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Op-Ed: Upset about the plastic crisis? Stop trying so hard

Roland Geyer, THE GUARDIAN

id you ever decide to get off a jammed freeway and take the backroads even though deep down you knew that it wouldn’t be any faster? Are you constantly switching to the faster lane on a busy freeway even though you notice that cars sticking to their lanes keep catching up with you?

Both are examples of action bias, the phenomenon in which people prefer doing something over doing nothing, even if the likely outcome of the action is worse than the outcome of inaction. Research has shown that actively managed portfolios tend to do worse than passive investments. And one study found that soccer goalkeepers prefer to jump left or right during a penalty-kick, even though the best thing would be to stay put in the middle.

A prime case study of how action bias gets in the way of solving environmental problems is plastic in the oceans. The discovery of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch alerted the world to the issue of plastic marine debris. It turned out to be everywhere, not just in that specific patch or any of the other large circulating ocean currents known as gyres. In fact, there is growing consensus that only a minute fraction of all ocean plastic is on the surface, and that the vast majority is probably on the ocean floor. This has not stopped a growing number of ocean plastic action heroes from wanting to clean up the gyres.

The best known of them, The Ocean Cleanup, last year launched a 2,000ft-long boom, made of plastic, to gather plastic in the North Pacific Gyre. Unfortunately, the boom didn’t work, broke apart and had to be towed back onshore. Even if we also somehow figured out how to vacuum plastics from the ocean floor, these technologies would not stop new plastic from constantly entering the oceans.

The cheapest and most effective solution to ocean plastic is strangely also the one that is least talked about.

It is this: making and using less plastic.

Virtually everyone I know is genuinely upset about plastic pollution in the oceans, and at parties I am routinely cornered in the kitchen with questions about which of the myriad of single-use plastic items on open display can be recycled, and whether they actually will be recycled if thrown into the recycling bin.

Yet while people put enormous effort and hope into recycling, they don’t give source reduction much thought at all. The west used to send much of its recycling to China for processing, and China’s recent decision to no longer accept it because of environmental concerns has sparked an intense debate about how to fix our obviously broken recycling system. It would be so much easier and more effective to make and use less, and thus reduce our need to recycle in the first place.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/23/upset-about-the-plastic-crisis-stop-trying-so-hard

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SCWMA is now Zero Waste

Xinci Tan, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

PRESS RELEASE: For 27 years, you’ve known us as the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency (SCWMA), but starting in 2019, our new name is Zero Waste Sonoma. Our mission and values will stay the same, but our name and logo are changing to better reflect our identity as a government agency separate from, but related to, Sonoma County. This new brand also captures the regional commitment to achieving zero waste by 2030. This means diverting 100% of all material from landfills and into more beneficial use. Our new colors and streamlined design were thoughtfully chosen to match the progressive community we serve and increase accessibility to a broader and more diverse audience.

As the joint powers authority for the unincorporated area and nine cities and towns in Sonoma County, we continue to be the local government authority on recycling and solid waste disposal. Zero Waste Sonoma exists to serve you: the residents and businesses of Sonoma County. We want to help you reduce, reuse, recycle, and discard all materials in the safest and most environmentally responsible way possible.

Read more at https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/the-scwma-is-now-zero-waste-sonoma-2019

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As costs skyrocket, more U.S. cities stop recycling

Michael Corkery, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country.

Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.

Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.

“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.

Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States. That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/16/business/local-recycling-costs.html

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Single-use plastics need comprehensive federal legislation

Julia Stein, LEGAL PLANET

Plastic pollution appears to be arising ever more frequently in the news. Companies like Starbucks have announced voluntary steps to rid their stores of plastic straws. China is wielding its “National Sword” policy, which places restrictions on the amount and type of plastic waste it will accept from abroad, which has prompted cries for improvements to recycling technologies and infrastructure in the United States. A young entrepreneur designed a floating boom intended to rake up debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a large accumulation of plastic debris and other waste floating in the Pacific Ocean—but it returned to port in pieces in early January, battered by unrelenting wind and waves, indicating the challenges of ocean cleanup.

All this attention is warranted: There are trillions of pieces of plastic debris in the oceans, and over 700 species—including 84 percent of sea turtle species—have been impacted. Marine wildlife can mistake plastic debris for food, and necropsies of birds, sea turtles, and whales have shown stomachs full with plastic. Plastic pollution affects humans as well: Plastic has made its way into our food, our table salt, and our drinking water. Chemicals used in plastic, like bisphenol A, have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and adverse developmental consequences in children.

Comprehensive federal legislation to address single-use plastics does not yet exist in the United States. Instead, the conversation has focused on encouraging foreign governments to control plastic waste, making improvements to recycling and waste management infrastructure, and promoting voluntary steps industries can take to improve plastic products and reduce waste.

Missing from that conversation is a critical piece of the puzzle: reducing consumption of single-use plastic at the source to limit the amount of plastic trash Americans generate. To reduce single-use plastics more effectively, Congress must step in and regulate through source control.

Source control is important for a number of reasons. Less than 10 percent of the world’s plastic waste is recycled, and many kinds of single-use plastic waste, like thin plastic bags and Styrofoam, cannot be recycled entirely.

Read more at https://legal-planet.org/2019/02/28/single-use-plastics-need-comprehensive-federal-legislation/

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US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports

Oliver Milman, THE GUARDIAN

The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers and other items into recycling bins.
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But in the past three months, half of these recyclables have been loaded on to trucks, taken to a hulking incineration facility and burned, according to the city’s government.

It’s a situation being replicated across the US as cities struggle to adapt to a recent ban by China on the import of items intended for reuse.

The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US.

About 200 tons of recycling material is sent to the huge Covanta incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, every day since China’s import ban came into practice last year, the company says.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/21/philadelphia-covanta-incinerator-recyclables-china-ban-imports

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Op-Ed: Berkeley declares war on throwaway culture

Annie Leonard & Martin Bourque, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Any American school kid can recite the common wisdom for tackling our massive plastic trash problem: reduce, reuse, recycle.

But it’s not that simple.

Addressing plastic pollution has to focus far more on reducing and reusing. It is simply not a problem we can recycle our way out of.

People assume that when they toss plastic packaging into a bin, it will get collected, recycled and finally transformed into another plastic product. This is a convenient fiction, actively promoted by the plastic industry.

The reality is that much of the plastic tossed into bins ends up in landfills, or it gets shipped overseas to countries that lack infrastructure to deal with it properly.

Plastic was never recycled at a high level, and it’s even worse since 2018, when China closed its doors to imported mixed plastic waste. U.S. recyclers have shifted exports to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, but those countries lack the capacity to handle the volume we’re sending, which has brought them new environmental problems.

Moreover, despite our willingness to move plastic waste around the world, only about 9 percent of the plastic ever made has been recycled. We just keep making more of the stuff. If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t immediately reach for a mop — you’d first turn off the tap. That’s what we need to do with single-use plastics.

Berkeley recently passed a law that moves us a step closer to that, and it’s something that should be replicated across the country. The ordinance does not simply ban plastic foodware, leaving businesses to replace it with other throwaway materials: It rejects throwaway culture altogether.

Beginning immediately, Berkeley will require that accessory items such as utensils, straws, lids and sleeves be provided by request only and that food vendors have compost bins for all customers. In January 2020, the city will also require that all disposable takeout foodware be Biodegradable Products Institute-certified compostable and that vendors charge 25 cents for hot and cold takeout cups. If a customer brings a reusable cup, the charge is not applied. And by July 1, 2020, the ordinance will require that all eat-in dining be on reusable foodware.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9250139-181/leonard-and-bourque-berkeley-declares

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Needles found at Recology recycling centers in Sonoma County at alarming rates

Alexandria Bordas, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Joseph Essig has encountered more hypodermic needles on the sorting line at Recology Sonoma Marin than at any other recycling center he has managed in previous years. So many, in fact, that the number of needles he’s seen is too hard to quantify.

On heavier days, sorters count hundreds of needles passing through the lines in a single shift. In one particularly bad period last year, he said his team was filling 50-gallon containers of hypodermic needles every six or seven weeks.

Not only is the exposure to needles dangerous to the health of workers, Essig said it is also costly and time consuming. The sorting line is immediately shut down each time a needle is spotted, he said, stopping the work flow. For every hour work is stalled, it costs $600, the company estimates.

“It was getting to the point where we were seeing needles nightly,” said Essig, the company’s operations manager.

Recology officials say too many people are using recycling bins to dispose of used needles and other “sharps” — medical devices designed to pierce the skin, like syringes, lancets and pen injectors.

It is a dangerous problem for the workers who use their hands to sort waste placed in the blue recycling bins. Most people do not realize that there are humans touching their recyclables to prevent them from going into the landfill, said Celia Furber, Recology’s waste zero manager.

“Whatever people put in recycling bins, we have human sorters sifting through all of it,” Furber said. “They are extremely hazardous to workers.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9246444-181/needles-found-at-recology-recycling

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How to make sure your recycling gets recycled

Maggie Koerth-Baker, FIveThirtyEight

Local recycling information: 2018 Recycling Guide, or 2018 Guia de Reciclaje

So now you know: Throwing all your recycling into a single bin ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Single-stream recycling may be more convenient, but, as we reported last week, it’s also to blame for a huge increase in contamination that makes your recycling unrecyclable. You think you’re saving the planet, but you’re actually just adding to the landfill.

Since that story came out, many readers have contacted me asking for tips on how to reduce recycling contamination. I went back and spoke with a couple of my sources, and there are definitely some steps you can take. Remember, though, some contamination is intrinsic to the way single-stream recycling works — you’re unlikely to fix the problem of crushed glass shards mingling with paper and plastic on your own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help.

1) Learn your local rules

Recycling programs are not all the same. Some accept glass. Others don’t. Or you might be able to recycle one kind of plastic but not others. And that’s not even counting all the things that say they can be recycled on the packaging but that cannot be recycled via your home recycling bin. Don’t assume you can intuit what is and isn’t accepted. Cultural osmosis and reading the labels on packaging isn’t enough. You’ll have to go ask your specific recycling provider, said Bernie Lee, a commodities research analyst with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade association.

Yes, he means call up your city’s information hotline, or the county recycling center, or the company actually processing your recycling and ask what they do and don’t take. That sounds onerous, I know. Unfortunately, sometimes the public has to do the hard work when corporations and private services drop the ball. Recycling companies and municipal programs “really failed on education” as single-stream recycling became more popular, said Brent Bell, a vice president at Waste Management Inc., a national recycling hauler.

I heard that same thing from multiple sources. Recycling programs across the country apparently switched to single-stream, mailed out a glossy flier once, and expected that that would be enough for users to get it right. This has turned out to be an incorrect assumption. Like a lot of readers I heard from, I had always figured that if I didn’t know whether a thing was recyclable, I was better off putting it in recycling than in the trash. But the phrase you’ll hear from recycling experts is now “when in doubt, throw it out.”

2) Clean the food off

If you’ve got a can of soup or beans, rinse it out before you put it in the bin. Same goes for milk jugs, beer bottles, butter tubs, all of it. Those containers don’t have to be sparkling clean, Lee told me. No need to wash with hot water and soap, in other words. A cold swish will do the job. If they aren’t rinsed, the food scraps from cans and bottles could end up getting onto paper products, and that makes the paper harder to recycle.

“Paper makes up a majority of the residential recycling stream per tonnage,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, all that paper doesn’t fetch a super high price on the resale market. So contamination makes this huge proportion of your recycling even less valuable, upping the chances of nobody buying it and it ending up in the landfill. Rinsing away all the organic material is a relatively easy added step that can make a big difference.

3) Break down your boxes

Cardboard use has gone up 8 percent in the past five years, according to research by USA Today. But cardboard recycling has not kept pace. Online retail is a big part of both those trends, Lee told me. When we buy stuff on Amazon and other websites, we not only end up with more boxes being shipped to our houses, we’re also dealing with more boxes-inside-boxes — packaging nesting dolls.

Shoving those boxes into the recycling bin without breaking them down is not a good way to get them recycled. It’s harder for machines to process un-broken-down boxes, Lee said. And those boxes have things like tape and glue and labels attached — all of which are contaminants. (Also, stuffing the bin full of still-3D boxes means there’s less room for other recyclables, which then end up getting put into the trash instead.)

Instead, break boxes apart, pull off the tape, and get out the box cutter. Sorting machines work better if cardboard arrives in pieces no bigger than a standard sheet of paper, Lee said. And you can just cut off the parts with sticky labels and throw them out. Even if that feels like creating more waste, you’re probably really increasing the amount of material that gets recycled.

4) Consume less

Unfortunately, a lot of contamination isn’t caused by you directly. Which makes it hard for you to individually fix. Case in point: labels on plastic bottles. Those exist for a reason, Lee said. Drink companies have figured out that they have to get the right color and appearance on their labels or sales suffer. But the plastic used in shrink wrap or glued labels isn’t always recyclable, which can mean the bottles they’re stuck to are also trash — even if the bottle, itself, could have been recycled.

Companies are concerned about this issue, Lee told me. But there’s often a fundamental mismatch between what recycles best — a plain brown box — and what sells best — a box covered with glossy images.

And this is where we have to remember that our waste problems can’t be solved by recycling alone. Using less and reusing more should come first. For example: Glass can be a big problem in single-stream recycling. Crushed in trucks, the pieces grind into plastic and paper, making those things harder to recycle. Even whole, glass is often unprofitable to haul away and melt and repurpose — some recycling systems won’t even accept it for that reason. But if you buy stuff that comes in glass jars, you can wash those and re-use them at home. In that situation, the case for reusing the container is better than the case for recycling it.

Source: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-to-make-sure-your-recycling-gets-recycled/

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The era of easy recycling may be coming to an end

Maggie Koerth-Baker, FiveThirtyEight

For those of us who spent most of our lives painstakingly separating plastic, glass, paper and metal, single-stream recycling is easy to love. No longer must we labor. Gone is the struggle to store two, three, four or even five different bags under the kitchen sink. Just throw everything into one dumpster, season liberally with hopes and dreams, and serve it up to your local trash collector. What better way to save the planet?

But you can see where this is headed.

Americans love convenient recycling, but convenient recycling increasingly does not love us. Waste experts call the system of dumping all the recyclables into one bin “single-stream recycling.” It’s popular. But the cost-benefit math of it has changed. The benefit — more participation and thus more material put forward for recycling — may have been overtaken by the cost — unrecyclable recyclables. On average, about 25 percent of the stuff we try to recycle is too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade group. Just a decade ago, the contamination rate was closer to 7 percent, according to the association. And that problem has only compounded in the last year, as China stopped importing “dirty” recyclable material that, in many cases, has found no other buyer.

Most recycling programs in the United States are now single stream. Between 2005 and 2014, these programs went from covering 29 percent of American communities to 80 percent, according to a survey conducted by the American Forest and Paper Association. The popularity makes sense given that single-stream is convenient and a full 66 percent of people surveyed by Harris Poll last October said that they wouldn’t recycle at all if it wasn’t easy to do.

Some experts have credited single stream with large increases in the amount of material recycled. Studies have shown that people choose to put more stuff out on the curb for recycling when they have a single-sort system. And the growth of single-stream recycling tracks with the growth of recycling overall in this country.

But it also pretty closely tracks with skyrocketing contamination rates.

Read more at https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-era-of-easy-recycling-may-be-coming-to-an-end/

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Sebastopol is first to embrace countywide zero-waste campaign

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sebastopol has become the first local city to sign on to a campaign that would commit residents and businesses to reducing the community’s waste stream to zero by the year 2030 — part of a countywide bid to curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment while preserving the region’s limited landfill capacity.

The ordinance approved by the City Council calls for individuals to cut their own garbage production by at least 10 percent a year. It also sets the stage for future policy decisions governing single-use products, composting and recycling, officials said.

“Zero waste is our future, along with electric cars and electric bicycles,” veteran City Councilwoman Sarah Glade Gurney said Wednesday.

The city’s resolution was part of a package of measures approved unanimously Tuesday night as a lead-off to a countywide zero-waste campaign championed by the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.

The City Council also expressed support for an ordinance that would ban polystyrene food service containers and require food vendors to use biodegradable or recyclable food wares — another campaign being promoted by the county waste agency.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8851069-181/sebastopol-is-first-to-embrace