Guest commentary: We can’t recycle our way out of this plastic waste mess
January 21, 2018
The next time you purchase anything made from plastic, like a single-use plastic bottle of water or prepackaged produce, or sip from a plastic straw, I'd like you to consider the dilemma facing our landfills and the permanent impact plastic has on our oceans and the planet. Plastic litters the world, and there isn't enough recycling capacity to manage it appropriately.
Over the past several years, 50 percent of plastic for recycling, including plastic from Pitkin County, has been shipped to China for recycling. In case you haven't heard, China has recently put import bans on plastic recycling unless the material can meet a nearly impossible 0.5 percent contamination rate. China can't be blamed. For years the Chinese have been stuck managing our garbage, creating harm to their own environmental health.
Since 1950 manufacturers have generated 9.1 billion tons of plastic, which includes single-use bottles, straws, utensils and cups, take-out and produce containers, and bags. Only 9 percent of all plastic is recycled; 75 percent ends up in landfills or worse, littered in the oceans and waterways. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish! The problem with plastic is that it doesn't decompose naturally, it stays with us forever.
Losing the option to ship plastics to China has forced recycling facilities to find other, more local outlets, store the materials on site until buyers are found, or fill our landfills with the now worthless waste. The United States lacks industry willing to use recycled plastic, in part because it is cheaper to make new plastic rather than recycle.
As someone who has spent an entire career in the solid-waste-management industry, I face the harsh reality daily of witnessing the amount of waste, especially permanent plastic, that is buried in our landfills or that finds its way to our streams and rivers. What are we to do in the face of being stuck with this plastic mess?
I ask all of us to cut down on the amount of plastic we use and generate. Rethink purchases like buying beverages in single-use plastic bottles. Opt for drinks in highly recyclable aluminum cans and refill reusable water bottles. Shop in the bulk aisle when possible with reusable containers and bags, and buy non-prepackaged produce. When hosting an event use reusable serve ware and cutlery or use compostable materials and make sure they get composted!
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Recycle when you have no other options, but recycling should be your last option.
Pitkin County and the entire country is facing a serious recycling crisis. Domestic industries need to step up and find a solution to the plastic mountain of waste that is coming our way. As consumers, we have control over the products we purchase and how we purchase them. Recycling has never been easy or cheap, but it is about to get a lot harder and more expensive.
Cathleen Hall is the Pitkin County solid waste manager. She can be reached at the Pitkin County landfill if you have questions. For more information about reducing, reusing and repurposing go to http://www.landfillrules.com.