Recycling considered harmful?

(Note: I gave this talk to my colleagues on the eve of World Oceans Day 2012. The content is very similar to my other talk (in Chinese) given to my Chinese school last Saturday. I picked a slightly different title so as to entice more of my colleagues to come. I was very glad that 17 of them (out of a team size of ~20) came. I would like to thank them for having some trust on me and willing to spend a lunch time to listen to me on the problem. )

Let's first review the follow footage (3 minutes 57 seconds). If you don't have time to review all the materials on this page, I sincerely hope that you can at least review this video:

The video was shot in Midway Atoll, one of the most remote places in the world because it is more that 2,000 miles from any continents. Yet, in this place we see the havoc we human beings wreak upon our nature. Our trash flows all the way to the sea surrounding the island. Albatrosses often mistake the trash, especially the caps of plastic bottles, as food and they feed these trash to their chicks. One third of the chicks would die because of indigestion.

This level of devastation was done in a very short time span of some sixty years. Around 1950's, we started to use plastic in a massive scale. In particular, someone came up with the idea of single-use plastic. In 1955, LIFE magazines proudly announced the introduction of the throwaways "that would liberate the housewife from the drudgery of doing dishes" ...

Plastic cannot be bio-degraded, yet we use it for single-use proposes -- throw it away when its short span of usage is over. Come to think about it, isn't this insane? Unfortunately not many people could see through the insanity and we have been abusing on single-use plastic for sixty years.

The next picture was taken not from a third-world country, but from our modern society of Los Angles. Whenever there is a rainstorm, a lot of trash got washed down the drainage system and eventually they come this Ballon Creek outside of LA. People realized this is bad for LA's local beaches and the ocean, so they built a fishing net to trap all the trashes. Notice how a large portion of them are plastic waste.

Sometimes the build up can become so large that it may clog the river. So the fishing net was designed in such a way that it would be allowed to break when overloaded. When that happens, the trash will contaminate the local beaches and then flow into the ocean, together with other trash from other cities.

Over many years, these trash follow the ringlike ocean currents called gyres and flow to some specific location in the ocean. In north Pacific, they eventually accumulated in a Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). . There are some estimates that the size of the garbage patch has already been twice as large as Texas.

The next video is by Captain Charles Moore, who first found the GPGP. Let's hear what he has to say about plastic (7 minutes 21 seconds):

With all the above said, some of you may say "Hey, I have been doing my part and sorting my trash and recycling my plastics. Isn't that good enough?"

And this is the key question of today's discussion -- "Is recycling by itself good enough?"

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the overall recycling rate of plastics in the US is an embarrassing 8%.

Furthermore, EPA has the following to say:

Contrary to common belief, just because a plastic product has the resin number in a triangle, which looks very similar to the recycling symbol, it does not mean it is collected for recycling

The "resin number in a triangle", is technically called the Resin Identification Code. It was introduced by Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), a plastic industry trade association.

The warning from the EPA is very real. For example, in my town, they explicitly say that they will only accept plastics with Resin Identification Code of #1 (PETE) and #2 (HDPE) (and plastic bottles only -- not other plastic waste such as plastic bags). I believe my town is not particularly irresponsible -- plastics outside of #1 and #2 are indeed very difficult to recycle and they are commonly excluded from recycling programs. Other towns may not be so honest and they may just tell you that they "have a recycling program", without telling you the fine print.

So you may say perhaps the other plastics that are not accepted for recycling are just not common. Well ... many single-use plastic products are still being made and used despite the fact that they are not accepted for recycling.

For example, my company's cafeteria offers "free" drinking cups to employees. These cups are made from Polystyrene (Resin Code #6 or PS), which is notoriously difficult to recycle and are not accepted by many recycle programs, including my company's own program. Yet they are offered as free benefits to employees.

My company's building has several thousands employees. Assuming just half of them take these "free" drinking cups, that means our building is throwing away thousands of non-biodegradable, non-recyclable trash cups every day, and for what?! When everyone's desk is just a few minutes away from the cafeteria and they could just bring their own drinking mugs to the cafeteria ! We really need some reflection on our wasteful lifestyle.

How about #1 (PETE), which is accepted by many recycling programs. PETE is the materials used in bottled drinks including bottled water.

Let's review the story of bottle water (8 minutes 4 seconds)

After reviewing the above video, probably you would agree with me that bottled water is a very harmful product to our environment. What is the recycling rate of these water bottles? Just an embarrassing 12 to 23%. Yet many people think it is okay to buy bottled water because "the water bottle will be recycled". I think we should all just avoid buying bottled water. The alternative is readily available -- reusable water bottles and tap water.

Sometimes we feel we HAVE TO buy bottled water, but with a little bit of thoughtfulness, we can easily find a way out. Here is a personal story of mind. Last year (2011) when Hurricane Irene was about to hit my area, everyone said we should stock up some bottled water. I almost fell into the same mental trap, but then I realized that to store drinking water I already have quite a lot of containers at home that are perfectly fit for the purpose. So at the end I did not buy any bottled water yet I was fully prepared for the Hurricane.

Another source of plastic waste is plastic shopping bags. Before we examine its recycling rate, let's first see Chris Jordan's animation, in which he artfully demonstrate the scale of our massive consumption:

First here is a lot of plastic bags.

However, if you zoom out the picture, you can see more plastic bags.

And more, you see an ocean of plastic bags. Yet this is the consumption of plastic bags in the US in just 5 seconds!

And what is the recycling rate for plastic bags? An even more embarrassing rate of 6%. And even worse, of these bags that are collected for recycling, 57% of them actually went to the export market (link), where we don't really know they were really processed for recycling, or they were just going into some landfills or incinerators in these other countries.

Again, we use plastic bags in such a massive scale, with such a low recycling rate, but what for?! When we can just bring our own reusable shopping bags to the supermarket!

Some of my friends told me that they reuse the shopping bags by using them to line their trash bin. This is not a bad idea. However, I still hope that they can reuse 100% of their shopping bags but not just a small portion of them. My experience (when I used to occasionally get some shopping bags especially when I forgot to bring my reusable bags) has been that the "intake" rate of plastic bugs could easily exceed the rate that I could use the shopping bags as trash bags.

Therefore, I propose that, if you do get plastic shopping bags occasionally and intend to use them as trash bags, you should also self-impose a "5-bag rule", which says that if you already have five or more plastic bags in your drawer, then stop taking any more plastic shopping bags until your "inventory" drops below the threshold of five. This rule helps you make sure that all 100% of your plastic shopping bags will eventually be reused as trash bags.

Furthermore, I would like to point out that apart from carryout bags (which we can relatively easily avoid by bringing our own shopping bags), there are also bread bags and produce bags, which are relatively harder to avoid. So, if you need some plastic bags to line your trash bins, have you considered using bread bags and produce bags for that?

The following is a picture of my trash bin and you can see how I used bread bags to line my trash bin. Note how I have to use some clips to fix the bread bag to the edge of my bin, and how I use another outer layer of plastic bag, which I don't change very often, to line the bin to prevent any potential leakage of juice or liquid through the inner bags. This setup might take a little bit of effort to get used to but overall it is still a very tidy solution.

Many people become complacent with our wasteful practice of single-use plastic abuse, because they think "there is a recycling program in place." I encourage them to read the fine print of the recycling programs and become fully aware of their limitations.

I think the concept of recycling is a bittersweet. It may be good if it provides another life to some plastic products that are really necessary. But recycling would be a bad concept if it is used as an excuse to justify the use of unnecessary single-use plastic products, when it just gives us a false sense of security.

I think between Recycling and Reduce, the latter is far more important than the former.

Let me conclude this presentation with the following picture. Someone threw a six-pack ring, which eventually flew into the ocean. And this poor turtle, in its young age, got trapped into the ring. But it could never rid itself of the ring, and as you can see, its other body parts grew but its waist has been restricted from growing any bigger than the ring. As a result, its body has been completed deformed by the ring. I think this picture is good visual aid to remind us that our everyday habit may have a far more severe impact on nature than we think. So let's all think twice before we consume any single-use plastics. Thank you!

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Bonus videos (I did not have time to show these two videos, but they are also very good, and I wish you have time to review time also.




請先看以下片段( 3 分 57 秒)。

片中的中途島 (Midway Atoll) 位於太平洋中心,距離任何一個大陸都有 2,000 哩以上。這麼遙遠,郤也逃不了自私的人類對她的摧殘。海洋上漂浮着人類製造的圾垃,特別是其中的塑膠樽蓋,被信天翁媽媽誤會是食物,飼餵給不懂事的雛島。三分之一的雛島因此死亡,屍體中殘留着的,是人類自私行為的證據!

海洋受到這樣大規模的摧殘,卻原來是只在短短的六十多年間做成的。大約六十多年前,人類開始了大規模的應用塑膠。1955 年 LIFE 雜誌曾驕傲的宣稱『「即用即棄的生活」來臨了,主婦們將可以獲得「解放」,不再受繁重的家務所「勞役」。』這大概是標誌人類瘋狂浪費時代的開始。



其他没有受到攔阻的圾垃,就流進了大海。受海洋中的自然存在的環流 (Gyre) 的影響,它們慢慢地會被捲進一個巨大的「太平洋垃圾堆」中 (Great Pacific Garbage Patch) 。科學家發現這個垃圾堆,已經有兩個德州這麼大的面積。不可謂不驚人!

以下片段介紹這個巨型垃圾堆的情况( 4 分 22 秒)


根據美國環保署的數字,塑膠廢物的回收率,只有 8%!

很多美國人看到塑膠製品上印着看來像是回收符號的 Resin Identification Code,便以為製品是可回收的,可以放心使用(濫用)。


Contrary to common belief, just because a plastic product has the resin number in a triangle, which looks very similar to the recycling symbol, it does not mean it is collected for recycling

事實上,以本人所居住的鎮為例。鎮政府便在其網頁上清楚說明,只接受 Resin Identification Code 中編號為 #1 (PETE) 和 #2 (HDPE) 的兩種塑膠瓶,其他塑膠恕不接受。換言之,即使我盡了我的公民責任,把所有塑膠廢物放在回受桶裏,七種塑膠材料中,只有兩種會回收。

其中一種不回被回收的塑膠,就是發泡膠(Polystyrene) 編號是 #6 (PS)。但在我任職的公司的飯堂,即用即棄的發泡膠杯郤是在飯堂內堆積如山地任由員工『免費使用』!


至於較常被接受回收的 #1 (PETE) 主要是用來製作水樽(包括樽裝水水樽)的,而 #2 (HDPE) 則被用來製造垃圾膠袋和膠樽如牛奶樽。

但樽裝水也是萬惡的。請看看以下這個短片( 8 分 04 秒)。這短片已經在 YouTube 上被點擊二百三十萬次以上。但當然,這遠不及財雄勢大的樽裝水公司的宣傳力量,所以大家如果看了對其認同的話,可要多多向朋友推介啊!


記得去年 (2011)八月 Hurricane Irene 來襲美東,大家都去超市購物防風,我也去買了些餅乾、罐頭等作應變。本來想着也難以避免要買些樽裝水,但細想了一下,要儲存食水其實大可以用家中的各種容器如煲、暖水壺、咖啡壺等。所以,即使是防風,也可以不用買樽裝水的。

塑膠袋 (Resin Id Code #4 LDPE)的遺害也不少。藝術家 Chris Jordan 曾經以此為題材作了一個演示。請先看這一堆膠袋垃圾,很多吧?!



#1 (PETE) 已經是較多被接受作回受的塑膠種類,但事實膠水樽在美國的回受率只有大約 12% ,而膠袋垃圾 (#4 LDPE) 的回收率也只有 6%。其中回收來的膠袋中,有 57% 其實是被出口到美國以外的地方,究竟是真正的回受,還是只是把自家的廢物住人家的後院丟,也是十分可疑的。


但您也許會說,我在超市購物所得的購物袋,再用來包家居垃圾,算是重用 (Reuse) 的一種,不算浪費。這也許是對的。但是,我們也要審視有多少比重的購物膠袋是真正的重用了?是全部還是一小部分?


其實除了「背心袋」(carryout bags)之外,生活中其實還有「平口袋」(bread bags or produce bags)。比於買一包麵包,可能麵包袋便是用透明平口袋造的。或者在超市買青菜,有不少是預先用透明平口袋包装好的。消費者也無從選擇,被迫要拿一個平口袋。我現在做法便是用這些暫時仍未想到辦法怎樣可以避免的平口袋來裝家居垃圾垃。故此我既不買專用垃圾袋,也不會拿超市背心袋。



講了這麼多,也是時候總結一下了。以前講環保有 3R 之說,即是 Reduce, Reuse, Recycle。但現在我對 Recycle 是又愛又恨。它本是一種好的做法,但有更多的時候,它成了一種麻痹人們警惕浪費行為的策略。難怪塑膠業代表組織如 American Chemistry Council 或 Society of Plastics Industry 等對 Recycling 推動不遺餘力。

故此,我希望大家也要有第四個 R 即是 Rethink。我們更需要的是重新醒覺--重新醒覺我們消費行為對環境的影響。最好的其實還是 Reduce 減少無謂的使用。把萬年不化的塑膠,來作一次性的即用即棄產品,是極度不負責任的行為,應該立刻停止。用過一件物品後,能重用 (Reuse) 當然是好。作為最後選擇,回收 (Recycle) 也是無可奈何之選。但這一切都不如從一開始就不用這個選擇。

最後,容我以以下的圖片,為這次演講作結。有人隨手把包装六罐裝 (Six-pack) 啤酒或汽水的膠環丟棄,讓它流落到大海。小海龜不小心被膠環纏在身上,重此無法擺脫它。小海龜日漸長大,腰部郤因為被膠環所束縛而無法長大,身體因此變型。成了對不負責任的人類的控訴!

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