by Bill Tracy
I want to say one word to you: plastics!”
That’s the famous 1967 quote from “The Graduate,” which ranks #42 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations. Evidently, it was good career advice, because it now seems like just about everything in our homes and vehicles is made from plastic.
But plastics leave society with a number of waste problems including litter and ocean contamination. I have had some personal experience with plastics recycling, so here are some of my thoughts.
Misconception #1: Americans are disposing a lot of consumer plastics in the ocean. Answer: Not true.
As an affluent country, the United States has many landfills, incinerators, recycling centers, water treatment plants, and weekly trash pick-ups. The horrific videos we are seeing — oceans and beaches literally buried in tons of plastic waste — is originating from developing countries. In some parts of the world, unfortunately, dumping trash in the nearest river is the best waste disposal option.
How does America handle its waste problem? One way is to export it to less affluent parts of the world with cheap labor and weak environmental regulations. However, 90% of the waste plastics sent to China comes from Europe. This suggests that recycling works better than the U.S. is usually given credit for.
Misconception #2: Land-filling of plastics is a serious problem due to the non-biodegradability of the plastics. Answer: Not true
Even a hot dog will last for decades in a landfill. Worse, a hot dog will biodegrade creating methane,which eventually leaks to the atmosphere. Some environmentalists contend methane is the greatest threat to mankind, worse even than the greenhouse gas CO2, which is paradoxically non-toxic.
Additionally, some feel strongly that hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) should be left in the ground to prevent release of CO2. If you believe that, what’s wrong with carbon sequestration by putting plastics in a landfill? Apparently eternal hot dogs are morally OK, but plastics are immoral. Alternatively we could switch to biodegradable plastic silverware made from corn. But then, what’s going to happen in the landfill? A corn-derived plastic spoon will degrade eventually… and release methane. (Admittedly, some of the methane is in fact recovered.)
Solutions: Let’s move on to discuss potential solutions to the problems of plastic wastes. As a former “waste min” engineer, I know there is much merit in the Environmental Protection Agency’s classic waste minimization hierarchy.
- Dispose of Residuals
Many recycling and treatment technologies are under-utilized. One of many technically feasible treatments is energy recover, e.g.; trash incineration, as practiced by Fairfax County. Plastics have enormous energy content which can be recovered to generate electricity and play a significant role in the alternate energy picture.
But recycling and treatment require tax dollars to help solve the waste problem. Enter American Conservatives and their staunch anti-tax views. The unworkable Conservative view is partially supported by the backwards Liberals who feel treatment (incineration) represents an unacceptable pollution source. Liberals believe the ultimate solution is not making any waste at all. While waiting for this utopia, Liberals and Conservatives both like landfills.
Who gets the landfills? Virginia loves landfills. I assume the infamous trash train still hauls trash from New York and New Jersey through Washington, D.C., and then on into southern Virginia. Hampton Roads has Mount Trashmore Park as a testament to our support of making new mountains from imported trash. If we account for all the trash we bury, we can say that Virginia has accomplished more for carbon sequestration than any other state in the nation!
Whichever strategy we pursue, we’d better get cracking. China has recently stopped importing contaminated waste plastics from the U.S. and Europe, which in my view is a valid attempt to take control of their boundaries and concentrate on solving its internal waste problems. Meanwhile, developed countries are under greater pressure to solve their own waste-handling problems, and within their own boundaries.
Bill Tracy, a retired engineer, lives in Northern Virginia.