27 March 2020

Recycling Needs Recycling

Welcome back. In the 1970s, our group’s research program at Cornell undertook an unplanned, multifaceted effort to address landfills, aka solid waste disposal sites.
Example landfill papers and EPA report by Cornell.
We first assisted a county in selecting sites for a new landfill, our contribution being based largely on a professor’s unparalleled expertise in airphoto interpretation of landforms. We then assisted New York and EPA in developing airborne remote sensing methods to detect seepage (leachate) from active landfills for sampling and testing.

And then came Love Canal. Beginning with the state’s telephoned request for consultation before the toxic industrial waste site made the national news, we acquired and analyzed background information and some 12 dates of aerial photographs to develop a detailed historical record of the abandoned canal, drainage, residences and other structures.

Stereograms of 3 dates of aerial photographs of Love Canal landfill: 1938 (top), 1951 (middle) and 1966 (bottom); note water-filled trench (“T”) in 1938 is partially filled in 1951, and the area is fully developed in 1966. North is to the left.
While we were focused on containing, controlling and remediating landfills, the country began Earth Day celebrations, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to manage municipal and industrial waste, and the push to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was taking hold.

Recycling Problems

Toter 48-gallon recycling
container (photo from
Amazon); see P.S. for
story of recycle symbol).
The idea of recycling caught on big time with Americans, but the practice had failings, as a number of articles have pointed out. (Columbia University’s Earth Institute offers an excellent summary.)

To start, we haven’t been very good about recycling. Many items collected for recycling are not recyclable. Many recyclables become contaminated by being placed in the wrong recycling bin or in the same bin for single-stream recycling or by adding items that haven’t been cleaned.

And we’re still a throwaway culture. EPA reports that only about 35% of the 268 million tons of municipal solid waste we generated in 2017 was recycled or composted--66% of discarded paper and cardboard, 27% of glass, 15% of textiles and 8% of plastics.

Management of U.S. municipal solid waste, 2017
(from www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling).
Recycling of plastics is a special problem. Plastics are often contaminated, and consumer-goods companies are averse to purchasing recycled plastic that’s not as pure as new plastic. Moreover, though we may toss a wide range of plastics into our recycling bins, Greenpeace reports that only some PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastic bottles and jugs can be legitimately labeled as recyclable in the U.S. today. The rest is not recycled.

The China Connection
The problem that brought matters to a head is that we got into the habit of shipping our recycling to China--16 million tons of plastic, paper and metals in 2016--where they were used in manufacturing or disposed of. 

For decades, China was a major importer of recycled materials from the U.S. and other countries (from www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-01-27/us-shouldnt-let-china-win-the-plastic-trash-war).
In 2018, China cut global imports of plastics to near zero and of mixed paper by a third. Recycled aluminum and glass were less affected. When other countries stopped filling in, we found our own recycling infrastructure was ill prepared.

Lacking a federal recycling program, our processing facilities and municipalities have had to pay more to recycle or cut back and discard the waste.

Wrap Up
There is reason for cheer. The global recycling market for paper, cardboard and plastic is expected to grow. Companies are stepping up efforts to improve and make greater use of recycled plastic. And earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy announced up to $25 million in funding for plastics recycling research and development. The funding opportunity is part of the Department’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, a program to accelerate innovations in plastics recycling technologies.

To further support recycling, Columbia’s Earth Institute recommends improving the technology for sorting and recovering materials, incorporating more recycled material into products, getting these products into the marketplace and creating demand for them.

Now, we just have to transform our throwaway culture to one that reduces, reuses and recycles. Thanks for stopping by.

Love Canal:
Earth Day: www.earthday.org/history/
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act:
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle:
Recycling symbol designer: logoblink.com/img/2008/03/recycling_symbol_garyanderson.pdf
Recycling problems:
China’s ban on importing recycled plastics:
DOE funding for plastics recycling research: www.energy.gov/articles/department-energy-announces-25-million-plastics-recycling-rd-launches-upcycling-consortium

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