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!

* * * The End * * *

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.

2 則留言:

Rui 說...

hi Clement, My name is Rui and I am developing an online course for Material Chemistry. I wonder whether we could use this turtle caught in 6-ring pack picture? Is picture under Creative Commons? Thank you very much.

李銳華 Clement Lee 說...


Thanks for your interest. Unfortunately I am not the original owner of this picture.