Plastic Number Crunching

14 04 2012

Amy West

by Amy West

With recent news of washing machines spilling microplastics into waterways, a greenwashing lawsuit involving plastic water bottle companies, and bans on plastic bags, plastics are everywhere. Literally.

They are crammed under our cupboards, spilling from trashcans, and discarded along the road. Most families are engulfed in plastic consumables, and those with good intentions, toss them into the blue recycling bin. It feels good to divert most of our consumables and packaging into the blue bin, and helps justify purchasing food such as cottage cheese, which invariably comes packaged in plastic. Out of sight, out of mind, after all.

Plastic overload. Photo by Amy West

However, with plastics recycling the average plastic consumer may believe a few myths.

1. All plastics collected for recycling are actually recycled.

2. Plastics are recycled in the U.S.

A report by Columbia University showed the U.S. generated 33.6 million tons of plastics and recycled about seven percent of that- just 2.1 million tons; the rest were landfilled. Why? Mostly because a market for plastics does not exist for plastics with resin codes #3 through 7.

There is a recycling market for plastic beverage containers (#1, #2) like bottled waters and sports drinks due to the very successful Bottle Bill California established in the late 80s.  Other states with a bottle law include Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Unfortunately bottle laws were repealed in Delaware, and Missouri.  Allowing buyers to redeem plastics for cash is the financial incentive that really drives recycling: a nickel for containers less than 24 ounces, and a dime for containers 24 ounces or larger.

Mark Murray, the executive director or Californians against Waste explained that because of the mechanics of recycling, most of the plastics are “downcycled”, or turned into different products. For instance, California ships 60 percent of water and soda bottles overseas to turn into textiles, but the rest remain in California and molded into plastic clamshells for food or strapping. One new company Carbon Lite actually transforms the plastic into pellets so other beverage companies can convert them back into plastic water bottles- closing the recycling loop. The #2, or HDPE, containers such as shampoo bottles and juice cartons have slightly better rates- 50 percent stay in California. Detergent and oil containers can be made from these, in the case of Epic Plastics, they take these containers and a few other plastic types to manufacture thin plastic lumber for garden edging.

This 425 millions pounds of recycled plastic does not include the commingled plastic in our bins that are either landfilled, or baled into a large compressed plastic cube and shipped overseas. This scrap plastic is worth pennies, but for the recycling company, it removes the financial burden of paying to dump it.

California’s agriculture farms produce a significant source of plastic such as film, trays and covers. Known as ‘plasticulture’, the 2008 report by California’s Waste Management states this mass amount of plastic used or recycled by each agriculture sect is unclear, but is estimated to be more than 100,000 tons a year.

A Green Waste Recovery study in unincorporated Santa Cruz County in 2009 (which includes about half of the county population) found residents recycle about half of the discarded hard plastics and 80 percent of the stretchy film plastics. That percentage is relatively encouraging, but discouraging when those plastics land in Asia as scrap plastic.

The amount of crude oil involved in plastic bottle manufacturing alone is ludicrous. Oil is required to make the bottle, ship it, send it to the recycling center, ship it to plastic manufacturers, and downcycle it into something different only to go through the shipping process again. With Americans screaming about gas prices, those who purchase plastic beverage containers should reconsider their plastic consumption. They might as well be stocking their refrigerator with gold.

Beach flat (artist rendition) of Ferdi Rizkiyanto from Jakarta in Indonesia (scroll down to see on

Recently I wrote an article on how companies can stop this unrecycled plastic from leaving our shores– by melting it through pyrolysis to create fuel. It just makes more sense to retain our plastics

and finance innovative solutions to close that recycling loop.

With 145,000 Santa Cruz residents generating 66,000 tons of waste a year, plastic accounts for 12 percent of it. That means nearly 8000 tons of plastic could be converted to fuel. Producing a gallon of fuel requires 7 to 10 pounds of plastic, thus Santa Cruz potentially harbors a cache of a million and half gallons of fuel. Or for those that think in barrels-37,000 barrels.

So when purchasing grocery items like juice, choose the one in glass. Remember, its REDUCE, reuse, recycle.


For buyback centers in Santa Cruz to bring your plastic beverage containers, #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) for some cash.




One response

16 04 2012

The conclusion that glass is better is unsupported. How much oil is used to process glass, with its high melting temperature? How much extra oil is used to ship products stored in heavy glass versus much-lighter plastic? How far does the heavy glass need to be shipped for recycling?
I’m not saying that plastic is better, just that I’m unconvinced.

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