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America’s ‘recycled’ plastic waste is clogging landfills, survey finds

Erin McCormick, THE GUARDIAN

Many facilities lack the ability to process ‘mixed plastics’, a category of waste that has virtually no market as new products.

Many plastic items that Americans put in their recycling bins aren’t being recycled at all, according to a major new survey of hundreds of recycling facilities across the US.

The research, conducted by Greenpeace and released on Tuesday, found that out of 367 recycling recovery facilities surveyed none could process coffee pods, fewer than 15% accepted plastic clamshells – such as those used to package fruit, salad or baked goods – and only a tiny percentage took plates, cups, bags and trays.

The findings confirm the results of a Guardian investigation last year, which revealed that numerous types of plastics are being sent straight to landfill in the wake of China’s crackdown on US recycling exports. Greenpeace’s findings also suggest that numerous products labeled as recyclable in fact have virtually no market as new products.
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While the report found there is still a strong recycling market for bottles and jugs labeled #1 or #2, such as plastic water bottles and milk containers, the pipeline has bottomed out for many plastics labelled #3-7, which fall into a category dubbed “mixed plastics”. While often marketed by brands as recyclable, these plastics are hard for recyclers to repurpose and are often landfilled, causing confusion for consumers.

“This report shows that one of the best things to do to save recycling is to stop claiming that everything is recyclable,” said John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign. “We have to talk to companies about not producing so much throw-away plastic that ends up in the ocean or in incinerators.”

In a news release accompanying the report, Greenpeace threatened to file federal complaints against manufacturers who mislead the public about the recyclability of their packaging.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/18/americas-recycled-plastic-waste-is-clogging-landfills-survey-finds

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Amazon under fire for new packaging that cannot be recycled

Miles Brignall, THE GUARDIAN

Use of plastic envelopes branded a ‘major step backwards’ in fight against pollution

Amazon has been criticised by environmental groups and customers after introducing a range of plastic packaging that cannot be recycled in the UK.

While supermarkets and other retailers have been reducing their use of single use plastics, the world’s biggest online retailer has started sending small items in plastic envelopes, seemingly to allow more parcels to be loaded on to each delivery truck.

Adrian Fletcher, an Amazon customer from Glasgow, is among a number who have complained to the company. He said the move felt like a “major step backwards” in the fight against plastic.

“My husband is disabled, and we rely a lot on Amazon and other home deliveries. Previously our small orders arrived in easily recyclable cardboard packaging, but a few months ago Amazon started using plastic envelopes. I diligently recycle all the packaging but can’t these,” he said.

“The supermarkets have all been dropping carrier bags from their online deliveries, but Amazon is going the other way – it’s madness. I have asked them not to ship my orders using plastic packaging but this falls on deaf ears.”

Amazon’s Second Chance website, which details how customers should recycle its packaging, states the Prime-branded envelopes are “not widely recycled across the UK”.
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It is thought that Amazon ships between 4bn and 5bn parcels a year worldwide. In February, the Washington Post reported on how the new Amazon envelopes were clogging up US recycling centres as consumers were wrongly placing them in recycling bins.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/aug/20/amazon-under-fire-for-new-packaging-that-cant-be-recycled

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Petaluma crafting goal of zero waste by 2030

Yousef Baig, PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER

With nearby landfills expected to reach their capacity in the coming decades, Petaluma officials are pursuing a zero waste goal that could also help lay the foundation for future policies on climate change.

City officials are currently ironing out the details of a resolution that will ask the Petaluma community to reduce its landfill deposits by more than 90% within 11 years by reusing many items.

Petaluma’s garbage is dumped at the Redwood Landfill in Novato, which is expected to reach its permitted capacity in 2032, said Patrick Carter, management analyst for Petaluma’s Public Works and Utilities Department.

An expansion beyond its permitted limit might be possible, he said, but that could lead to future cost increases that would trickle down to households and businesses.

The entire Bay Area will hit its capacity by 2058, according to a 2016 report by CalRecycle, the state agency that regulates landfills.

“That’s not too far in the future,” Carter said. “Just like we’ve done with water conservation and energy efficiency programs when we’re presented with a challenge like that, we’ve found that prevention is more effective than remediation.”

Read more at https://www.petaluma360.com/news/9742730-181/petaluma-crafting-goal-of-zero

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The US recycling system is garbage

Edward Humes, SIERRA MAGAZINE

For nearly three decades your recycling bin contained a dirty secret: Half the plastic and much of the paper you put into it did not go to your local recycling center. Instead, it was stuffed onto giant container ships and sold to China.

Around 1992, US cities and trash companies started offshoring their most contaminated, least valuable “recyclables” to a China that was desperate for raw materials. There, the dirty bales of mixed paper and plastic were processed under the laxest of environmental controls. Much of it was simply dumped, washing down rivers to feed the crisis of ocean plastic pollution. Meanwhile, America’s once-robust capability to sort, clean, and recycle its own waste deteriorated. Why invest in expensive technology and labor when the mess could easily be bundled off to China?

Then in 2018, as part of a domestic crackdown on pollution, China banned imports of dirty foreign garbage. In the United States, the move was depicted almost as an act of aggression. (It didn’t help that the Chinese name for the crackdown translated as National Sword.) Massive amounts of poor-quality recyclables began piling up at US ports and warehouses. Cities and towns started hiking trash-collection fees or curtailing recycling programs, and headlines asserted the “death of recycling” and a “recycling crisis.”

But a funny thing happened on recycling’s road to the graveyard. China’s decision to stop serving as the world’s trash compactor forced a long-overdue day of reckoning—and sparked a movement to fix a dysfunctional industry. “The whole crisis narrative has been wrong,” says Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. “China didn’t break recycling. It has given us the opportunity to begin investing in the infrastructure we need in order to do it better.”

“That’s the silver lining in National Sword,” adds David Allaway, a senior policy analyst for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality and the coauthor of a surprising new study that demonstrates the ecological downsides of pursuing recycling at any cost (see “When Recycling Isn’t Worth It”). “China finally is doing the responsible thing, forcing the recycling industry to rebuild its ability to sort properly and to focus on quality as much as it previously focused on quantity.”

Paradoxically, Allaway says, part of America’s trash problem arose from people trying to recycle too much. Well-meaning “aspirational” recyclers routinely confuse theoretical recyclability with actual recycling. While plastic straws, grocery bags, eating utensils, yogurt containers, and takeout food clamshells are all theoretically recyclable, they are almost never recycled. Instead, they jam machinery and lower the value of the profitably recyclable materials they are mixed with, like aluminum cans and clean paper. In addition, Americans are notorious for putting pretty much anything into recycling bins, from dirty diapers to lawn furniture, partly out of ignorance and partly because China gave us a decades-long pass on making distinctions.

“We need to recycle better and recycle smarter,” Allaway says, “which means recycling only when the positive environmental impacts outweigh the negative.”

Read more at https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-4-july-august/feature/us-recycling-system-garbage

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The US recycling system is garbage

Edward Humes, SIERRA MAGAZINE

For nearly three decades your recycling bin contained a dirty secret: Half the plastic and much of the paper you put into it did not go to your local recycling center. Instead, it was stuffed onto giant container ships and sold to China.

Around 1992, US cities and trash companies started offshoring their most contaminated, least valuable “recyclables” to a China that was desperate for raw materials. There, the dirty bales of mixed paper and plastic were processed under the laxest of environmental controls. Much of it was simply dumped, washing down rivers to feed the crisis of ocean plastic pollution. Meanwhile, America’s once-robust capability to sort, clean, and recycle its own waste deteriorated. Why invest in expensive technology and labor when the mess could easily be bundled off to China?

Then in 2018, as part of a domestic crackdown on pollution, China banned imports of dirty foreign garbage. In the United States, the move was depicted almost as an act of aggression. (It didn’t help that the Chinese name for the crackdown translated as National Sword.) Massive amounts of poor-quality recyclables began piling up at US ports and warehouses. Cities and towns started hiking trash-collection fees or curtailing recycling programs, and headlines asserted the “death of recycling” and a “recycling crisis.”

But a funny thing happened on recycling’s road to the graveyard. China’s decision to stop serving as the world’s trash compactor forced a long-overdue day of reckoning—and sparked a movement to fix a dysfunctional industry. “The whole crisis narrative has been wrong,” says Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. “China didn’t break recycling. It has given us the opportunity to begin investing in the infrastructure we need in order to do it better.”

Read more at https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-4-july-august/feature/us-recycling-system-garbage?mostpopular=true

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

Roland Geyer, THE GUARDIAN

Did 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