plastic trash.

Bales of plastic scrap are piling up on San Francisco’s Pier 96. Baltimore County, Md., has diverted about a third of its recyclables into landfills.

Oregon has approved waivers for plastic bottles to be dumped into landfills instead of being recycled. So has Massachusetts. And these are two of the most liberal states in the Union.

Poland – that’s right, Poland – had experienced 63 waste dump fires by the end of May, including 27 large ones (one required 250 firefighters to work two days to put it out), up from 37 such fires for the total of last year. Polish Environmental Minister Henryk Kowalczyk said the problem resulted from illegal imports of the products banned by China that were then torched to destroy evidence.

Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management Director Ernest J. Kuhlwein said Ocean County still has a company that will take its plastic bottles. But he did see a warning sign that plastic bottle recycling could become a serious problem.

The price that recyclers are willing to pay for plastic bottles, Kuhlwein said, has remained level despite the fact that oil prices are going up. The price should be rising.

When oil prices are depressed, it is cheaper to make new plastic bottles, which are made from petroleum, than to recycle used plastic bottles, which must be cleaned and prepared. The price for a barrel of Brent crude fell to under $30 in 2016 (thus the cheap price for a gallon of gas that we long for today). It crossed the $60 a barrel mark earlier this year and, on Aug. 7, stood at $74.55 as the market neared the closing bell. So the price for plastic bottles that will be recycled should be going up.

It’s not. Kuhlwein said the price that Ocean County could sell its plastic bottles for remains the same as when oil was at $30 a gallon. And now we’re dealing with the loss of the China market.

You’re probably aware that U.S. companies have been exporting jobs for years because of cheaper labor. The U.S. got used to exporting its recyclables as well for the same reason. Now it will have to scramble to be able to recycle its own plastic bottles, which won’t be easy. According to the Sierra Club, a new plastics recycling plant hasn’t been built in the U.S. since 2003.

Bottles use a lot more plastic than straws. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to foresee plastic bottles becoming the next target of environmentalists.

— Rick Mellerup

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