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Plastic recycling is a problem consumers can't solve (bloomberg.com)
640 points by danso on June 27, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 441 comments

This is a classic externality problem. We can berate consumers all day long to be more diligent in their recycling, but all that finger wagging is for show meant to distract from the real source of the garbage, the manufacturers.

Just like the classic "blame the user" mentality, the users were given an impossibly complex system with barely any incentive to get it right. Nothing about the interface is intuitive or discoverable.

The creators of all this garbage do so because it's profitable. They can create disposable and single use items, in thousands of variations, out of materials that create hundreds of years of environmental impact, and none of that consequence comes back to their bottom line. They'll happily point the finger all day long at us stupid users and inept local governments and bad China, as long as it all distracts from their culpability.

If we forced all producers of trash to account for its safe reuse, recycling or disposal as part of the cost of doing business, this problem would disappear quickly. Because here's the thing, the bill always comes due. If we let them skip out on it, then we will be the ones who pay.

This is such a big part of it and it's amazing that they get away with it.

Case in point: Blue Apron. Blue Apron positioned itself as one of the more "recycle-friendly" food delivery services to try and fight the stigma against every delivery having bags upon bags of individually wrapped goods by providing recycling services. As a former Blue Apron customer, I loved that I could separate stuff out (hard plastic, soft plastic, paper, etc.) and throw away anything that touched raw meat and just send it back to them in the same cardboard box I received it in.

Blue Apron then cancelled their recycling services and now just redirects people to do it themselves because "recycling is hard". Now, the number of people that will actually recycle will drop further and Blue Apron doesn't have to change its operations one iota. I cancelled my subscription as soon as they removed the recycling options because they wanted to put the blame on the end user instead of themselves for producing all that waste in the first place.

There is a solution here. Until it's financially incentivized for them to find it, though, we'll be stuck here creating more and more waste.

I wouldn't be surprised if "Pack the box back up and burn a bunch more jet fuel sending it back to New York" turns out to be even worse than just sending it all to the landfill.

Given that they require air mailing boxes full of (mostly, by weight) frozen liquids all over the place on a weekly basis, I'm not convinced that these meal kit services can ever be made sustainable. Compared to that cost, worrying about recycling and whether their food suppliers are organic or not seems like it's probably just bikeshedding.

It might be cool to see what a company like Imperfect Produce could come up with in this space.

We subscribed to Terra’s Kitchen after trying a few services including Blue Apron and Freshly.

Terra’s Kitchen, in addition to using non-disposable, durable vessels and cold packs that you return, also pre-chops and pre-preps many of the ingredients so meal prep and cleanup is truly 20-30 mins, which is half the time (or less) than Blue Apron.

Here are the vessels they use: https://www.terraskitchen.com/how-it-works/

Highly recommend.

I wonder if the added cost is worth it as far as freshness and quality are concerned. I know I'm not the typical case, but I never got a bad shipment from Blue Apron when I was using it. I really wish I could continue to use it but I just can't justify the amount of waste that piles up over just going to the store myself. I spend almost as much time unpacking and prepping everything for recycling.

So Terra's Kitchen basically sends customers a mini fridge filled with raw ingredients?

I wouldn't be surprised to see local distribution through grocery stores (whole foods/ralphs) dominate the subscription meal space over the next few years due to better distribution margins and economies of scale.

This is how it works where I lived in Europe. All the big grocery store chains have their own food subscription boxes, and instead of having it delivered home you can also just pick it up at your local supermarket on you way home from work.

Yes, this is how we do it here in sweden, perfect way of getting rid of the food that is getting close to the best before date without lowering the price. Also easier to sell vegetables that don't look so good.

I stull preffer to select mu goods by myself, it's well spent time away from the keyboard stress and I get to decide how much waste I want to produce by using my 10 year old cotton bags and let the fruit and veggies use their own packaging, that is anyway best for freshness.

That's where I was wondering about Imperfect Produce. It's a company that buys up fruits and veggies that the local distributor couldn't sell to the grocery stores for whatever reason, and delivers a weekly box of whatever they have to subscribers.

Our experience thus far has been that the produce sometimes has some cosmetic issues, but as often as not the only thing wrong with it is that it's just not the size that consumers typically expect, or the distributor just had excess stock. The food is almost always fresher, because it's coming straight from the distributor rather than sitting around on supermarket shelves for a while before you buy it.

Even when delivering, there are minor to moderate efficiencies related to route planning and sometimes electric cars. Electric freezer cars are used, relatively efficient. (dry ice is too expensive and dangerous)

Certainly they could be at least as sustainable as any grocery store; they’d just need to create more, smaller distribution centers closer to their customers. The DCs can get their supplies locally or via bulk shipments (and sort out recycling on-site) and then assemble the meal kits and add ice for the last mile.

Transporting ingredients in bulk to the DCs is more efficient than transporting a bunch of individually packaged and individually cooked meal kits.

It is amazing how often humans continue to essentially create new problems that are easily solvable on their own. A culture of convenience and throw-away (not my problem) or "I don't have the time for x" is why we keep having mountains of waste. Anyone who is concerned with waste can make the conscious choices to eliminate or reduce that waste in a lot of areas of their life.

1. Buy real food and cook it 2. Grow food or contribute to local co-op or farms 3. Make stuff you use all the time 4. Bring your own containers/bags

Usually these are the only options for a lot of things. But there are other cases where just having consumers fed up with companies like in the case above you can shift market incentives with your choice. Lush is a good example of this for instance.

It's a combined effort, you have to not be lazy and actually care about the choices you are making with where you spend your money and companies will respond to the demand. Sometimes it takes more effort, or you can just not buy X and see if you can either make your own alternative or not need X at all.

There are tons and tons of homemade things you can do to eliminate waste by just making it yourself. I've found it generally comes to a few constant categories where I generally produce the most waste.

- Food + Beverages - Hygenics

Sure there are the other areas where I produce trash, but those two categories are the ones where waste is produced every single day so the impact is a lot higher. The solution is relatively straightforward, make more things by hand or purchase goods closer to raw form (Lush seems to be a great example of one that can replace just about all of my hygenic material waste). And second, make more recipes by hand closer to the raw material ingredients and bring your own containers.

> Buy real food and cook it > Bring your own containers/bags

I eat out once a fortnight for dinner and once a week for lunch, and cook the rest of the time. The vast majority of what I buy is fresh food (fruit, vegetables, some small amounts of dairy, meat and pulses). Everything I buy is packaged in single use plastics. My lunch today, the tomatoes came in a cardboard box that was wrapped in plastic, the cucumber was shrink wrapped, the pitta breads came individually wrapped. There are two supermarkets I can choose from and both of them suffer the same problem. All the meat comes in disposable trays with a film covering, and a plastic inlet. Technically the tray is recyclable if I remove the meat and the inside tray and wash it, but my recycling services won't accept it in case it's contaminated by food.

My plastic toothpaste container comes in a cardboard box. My biodegradable bin liners come with a plastic wrapper to protect them.

This isn't something that I can fix, I don't have the option to buy unpackaged goods, or to provide my own containers.

* Toothpaste can be made and or bought from places like Lush where the alternatives can be zero waste. It's a bit out of the ordinary but there are options that even I'm surprised by it.

* Just about all produce/fruit is available without plastic wrapping (except for berries I've found, which is quite annoying). I think the only non-plastic option here is to just try and grow the fruit yourself. Or otherwise take the plastic and grind it into pellets to use for something else. There's some neat stuff related to this. I've also seen this as an option for most local farmers:


* Meat is next to impossible for this, but I've found meat available raw in paper wrapping when you get it in some places. This is usually in a place like Whole Foods, but even then the meat comes in a plastic covering like you mention.

I totally see what you're saying, I think I'm just looking at areas where large quantities of everyday plastic waste is avoidable. For instance, when eating out it's not unheard to bring your own container for leftovers instead of having them give you a styrofoam container for the food. And of course I say all this also realizing that a lot of people might not have access to all this ^ :(

For toothpaste, I had a look on the lush website [0]. For me to switch to that, I would be spending 6 times what I currently am on toothpaste, and would also need to travel an extra 3 miles to get to my nearest lush store.

> Just about all produce/fruit is available without plastic wrapping

Maybe if you're shopping in farmers markets. I shop in high street supermarkets, and it _isn't_ available. I have a choice of buying a 1kg bag of onions, or not buying onions. I can buy a 3 pack of bell peppers, or not buy bell peppers. I can buy a 6 pack of Golden Delicious apples, or I can not buy apples. I do try and buy less packaging, but unfortunately the odds are stacked against me.

[0] - https://uk.lush.com/products/tooth-fairy

Meat is easy for me, I just head to the butcher that’s next to the shops. Not only is it cheaper and higher quality, but the only plastic used is the extremely thin bag they wrap the meat in, and they’re happy to use paper instead if you bring it!

There's only one butcher (amazingly) in the area that I live in, and it's only open 8:30 - 5:30 Monday through Friday, which doesn't work for anyone working full time.

I think this is something that depends on the country. As someone used to buy raw food (without any plastic) I get surprised every time I travel to some more "civilized" countries where plastic is every where!

Anwyay, even in the fruit & vegetable shop, most of people pick small plastic bags to put and weight the food. I am one of the few ones that puts everything on the same bag.

We tried a local alternative to Blue Apron. They hand delivered to our doorstep. It was pretty well done and organized. Packaging didn't seem particularly wasteful to me. Might be worth checking around to see if anyone local is more friendly that way.

We did this as well. They would drop off essentially a gym bag full of food and ice packs on week one. Starting on week 2, you leave the bag, ice packs, and rinsed containers on your porch and they pick it up as they drop off the next batch. It worked great!

They eventually shut down the food part of their business to sell their food business software to other businesses, so we started using Sun Basket. Everything they send is locally recyclable, though I wonder how many people do it. I'm thinking of canceling because they've started including ads for unrelated stuff in their shipments. (This week some meal was "sponsored by" some stupid movie that comes out next week. Ugh.) Other than that, I've been fairly happy with their work.

Who did you end up using?

Not sure of the name. Some mom-and-pop startup in Utah County. My wife saw a coupon or ad for them and decided to try it out.

I quite liked the convenience and food and recipes, but my nagging guilt over the packaging waste and transportation waste of individually packaged and shipped food, even when recycling, is the reason I stopped taking Blue Apron. Shipping the recycling back to them didn't seem like a net positive either.

But at least they tried! I feel bad picking on Blue Apron when single using plastic water bottles are everywhere.

Don't get trapped in the fallacy of what-about-ism. Just because plastic bottles are a nuisance already present everywhere doesn't give other entities a license to produce more trash.

This is what Blue Apron recommends for "recycling" their freezer packs:

"We recommend cutting the ice pack open and disposing of the gel in the trash. You can then recycle on your own or send back to us!" [1]

Yes, you take the stuff out of the freezer pack bag and put it into a new bag, and recycle the old bag. Where does the new bag go? In the trash.

[1] https://twitter.com/blueapron/status/652141163948847104?lang...

This exact same thing happened with Amazon Fresh. Used to have a way to return ice packs, now you cannot. The instructions are the same: cut the pack, drain gel, recycle?

In Seattle, Amazon Fresh was using dry ice for a while. My friends and I would just cut up the block of dry ice and use it to smoke our cocktails.

Blue Apron's cold packs are ridiculous. The goop leaks onto the food, they're a nightmare to dispose of, and they're heavy; probably 75% of the weight of a BA box is the cold packs. If they used dry ice, the boxes would be much lighter weight -- saving on shipping costs -- and they would simply evaporate rather than needing to be trashed.

It might not be feasible for them. Shippers place pretty strict limits on how much dry ice can go onto one of their planes, on account of not wanting to suffocate the air crew mid flight.

Interesting. Didn't know this. And you're absolutely right: https://about.van.fedex.com/blog/dry-ice-shipments-in-air-tr...

Fortunately, people have built-in biological CO2 detectors. If it is just flight crew (no passengers), they all have oxygen masks they can use if the CO2 suffuses the cabin.

Umm, surely you can see that's a little crazy?

I'm all for environmental awareness - but it's a bit like the people saying, oh, why do you not use re-usable containers for everything, or do you really need to dishwash everything?

Things like food safety, and not making your customers sick are enshrined in law - and that's a good thing.

Even at my work, they aren't allowed to re-serve/re-heat things that have been served once, due to cross-contamination.

>[...]do you really need to dishwash everything?

You don't! Unless you have flies and cockroaches infested kitchen, some stray bacteria left after just water-washing will be much less harmful than eating the stuck-on-surface dishsoap (which does not rinse off completely, since it's hydrophobic). I have an even worse opinion of people constantly bleaching their countertops. shudder

As an anecdote, I once had a misfortune of living with a guy who would never rinse off the dishsoap from the dishes at all, just leave them out to dry still covered in suds!

Soaps and detergents are not hydrophobic. They are part hydrophilic and part lipophilic which is how they pull lipids into the water when you wash something.

I don't see what your reply has to do with my comment.

You're saying the CO2 risk is OK, because they have oxygen masks.

That's like saying, increasing the risk of crashing a car is OK, because we'll have airbags.

What I'm saying is (unless you're PETA), the welfare and safety of your fellow human beings will trump most other things.

There's a reason the crew already has oxygen masks.

The masks are there to survive sudden cabin decompression at high altitudes where the atmosphere is too thin to breath. There is only enough oxygen to last a few minutes.

Further reading: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-truths/truth-about...

> Fortunately, people have built-in biological CO2 detectors.

They’re not that sensitive, though, and the symptoms are ambiguous.

The CO2 would enter the food, and make it taste like a weird kind of seltzer.

Is all the food air sealed?

CO2 doesn't really go into anything to any significant degree unless it's under pressure.

And yet it did when I had food cooled by dry ice. So what counts more, what actually happened, or the theory?

The reason is that if the item is cold (especially right above freezing) you don't need much pressure to get CO2 to dissolve.

The food was weird it was all tingly and fizzy on the tongue. Kind of like the flavor of flat seltzer.

Solubility of CO2 in water at 0C and roughly atmospheric pressure is about 0.001337 mole fraction [0]. CO2 molecules are 44/18 times heavier than water molecules, so that's about 3.3g of CO2 dissolved in a liter of water. Carbonated water is usually specified in "volumes of CO2". One mole of gas at STP has a volume of about 22.4L, so one liter of CO2 weighs about 2g. "Lightly carbonated" is usually considered about two volumes of dissolved CO2, so 4g/L, which isn't much higher than 3.3g. Assuming the packaging is sealed well enough to maintain a high percentage of CO2 within, and the temperature is low enough, it looks plausible that there would be a noticeable change in taste/mouth-feel. This is confirmed by a study I found showing average taste threshold for dissolved CO2 in water of 0.26g/L [1].

[0] http://sites.chem.colostate.edu/diverdi/all_courses/CRC%20re... [1] https://home.zhaw.ch/yere/pdf/Teil16%20-%20Expression%20of%2...

The theory supports ars. Calculate before you downvote.

One exception: fermenting liquids can become super-saturated with CO2 even if fitted with an air-lock to vent the CO2 to atmospheric pressure. This might cause a rather messy surprise if you add powdered yeast nutrient to an ongoing fermentation and give it a lot of nucleation points.

I’ve experienced this issue just a tiny bit with my delivery of dip’n’dots with dry ice, but more noticeably when putting dry ice in a cocktail.

It is really noticeable in drinks with direct exposure to all that gas and ice. Solid food in a box? I don’t have as much experience with that, so I’m not sure.

> There is a solution here.

Rant: the solution is to learn how to read a recipe and cook without a paint by numbers erector set that has an unreasonable packaging:food ratio.

I’m fine with these services as a ‘gateway drug’ to independently cooking for yourself, but they’re insane as a long term thing.

(Not to mention that I have no idea how they stay viable in the long term, given their customer acquisition costs. If anyone makes it work in the long term it will be Amazon/Whole Foods.)

That's nonsense. I have formal culinary training and Blue Apron was never about needing to learn how to read a recipe and cook with "a paint by numbers erector set". It was almost exclusively about the convenience and ease of recycling what was sent.

You're projecting.

No,i agree with parent. What is so damn hard about picking a recipe and then ordering produce/goods from your local grocery accordingly? It seems wasteful to use a service like that purely for convenience.

Great. That's your prerogative. With Blue Apron, I didn't have to leave the house so it was incredibly convenient, the food was good, the variety of recipes was good, and I got to cook with ingredients that I never would have picked out on my own or that just aren't available at my local grocery store.

Convenience is the major factor but there are all kinds of pros to the Blue Apron service that I would continue to benefit from if it wasn't just for the incredibly wasteful packaging and processing. If they just shipped all that stuff without all the wrapping, I'd be fine with that. I've done farm boxes before that didn't need all the plastic.

It's much less wasteful to have many meals made up at once than for everyone to invent ad hoc meals. Also you just get enough of each ingredient for the meal instead of having to buy whatever unit size the grocery store feels like selling.

Doesn't address the bigger issue, but Sun Basket is for now a relatively environmentally-friendly one - a relatively small amount of paper/cardboard packaging only.

I was just fuming at the heavy coolant bags they ship in their packages that are not recyclable and recommended to be thrown in the trash. This is not progress.

This also reminds me, in a way, of the argument I always make about water waste.

Yes, it is great to keep your faucet off if you aren't using it. And yes, if enough people keep theirs off, it will make a big impact on water waste.

But as an individual, or a neighborhood, you will never waste as much as factory farms, chemical processing, and many other industries.

Add to it the fact that these companies produce these products, with these wasteful systems, to maintain profit margins so that they can enrich themselves.

If they were making them and breaking even, not paying themselves much. Like if it was a government run industry, and the demand was just so high for this shitty wasteful thing, maybe then you could blame the consumer.

But those who take the most profit accept responsibility.

> so they can enrich themselves

That's the only thing I take issue with here. Characterizing this as intentional misconduct muddies the waters. The line between cutting costs and benefiting from an increased share price is long and winding. Don't blame people; examine systems.

Where most of the money goes is back to keeping costs low for consumers, the same ones that are conscientiously keeping the tap water off.

Just because you can't easily put the blame on individuals doesn't mean they're not responsible. Our "system" is great at "blame laundering" or obfuscating ethical implications of decisions through diffusion of responsibility and removal of context at different boundaries. But the system itself is not a thing you can blame, as it's orchestrated by people who wanted it to work that way. Leaders who don't act to change the system are shitty leaders, and they are guilty.

> the system itself is not a thing you can blame, as it's orchestrated by people who wanted it to work that way

Strongly disagree with that assessment; viewing systems as solely the product of individual decisions is like viewing your brain solely as the product of the movement of individual atoms. You lose all predictive capability. If you do something immoral, is there some group of cells or atoms that I can directly 'assign blame' to?

A more nuanced and honest view would be to observe that certain structures predictably result in the some consequences, often regardless of the initial beliefs, desires, or moral righteousness of the individuals caught within them.

Sometimes the only way to change the outcome is to change the large-scale structure and incentives within the system. We can do that by changing laws, regulations, and also sometimes by naming and shaming certain individuals; but first we have to admit that systems do have 'a mind of their own'.

Actually measuring, or even hypothesizing about, the predictive capability of different models of varying levels of abstraction is something that happens disturbingly rarely in fields that aren't the hard sciences. I suspect an important (but not primary) reason for this is that most people simply don't have an opportunity to be exposed to the type of maths and analysis required for systems theory, and thus are extremely unlikely to surmise that something like systems theory is a distinct thing that can even exist.

If there is a hierarchical structure to the brain wherein some highly influential neurons direct the rest of the brain toward the immoral behavior, you can at least assign the lions share to them.

I do agree that carefully structured incentives and disincentives are the thing that can lead to the best outcomes.

Stealing the term "blame laundering" btw.

Seminal systems theorist Donella Meadows mentioned in an excellent talk[1] that she (and other "systems thinkers") tends to avoid blame entirely, due to understanding the constraints and incentives people operate under.

[1] Timecode to her comments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuIoego-xVc&t=12m55s

Start of her talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMmChiLZZHg&t=7m03s

That's an amazing talk, thank you

agreed, I appreciate the link.

> it's orchestrated by people who wanted it to work that way

This is exactly what I'm talking about. Capitalism is basically a force of nature, like evolution. Claiming anyone can orchestrate it is analogous to intelligent design.

I do agree that we all, and leaders more than most, bear responsibility to improve the system. But don't overestimate the capacity of any one person. If it were that easy to control complex systems, Obama would have closed Guantanamo.

Was one prison really so important to TPTB? I think not really. If Obama had actually done what he had claimed to have wanted to do, they wouldn't have implemented their "JFK solution" for that infraction alone. After all he dutifully expanded the murderdeathterrordrone program, just like the presidents before and after him. He persecuted more whistleblowers than any president before him, just like his successor is determined to do. If the spooks want to "get their torture on" near a beach, they can just fly to one of their "black sites" in Thailand or Indonesia. Insisting on a Caribbean beach is for jet-lag wimps.

It's instructive to compare Obama's Guantanamo promise to his successor's tariff and bigotry promises. There are far fewer intellectual objections to closing Guantanamo than there are e.g. to starting trade wars with allies or making racism the national immigration policy, and also it's unambiguously the ethical thing to do. Still, one leader is keeping his awful promises while the other couldn't keep his good ones.

And don't give me the "politics" crap. Democrats lost ground in every legislature in the nation, starting two years into Obama's administration and continuing into the present election cycle during which they will lose even more. [0] Whatever goal was supported by breaking his promise, it wasn't getting Democrats elected.

[0] Remember, once Republicans control 34 state houses (32 now) they can start passing whatever awful Constitutional amendments they want! Do you really want our Constitution to have something about who can use which public restroom? Because this total electoral ineptitude is how you make that happen... in 2020 we'll all have to vote Libertarian just to keep the Bill of Rights intact.

There is no "Powers That Be!". That's my whole point. Obama didn't do it because 1) he realized his entire presidency would be devoted on an uphill slog to better the lives of a couple hundred people, and 2) there was no simple answer as to where to put them. You can view the world through an us against them perspective, or you can actually try to understand how all the little bits of it interact with each other.

The simple answer is to let them go. You don't have to let them go in USA. If you can't bribe some Pacific island to take them along with all the Uyghurs, then release them in the benighted desert wasteland from where you kidnapped them. If the nominal government of said wasteland doesn't want them, use some of that good old CIA ingenuity to smuggle them in anyway. What better use of "Special Forces", than to fix previous screw-ups that used Special Forces?

The way to avoid "an uphill slog" is to just do it, via executive order. Obama knew about executive orders; he signed thousands of them while in office. That's a big reason why his successor has had such fun: while laws can only be changed by new laws, executive orders can be changed by new executive orders. Trump has staff whose only job is cataloging executive orders to overturn.

"National security experts" will tell us that the few hundred poor bastards we still have in the hole are some sort of existential threat to us a decade after we kidnapped them, but they are lying as usual. We are vulnerable to actual vulnerabilities, not random people with adverse sentiments. To lock up everyone who hates USA or the horrible things that USA does, we'd have to lock up about a billion people. To change the world, we must change ourselves.

Speaking more generally, this sclerotic way of thinking is why a cretin like Trump can get so deep inside the OODA loop of his political opponents. When they say "we just can't", it's because they can't find a lobbyist or think tank ghoul to tell them they can. When one considers all the truly awful things various politicians have decided they could do, it's a bit sickening.

It takes 3/4 of the states to pass an amendment to the constitution, that means 38 (yeah they round up from 37.5), not 34.

Haha of course you're right. I'm not sure what was going on in my brain when I typed that...

I would replace "orchestrate" with "influence". It's obvious it can be influenced negatively, to make the situation worse in context of this discussion -- otherwise the concept of bearing responsibility to influence it positively, which you acknowledge, would make no sense.

As for "force of nature", that just sounds like what someone living under monarchy might say about monarchy, etc. Yes, trading things is very old and very useful, but from that doesn't follow that the whole package including "obfuscating ethical implications" is a "force of nature" (which to me doesn't really read differently than "the will of God" btw)

> But don't overestimate the capacity of any one person.

We're first and foremost talking about personal responsibility. To speak about "the system" we should "improve" while kinda skipping about that is like talking about a beach while ignoring the concept of a grain of sand. The system is the people, the beliefs they have about the world, the other people, and so on. If you take away the people, there is no system. With different people, there is a different system.

Yes, I cannot easily just change the behavior of others. However, I can change mine, and there are a lot of things I declined to do because I value being able to look at myself in the mirror more than temporary material profit. What force of nature? I only saw and see a bunch of mediocre, insecure people who failed to drag me into their games.

When a group of hooligans steals money from a beggar just to be cruel I may not be able or dare to do anything about it. But it's very easy for me to refrain from stealing from a beggar. It's actually way easier for me to refrain from it than to do it. Other people developed differently, probably had different childhoods and so on -- but we still live in the same "system", and "just" behave very differently in it. That matters.

I agree with most of what you said. I'm not saying capitalism is a mysterious force we can't understand or control, just that it has emergent behavior that is more powerful than any individual directive that can be handed down. Look for another post further down describing this very well.

Monarchy is based on social hierarchy, which is literally a force of nature. So there's that.

It's easy for you to not steal, and that's great. Just remember to credit your parents who raised you, a healthy environment of anyone that you grew up in, and the fortune not to be catastrophically impoverished at a young age. I'm not saying your environment could inside you to steal now (I don't know you), but I assure you, a childhood where you were raised in a lawless gang would not have gifted you the same set of moral values.

I understand what you are getting at, but it seems like "blame the system" is an effective excuse for capitalism to literally destroy the planet we live on.

If you subscribe to the "a fool and his money are soon departed" philosophy, which is essentially like, "well if they want products that destroy the world I will give them that" you are passing the moral accountability buck onto human society in its entirety.

We know that a human is smart, but that people are dumb. We also know that people are responding to norms that they are taught. So you can't teach people to buy your products no matter what with endless advertisements but expect them to change their lives for "the greater good" when your company would literally do anything possible to make a buck.

That's a disproportionate amount of responsibility when "people" as a rule are just doing what they do to get by, but you are doing what you do to get a mansion.

I don't disagree with you, but the systems-level view is important not insofar as it shows us who to blame, but because it shows us the kinds of solutions that might actually work.

The combination of incentives over the entire system must produce the correct emergent behavior. So, for example, instead of trying to get individuals to voluntarily use less carbon without changing anything else (this will never work), you can educate the public, pressure politicians, and end up with a large-scale carbon tax (although this particular case may be wishful thinking!).

> We know that a human is smart

Not every person is smart, nor does that translate into correct behavior. Even herd mentality has limits.

But the water you and I waste by leaving the sink on, goes back to the water supply.

It is not like drywall manufacturing, where the water is tainted and should not be put back into the supply.

Sort of, but not really. The water on the input side of your tap is much more valuable than the sewer side.

It's not usable for drinking water, it is usable for greywater purposes. If you've got a septic system, it'll go through that into the local ground water, if not, it'll go into the septic sewer and eventually to a treatment plant, and from there a river.

If it was originally aquifer water, you've taken (likely) high quality water from a diminishing resource and put it in the environment.

Northern California gray water and black water is treated and sent to Southern California as drinking water.

So it depends on where you are.

Is this for real? I didn't know this. Any links?

> and from there a river.

And from there it goes to the next community downstream.

Yes, and I think their point is that the big manufacturers are just going to waste the water you saved, too.

We still get yellowpages telephone books vomited on our porch to throw away, about twice a year. Three guys in an overloaded car grace us with them, one guy on each side of the street, throwing yellowpages at houses, and one guy driving.

All paper recycling does is keep paper prices low enough that these people can afford to print these things and force them on every household in a city. Remind me why I should be recycling a renewable resource again? You end up subsidizing marginal paper using businesses, who enjoy cheaper paper prices because of the efforts of millions of people, all because society thinks tree farmers should be paid less.

Because you're a good citizen, just doing their part! Maybe if we virtue signal enough, they'll save the dolphins!

This is also an important distinction which I forgot to touch on.

You'll never waste as much as is used in plastic recycling either. The number of separate hot and cold washing stages is quite astonishing.

People behaviour matters indirectly at least. If the environment is important enough in people mind that it affects their behaviours, you bet that politician will play on that card. Similarly, as an investor, if you notice the trend, you will find investing in wasteful companies to be riskier.

“The creators of all this garbage do so because it's profitable”

Isn’t this rather something that market forces demand, i.e. the consumer choosing the cheapest option? Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with the rest of what you’re saying, I just think that the businesses aren’t as evil as you portray them to be.

In the end, the solution is probably government regulation by subsidizing alternatives and/or a complete ban on disposable plastics. But even then, when considering the planet as a whole, the Western countries are hardly the biggest pollutors, so we need some world-wide collaboration on this.

>i.e. the consumer choosing the cheapest option

This is what he means by "externality". The disposable plastic garbage isn't really the cheapest option. It's just that the real cost of all the garbage isn't priced in at market.

Remind me again why the 'real cost' of plastic is higher than all the other garbage we put into landfill?

I know there is something going on with microplastics or somesuch that I'm not up to date on, but I would have thought that sealing it in a big hole in the ground would be cheap, effective and safe.

One example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch

A life cycle analysis might hypothetically conclude that landfills are a perfectly sustainable solution to plastic. Unfortunately a lot of this stuff makes it into the ocean instead where it will not biodegrade and will interfere with fisheries and ecosystems. Properly structured economic incentives and laws could solve this problem, as they have solved many problems in the past.

How much waste is making it from a landfill to the GPGP? I'd bet about 0% in the West. Studies have shown that most of the waste in the GPGP is from rivers in Asia.

In my town, it'd be cheaper/better for the environment to landfill all the waste instead of sending it overseas to be "recycled." Our city recently prohibited placing cardboard in the trash. Something I would have thought is easily broken down...

Cardboard is one of the most valuable recyclables.

Additionally, landfills are expensive to build and run so some municipalities are pushing recycling, composting, etc as a cost saving measure. Less trash into landfill, the longer until we have to build a new one.

In the anaerobic environment of a landfill paper takes an extremely long time to break down. There have been excavations of landfills where they found 60 year old newspapers that were still readable. There was so little oxygen in the pile, the process of breaking down the starches, cellulose and ink was taking place with inefficient anaerobic processes rather than much more efficient aerobic processes.

Long story short, a landfill is not the same as a compost heap. Compost heaps are routinely turned over and disturbed to ensure that oxygen permeates through to the core of the heap. A landfill, on the other hand, is explicitly designed not to do that, in order to contain potentially hazardous materials that may leach out of the waste contained therein.

I'm not an expert but I'd imagine the fact that it doesn't really biodegrade would be a reasonably big factor.

Yeah, but ... most things in the earth's crust don't biodegrade. Sandstone doesn't really biodegrade, and we have a lot of sandstone near where I live. What makes plastic worse once it is covered with a layer of soil?

Burying garbage in a big hole in the ground is not a sustainable solution.

Maybe it is? We can dig some pretty deep holes. It may not be pretty but seems to work.

I guess I've never really thought about it from an unbiased perspective before. How bad are landfills if they are done in some sort of long-term strategy? You can cover over the landfill and make new land with it (many parks are basically this). But I worry about things like battery acid and other chemicals seeping into the water table or causing who knows what damage to the soil.

At least on its face if you're putting the plastic deep in the ground, from whence it came, maybe that's a decent intermediary solution.

But I would also agree with anyone who says its not sustainable. The amount of waste we produce seems a little insane compared to other creatures on the planet.

The Earth has 5-10 billion years left at most, whatever we do to it (unless we reach the point of being able to change its orbit). Less if we're unlucky and get hit by an asteroid etc.. So there's no such thing as truly sustainable, only "good enough".

Im not sure if you correctly understand what the word "sustainable" means. X is sustainable IFF you can keep doing X forever and not have it kill you eventually. "Seems to work" is perhaps a sub-optimal policy objective.

There's absolutely nothing that you can do indefinitely and not have it kill you.

Not having it kill you isn't the best metric, but land is currently a finite resource.

Pretty much every physical object we had started out underground and was mined by human or plant activity, except for the minerals that are synthesised directly from the air.

It isn't a hill I'm going to fight on, but 'land is a finite resource' has, to me, always meant arable farmland and prime coastal real estate. There is no actual shortage of land. At best, there might be a shortage of prime away-from-water-table-with-less-permeable-rock-surroundings sites that are ideal for landfill - but I doubt that is true.

For example, the deepest mine is about 4km deep, and about half the atmosphere is within 5km of the surface of the earth. Running out of landfill space in that sense is like running out of oxygen. The only limits are transport costs and making sure the landfill is either non-toxic or kept well away from water (which, economically speaking, might be a substantial limit but plastics are clearly quite inert, because we store food in them and they apparently don't degrade).

EDIT But the key point here is that these costs aren't externalities. The people paying for them are the consumers who are buying the plastic. If landfill costs go up, municipalities will start to charge more for waste disposal and consumers will favour products with less packaging.

It is just environmental debt that the next generation would have to pay.

It can still be the cheapest option even after pricing in the externality. A lot of people forget this, because they advocate such Pigovian taxes with the intent of stamping out the good, irrespective of the (edit: net) value it provides.

I very rarely see anyone come in with the attitude of: "Hey, burn all the gas you want once we have the appropriate carbon taxes!"

One problem with environmental degradation is that effects are often non-linear whereas taxes are typically linear. So "do all the X you want" is not the appropriate response if the tax is simply used as a lever to move behaviour in one direction.

On the other hand, if the government is selling emission rights then this can model non-linear effects. Then it makes sense to say, "go on, use your rights to the full extent."

If you won't quantify how bad the damage is and how much you'd need to erase it, and therefore what at what tax rate you'd be fine with someone consuming to their heart's content, then you think the cost is infinite and therefore have no business proposing policy to begin with.

"Someone consuming to their heart's content" is not bounded.

It seems to me you're arguing that just because a tax is a blunt tool it shouldn't be used at all. But tax rate doesn't have to be set in stone, it can be adjusted dynamically in a feedback loop.

No, I'm saying that advocates should be clear about what the precise harms are and that taxes should be used to ameliorate the harms of the taxed activity, and that anyone unable to put such numbers on it is not advocating a serious policy we should listen to.

I didn't mean to imply that companies are evil, but amoral. Unless it's controlled by a single or small group of owners(who could inject their personal values), a company must be governed by its profit motive. They're like the proverbial paperclip maximizer AIs.

Competition will always drive companies to produce their widgets at the lowest possible cost and a great way to reduce costs is to externalize them. They will do this to exactly the extent that we allow them. Limits have already been placed on companies in a million ways to get them to play by our rules. If only our legal codes could be as simple as the three laws of robotics...

Easiest solution would be a tax on petroleum as it comes out of the ground. That discourages both plastic and greenhouse gas.

Now how high would that tax need to be to so that everyday goods would dump plastic? And what would that mean for other uses of petroleum?

Let's say you want a plastic bottle to cost 0.1$ more, so that alternative options are considered, and you tax it on the original petroleum and gas processed, what does that represent for the fuel used in a plane?

The problem is that not every use is equal, some are more necessary than others and pricing things by a general tax is not a right solution.

Many countries are banning plastic plates and bags for instance, because their benefit is nearly 0 and their cost is super high because many people just throw them away randomly. On the other hand airplane fuel is not easily replacable right now, so it should probably be taxed less (but still taxed enough to encourage other alternatives to develop).

You don't need to pick and chose good vs bad uses. If their are no alternatives then a small price increase is not a big deal. The most effective policy is one applied evenly that let's the market adjust to externalities.

So really oil should be taxed directly, then you tax plastics above and beyond that as needed. But, you never want to apply discounts for some specific use.

> Now how high would that tax need to be to so that everyday goods would dump plastic? And what would that mean for other uses of petroleum?

Charge what it costs to clean up, and spend the tax on cleaning it up.

> The problem is that not every use is equal, some are more necessary than others

That's exactly why the price mechanism works - the necessary uses will continue to happen even at a higher price, while the frivolous ones will stop.

Propose this, and even implement it. Then the first economic downturn, whoosh, out the door. Politicians promising the masses the snake oil of economic booms based on cheap energy, driven by lobbyists from the oil industry. Stop me if you heard this one before, but hey, it's reality.

It would certainly be good for the planet, but since petroleum is an input early in the production chain, that would cause price inflation, resulting in higher costs and lower demand, e.g. 70’s stagflation. Also black markets and resource contention.

Businesses also regularly campaign to not have to take into account their externalities, though.

I don't know what distinction you're really drawing. Polluting production reduces the costs for producers.

It should be more expensive to pollute. The problem is that clean-up costs are not factored into production.

And who's the biggest lobby for keeping them factored out?

It rhymes with "choke".

I feel the same thing about renewable energy and climate change - a top down approach could have such massive impact, but a bottom up approach is so difficult. There are thousands of groups (there are literally a dozen probably coordinating together in my mid sized city alone) all trying to do the same work from the bottom up and on the ground with churches, local governments, individuals etc but it requires so much pressure and buy in from your average citizen to get anything done that way.

I've seen this logic applied to trash in the wilderness, and it's maddening. "Don't blame the consumer for leaving trash everywhere, blame the manufacturers for creating non-biodegradable trash."

Setting aside that even biodegradable trash is harmful to animals, it's ridiculous to absolve people of basic hygiene requirements. If you can haul it in, you can haul it out.

"Don't leave shit in the forrest" is far easier to understand and enforce, however.


There a orders of magnitude less producers of one time use plastic items than there are consumers of them though, so it's vastly easier to regulate on the production end than the consumption end.

Clear example of how the market fails the efficiency test: look at the trend in water bottles and aluminum cans getting taller and skinnier. Takes up more visual space on the shelf. Looks bigger and more substantial, but actually has less product inside. Takes more material and energy to produce. But the markup is larger = more profit! (also a PITA because tall skinny things have a tendency to fall over, but who cares). Producers are cynically anti-consumer and anti-efficiency, completely pro-profit.

What you're talking about is called, in economics jargon, "externalities". The solution is to internalize the externalities, and that is efficiently done with a tax.

I.e. put a tax on plastic. I'd favor a tax on styrofoam peanuts, for example. Have you ever spilled a bag of them outside? I did once by accident. Spent hours picking them all up one by one as they blew around.

Give me crumpled paper padding any day over those damnable infernal peanuts.

Some times you need pioneers to show that bringing a reusable cup or riding a bike isn't the same as going back to Dickensian times. You need people onboard to pressure politicians into changing laws.

Completely agree. In school, we studied the concept of producer responsibility. It's treated as radical even though it neatly fits into seemingly all ideologies. It allows the market to be efficient and it solves the problem of pollution. You need a beat cop though as the incentive to cheat is there.

Except it can also be solved consumer side as well, move over to materials that can easily be reused after being put through a dishwasher and charge a deposit on these items, also structure grocery stores to be in a way that is zero or low waste. The problem exists at every step of the chain, where we should primarily focus on reducing and reusing rather than trying to solve the problem of recycling.

>If we forced all producers of trash to account for its safe reuse, recycling or disposal as part of the cost of doing business, this problem would disappear quickly. Because here's the thing, the bill always comes due. If we let them skip out on it, then we will be the ones who pay.

There's no easy way to do that, as long as we don't have a single planetary government, and as long as we have trade. The producers are in one country, the consumers in other countries, and there's no easy way to implement policies like those you advocate. You'd have to implement insanely complex treaties, which the producer countries aren't going to sign on to.

Much easier is for consumer countries to figure out on their own how to deal with the waste effectively. That might require tariffs, but that's something a single county can easily implement.

In the end, I see this as a technical problem. It's entirely possible to create mostly-automated plants which can process waste and recycle it. We already have such plants: you can see them on YouTube. We just need to build a lot more of them.

> There's no easy way to do that

Leading consumer market governments have been using progressive import controls for many decades to do exactly that. It may not be trivial and it may not be free, but this task is no different in principle from how California's CARB forced carmakers worldwide to adopt more stringent NOx emissions standards, or European regulators forced safer food additives to be used worldwide, or the US FDA forced more stringent drug safety standards worldwide.

Even private companies can be pretty good at this, when someone has to pay for the damage: the IIHS is private (it was formed because NHTSA was not doing as good of a job as insurance companies wanted) and effectively dictates car safety standards on a global scale.

I am not a trade lawyer - but I think this is logical.

If a market imposes the same tax to ANYONE selling in it, irrespective of origin, based on the quality or type of product, then it is not a 'tariff' (an unequal tax based on origin country) but a market tax.

Thus a tax based on the waste-handling cost for ineffective packing or non-durable uses of difficult to re-manufacturer resources could be an effective way of pricing the damage to the commons back on to the individual actors at a point where change can occur because of the pressure.

The EU legislates product safety by making the person who made it available within the EU legally responsible. This is always an EU based entity. If you want to sell something which falls under a range of product classifications within the EU, you have to take responsibility for that product's safety.

Yes, manufacturing may happen overseas, but generally the product is still sold to the consumer by a locally based entity. Legislating that sellers are always responsible for disposing of products they sell isn't hard - we already do it for electronics with the weee directive.

>Yes, manufacturing may happen overseas, but generally the product is still sold to the consumer by a locally based entity.

What about online sales that are shipped from overseas? Legislating against sellers isn't going to work well when the seller is on AliExpress and shipping in a small package from China.

Why can't it be both a supply and a demand problem?

No actor should be immune to criticism, don't you think?

You're right. And the point is only one side is currently being criticized: the consumer. Nothing is being done on the other side except for all out bans. There is an array of solutions. Pricing is a great one IMO. If that single use plastic bottle of Coke is $1.99 instead of $1.49, and that 50c goes into funding clean up of plastic waste, that's a good market signal. A metal can has recycling value so maybe it isn't charged the 50c fee. And therefore we see more cans in use with more consumer-side recycling.

This conversation of externalised abstract costs is very closely related to the “true cost” of “fast fashion” (colloquialism for cheap and ephemeral but stylish clothing now available en masse). Those interested, please take some time to watch the documentary “the true cost” by Andrew Morgan. It is available on Netflix. While that movie is mostly about the human cost not being borne by the customers (because of the failure in the global system to impose the cost on manufacturers) - it touched upon the pollution cost as well.

It’s not them that will pay the bill though, it’s us, and rightly so. If we want manufacturers to build recyclability into their products, it’s up to us to make the rules to ensure they do so, and pay the increased costs for the goods we buy. There’s no point pretending that only manufacturers are culpable and only they will pay the costs. We’re all in this together.

There is a way for consumers to solve the problem themselves, but boycott is a four letter word.

>"...the bill always comes due..."

Yes. But it's __always__ the consumer that pays that bill. Increase in the cost of anything simply gets added to the price.

Yes. You might get manufactures to change. But the consumer is still the one who pays.

The whole point of the concept of environmental externalities and the tragedy of the commons is that the bill comes due for all of us, or our future generations, because a select few consumers got to exploit the environment, courtesy of the manufacturers. The point of the discussion is that this is fundamentally unfair, and consumers should pay that bill.

Furthermore, the cost of the bill is often exaggerated. Yes, retooling the manufacturers' plants to avoid externalizing environmental costs is a large one-time investment that will be passed on to the consumers. But that must be done to stop destroying our environment, and after that initial investment is paid off, the running cost of producing the goods will in almost all cases come back down to what it currently is, so the consumer price will come back down too.

Tragedy of the commons is the best argument I've ever heard for why we need government and the rule of law.

That's fine, but if the consumer pays the real cost up front, people will behave appropriately for whatever that cost is. By hiding the real cost, we distort the market and people make different choices.

Agree. I was simply pointing out that in the end it's the consumer who pays, not the Inc.

It's not impossible, you just have to take the time and effort to do the research.


You're right. It's more about production than consumption. I think there should be more standardized way of producing waste, in terms of material, shape and size.

> The creators of all this garbage do so because it's profitable

See: Tile.

This kind of thing is the biggest case for government regulation. There are just some things that capitalism alone will never incentivize.

Perhaps we should start doing something like what Taiwan did with their trash: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/separation-anxiety/

> The trucks only accept trash bags officially sanctioned by the government of Taiwan which come in a distinctive blue color, complete with an official seal. The bags range in price and size, from 3 liters to 120 liters. The most popular bag is 25 liters (similar to a tiny bathroom wastebasket liner), which costs about $5 for a pack of 20. This effectively makes a pay-as-you-waste model, incentivizing citizens to recycle and compost as much as possible since those services are offered for free. The musical garbage trucks are tailed by a recycling truck, where workers help the residents sort their recyclables and compost into thirteen distinct bins. Should people fail to sort their materials properly, the government will fine them up to $200.

Targets the wrong place. It may reduce contamination of recycling streams, but does nothing to encourage less production.

Perhaps a combination approach: $5 for a pack of small bin liners, or return your waste to the shop for free.

If Tesco were filled with piles of consumer waste given back to them I posit the problem would be on the way to being solved within weeks.

In Germany we had rules that shops have to take back packaging, but especially with online shops this just wasn't used enough, so now the shop or manufacturer has to pay a (weight-based) fee for all the packaging they give to consumers. Pretty small though from what I've heard.

I’d be in favor of requiring manufacturers to take back unneeded product packaging, paying for postage if necessary.

EDIT: Reading more of this thread, it looks like everyone is suggesting this, so my comment does not add much.

So why is this obvious solution not implemented?

Because mailing garbage is a terrible idea. It's worse for the environment that almost all other options.

So is driving your garbage back to the store where you bought something.

The whole process, taken as a whole, just doesn't make any environmental sense.

Unless it's a store that you have to drive to anyway. For example, my dry cleaner years ago used to "recycle" hangers. You could bring back your hangers from the previous time and get like 2 to 10 cents off your current order for each hanger you returned. (Don't recall the exact amount, probably closer to 2 cents if I think about it.) This was nice because you were going there anyway, and also because you didn't end up with a closet full of empty hangers!

This is also what we did with soda cans when I lived in Michigan. You'd pay 10 cents extra per can, and then get it back when you returned them. If you didn't return them, the state had 10 cents to use to clean up waste produced by that can. If you did, you got your money back and the can got recycled. It seemed to work pretty well. I remember a year after they started the program noting how much cleaner the roads seemed because people were going out and picking up cans to return them and fewer people were throwing them out their car windows.

Most plastic waste is from weekly groceries. No one in their right mind would make a special trip to take the junk back, simply take a black sack with the previous week's garbage when next going shopping. It would be no additional cost and minimal inconvenience.

It's how recycling used to work. There were big skips for glass, paper, textiles etc in most supermarket car parks. They were well utilised by shoppers before entering the store. Before that we used to return the empties for reuse within the store.

If a campaign of returns caused supermarkets to restrict suppliers, and create less in the first place, I would do so diligently.

At least here, experience showed that people do not bring stuff back, I don't think mailing it back would be any better: if they don't want to bring packaging to the store, will they carry it to the post office to mail back?

It also seems like a massive environmental waste to ship individual packages of garbage around, when you can handle it locally just as well, and have manufacturers pay for it.

> So why is this obvious solution not implemented?

I have no inside information but I think it is because manufacturers will collude to add this as a visible added cost to the cost of the product. Consumers will think stuff became more expensive because of some idiots in DC/Brussels.

It's a collective action problem like any other. Collusion on a wide scale in competitive markets is pretty damn difficult, since one company can change their manufacturing processes to produce less waste and suddenly undercut everyone else's prices. "Passing the whole price increase onto the consumer" rarely withstands scrutiny, excluding cases with very low demand elasticity or very oligarchic suppliers. Neither of these are the case for the vast majority of packaged goods that are sold.

The incentive to minimize their packaging already exists though, both in shipping costs and just the material costs.

>It may reduce contamination of recycling streams, but does nothing to encourage less production.

Sure it does. If you're going to slapped with a $200 fine every time you screw up with your recycling, and you have to pay by the bag to throw stuff in the landfill, if you have half a brain, you're going to think twice about every purchase you make, and if you really need it. That $1 water bottle that costs you $200 because your kid threw it in the wrong bin is going to make you not want to give your kid another disposable water bottle.

Producers only produce as much product as consumers purchase. Less consumption will result in less production.

Or it may just create perverse incentives fir people to throw everything in landfill. Not 100% sure where to put that $1 drink bottle, throw in the trash and don't risk a $200.

Not sure how that could be prevented.

Throwing recyclable goods in to the landfill bag nets you a fine. That's the whole point - you sort correctly, or you pay up. If you are unable to sort your trash - you don't buy stuff. The landfill bags are for non-recyclable items.

That makes no sense as policy. 1 cubic metre of landfill space costs the same whether you fill it with "recyclable" or "non-recyclable" items.

> If Tesco were filled with piles of consumer waste given back to them

I vaguely remember seeing something about this happening in Germany where households are charged by the amount of rubbish that has to be collected. So people unwrap things in the shop and leave the packaging behind.

Honestly, companies really ought to be charged for the disposal of all that packaging they choke their products with. There seems to be no back pressure stopping manufacturers from wrapping a 10g USB stick in 400g of plastic packaging/advertising.

It’s not perfect but it tries to price an externality back in. Consumers may demand better packaging if this was a thing in the US, providing manufacturers to improve their waste level.

Less production means less growth - means less future revenue - which means less chance of paying off all those loans predicated on consumption growth patterns.

Also - consumption isn’t all bad. There’s many poor people who can’t afford much, and we very much are promising a better life where they can consume goods and lead healthy lives (goods such as medicine, clean water and chocolate as much as Coca Cola in a plastic bottle)

And also - if people were charged for old school packaging, costs would go up. People wouldn’t buy as much and this would start a new round of economic troubles.

At its price point, I suspect that plastic is so cheap, that even with all the pollution and waste being collected, it’s still ends up with positive utility.

There’s a report on carry bags which shows reusable cloth bags have significantly higher environmental impact because of the cost of production costs, water use and eventual decay into some carbon gas like Methane.

They do it really straightforwardly where I live in Wales. Garbage is collected every six weeks, from a 120L wheelie bin. Recycling (six streams) is collected weekly. Either you recycle, or you drown in trash.

Is careful sorting of trash/recycling really a good use of time?

Seems better to put that effort towards development of techniques to sort en-masse. Likely controversial, but I think there is also an argument for simply throwing hard-to-recycle items in a landfill. If consumption continues to increase, it will likely become economically viable to eventually mine those landfills for raw materials.

I'd say yes it is a good use of our time. I really want ours to be the generation that stops punting problems out to the next generation. I'd be happy if my friend's children don't need to grow up worrying about how to deal with oceans filled with plastics, global warming induced fire storms and flooded coastal cities.

Isn't our generation the most overworked, least-amount-of-free-time one? How does this extra job fit into that major issue?

By exercising other parts of your brain you let those used for work recover.

I'm hoping this is sarcasm. If not, I don't need the government assigning me work to "exercise other parts of my brain" thanks.

I'm pretty careful about following my city's recyling guidelines, but I don't think recycling is always the right way to handle a material. It doesn't neccessary solve the problems you mentioned.

Improperly sorted plastics are burried in a landfill. They will not fill the ocean with plastic whether recycled or trashed. Global warming is mostly a matter of energy usage, so recycling only helps that when it's more energy-efficient than the alternative.

The fact that beaches around the world are covered in huge quantities of washed up plastic suggests that someone, somewhere is dumping an awful lot of it into the ocean. (And not just in Asia)

It's mostly Asia dumping.

Interestingly, many of the things that we've though would be huge problems in the future turned out to be non-issues or much less of an issue than we thought. A few examples:

-Population crisis

-Peak oil & oil crisis

-Global cooling concern in the 1970s

-Ozone crisis

-Rainforest crisis

-Worldwide food shortage

You mean to say that we have stopped cutting down entire rainforests??? Do tell me when this miracle happened?

How about the fact that we are going to be 10 billion by the end of the century?

And the only reason that we have managed to avoid a food shortage has been the increase in the use of fertilizers which in turn is depleting the soil at a faster rate than ever before turning arable land into dust bowls and rivers becoming so polluted by the chemicals that there are massive extinction events in the population of fish all around the world?

Same for the oil crisis, the shale oil has stopped the crisis in its tracks but only for a short amount of time as the demand keeps on rising and inevitably the price per liter/gallon is going to be back to what it was before the GFC. Also, fracking is polluting the soil more than ever before.

In short most of the crises that you mentioned have not been solved, but simply delayed.

Eventually, they will catch up with us and somebody is going to have to pay? But who? Most likely taxpayers as always.

What I find baffling is what are you going to say to your kids/ grand-kids when they ask you where the forests went? Why is the air so polluted? Why are the rivers so toxic and completely empty?

Should I go on?

I'd highly recommend checking out "Enlightenment Now". Lots of interesting points in there but one of the most eye-opening is that many environmental problems are best solved indirectly.

People generally don't want to live in smog/pollution if they have a choice but will do whatever it takes to survive even if that means harming the environment.

For example, no amount of lecturing or rainforest protests are going to stop people that depend on slash & burn for survival. Best option is to open up trade, provide GMOs & fertilizer, and provide economic opportunity so they have options other than slash & burn.

You also see this with China, they've made huge progress environmentally, mostly because they can now afford to.

Putting a coke bottle in a recycling vs trash can does nothing to reduce its probability of ending up in the ocean. But doubling the number of trucks picking up waste at my house does double the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

Trucks in my local area of London pickup both mixed recycleables and landfill waste in a single visit - waste is separated into two bins, and the truck has two separate receptacles for waste. No extra ongoing emissions, streams are kept separate, and the household overhead of sorting is negligible.

There is an entirely separate, less frequent service that collects organic waste, so there’s probably some overhead there.

Assigning me a chore that benefits a business that I pay a service fee for is unacceptable. I'm paying them to take away my waste. If they want to sort it or alphabetize it or apply the Dewey decimal system they're welcome to. But I won't do chores for someone else without an employment agreement and adequate compensation.

Do you feel the same way about putting your trash in bins (or even bags), as opposed to leaving individual items strewn about your lawn for them to pick up? Do you feel the same way about getting your car to the mechanic instead of having him pick it up from wherever you left it?

The line you're drawing to define "labor done on behalf of a paid service provider" is laughably ridiculous. The service they provide is "picking up sorted bins of trash". You're not "doing their work for them" to meet the terms of the paid service agreement.

I can get the car picked-up for repair if I want to. Where can I subscribe for a service "picking up unsorted garbage"? The problem is that garbage collectors are granted monopoly and use it to extract free labor from customers.

This is govt monopoly btw, not some private monopoly like Google (which is earned and can go away).

No one stops anyone from providing that service.

Maybe it depends on the city, but often it's a municipal government granted monopoly. E.g. in San Francisco it's Recology.


I bet, each city, that enforces waste sorting, has a monopoly.

Sorry, I should have been clearer. What I meant is a sorting service, not a collection service.

I feel the same way. There need to more options to waste management. I don't want to feel obligated to sort out trash. Take my trash, sort it out and bill me.

This is insanity on stilts.

If everyone is personally familiar with the effort that goes into sorting trash/recycling, then they may be more likely to reduce their trash usage.

I believe some of them can't be mixed, like if you throw something oily and paper in the same bin, the paper can't be used anymore. Also plastic bags make things very difficult to sort, and are difficult to separate from other things.

I'm skeptical that it will ever be economical in a scalable way to mine landfills, but I don't know enough to dispute it.

> Is careful sorting of trash/recycling really a good use of time?

Price mechanisms let you answer that question yourself. Say you have 5 bags' worth of rubbish of which 3 bags' worth is recyclable. You can either spend the time to sort the one from the other, or you can pay for 2 extra bags.

Yes it is a good use of time. Our community (400K) has a green bin program as well as recycling. Green bins are for organic waste. Our community's landfill diversion rate is 81%. Landfill waste only needs to be picked up once every two weeks. We are looking to increase landfill diversion rate through textile recycling.

So yes it is good because it is the only solution we have on hand that is effective. Development of reclamation techniques should be done in parallel to landfill diversion.

Whoever's first to figure out garbage mining will be phenomenally wealthy.

Is mining something from a landfill really a good use of time?

Only if it can be automated in the future.

Single-stream recycling is pretty wasteful, so probably.

Switzerland does this too, the bags have a little stamp or sticker that costs $5. There are also 10 different bins to presort waste. It works quite well. They put a lot of effort into the design and ease of use at the collection stations (which are free vs the for pay garbage). It's called "polluter pays".

They also enforce like Taiwan, $10,000 find for illegal dumping. And they actually look through your trash for bills and letters with your address. The Swiss don't seem to love the system, more like tolerate it.

Cool pictures:


There's a picture of the 10 bin recycling thing halfway down this page:


This is a very bad idea, because people will just throw out trash in the environment. It is a thousand times better to have trash thrown in a proper dump rather than on the street, in a back alley or in the wilderness. Most of the plastic trash that is causing problems is improperly dumped trash.

which costs about $5 for a pack of 20

I’ve never understood why recycling wasn’t self-sustaining, isn’t there value in the raw material?

When I was young reusing was the thing; a glass milk bottle went back to the dairy was sterilised and used again the next day. One bottle, with a recyclable aluminium foil lid, could be used again and again and again. Nowadays we make a glass bottle, use it once, then melt it down and make a slightly different bottle, and we think that’s green!

Some recyclables are really valuable (metal, quality cardboard), but others that we really want to recycle aren't particularly (plastics, glass). Also, morons throw shocking amounts of obvious trash into the recycling stream, which is a huge pain for recyclers, and thus can significantly devalue what should otherwise be a profitable stream of recycling.

What's obvious trash? I look at the labeling on recycling and compost cans in my area and I honestly have no clue what I can recycle and what I can't. My choices are to throw away potential recyclables or recycle trash. People aren't morons, you've just built a bad system.

And to clarify, I'm talking about recycling bins in fast food restaurants and grocery store delis. I've got a pile of used paper and plastic that I just ate off of. What of it can I recycle? The labels are usually either out of date or incomplete or both. And none of the plastics have discernible labeling to help.

It's basically the worst system I can imagine.

So much this. The one at my previous office wanted "clean plastic". What's "clean plastic"? Is an empty soda bottle clean? Is an empty salad container clean? Is cling wrap from a sandwich clean?

I'm an environmentally conscious nerd. If my demographic can't figure out how the system works, what do you expect from the general public?

Of course only the trash bin was full at all times.

From what I was told, the food remains on salad or sandwitch container will be destroyed in the process of dealing with separated trash. Theoretically, you dont have to care about it much.

However, it can smell pretty quickly and bugs like it, so if you plan to collect plastic for multiple days especially if it is hot, then you clean it up.

Wow, Clean up trash before we throw it?

We're throwing away our time is all we're doing. Looks like no one here values time. Sorting into 13 bins, etc. We need govt to get out of the way so someone can figure this out and make money (their incentive to figure it out).

Govt's not going to figure this out for us. It has no incentive to.

I just wrote that you don't have to do it, provided you take it out often enough or don't mind smell.

Useless outrage.

Cat litter, needles, food, yard waste, diapers, etc.

Lower your expectations a bit, the people doing the worst aren't wondering what to do with a clean plastic fork.

There's ambiguous stuff to be sure. But I'm talking about people who throw food scraps, furniture, car tires, ash, bbq coals, construction debris, etc in the recycling. Yes, I've seen all of those things go into the recycling bins and more.

Tricky. The first three should be recyclable: good scraps can be composted, timber and metal in furniture can be recycled, and car tyres can be recycled.

You're being WAY too charitable to end users. People aren't talking about the compost bin. They're talking about the recycle bin. The one for glass, paper, plastics, and cans.

We have a trash bin, yard waste bin, and recycle bin where I live, and I've seen neighbors dump their grass clippings into the recycle bin. I've had family members toss paper plates along with the half eaten hamburger on them into my recycling (NOT compost) bin because the plate is paper.

I don't see how recycling paper products helps anything. Paper = carbon. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere now. Throwing paper away sequesters it from release into the atmosphere and drives up demand for timber - a renewable resource, which removes carbon from the atmosphere.

There is non obvious trash, like "paper" coffee cups that are not actually recyclable.

It's always cheaper to make new packaging than recycle old one. It's extremely hard to make any sort of business out of recycling old material. Like you said, reusing would help - but glass has the issue of being very heavy so you're burning more fuel to move it around, while it only takes a drop of oil to make a new plastic bottle that weighs 1/20 of an equivalent glass one.

I'd love to see all drinks being sold exclusively in glass bottles that you have to pay a deposit for - that's how it was when I was a kid in Poland, you had to pay a little bit extra for the bottle and you'd get it back when returning it.

I wish this myth would die, or we fully priced-in the externality cost of plastic recycling.

Look into the roughly 15 step process of recycling those cheap plastic bottles, including pressurised steam, abrasive steps, cold and hot water, and chopping into pieces before yet more washing. It is probably vastly more expensive in energy costs, especially when after all that it's still common to lose batches to contamination. It's miles from returning bottles into the same supply chain and the factory having as first step washing and rinsing the old bottles.

Broken ones were recycled in place, and they were already of exactly the correct type and colour.

Why do they clean it before shredding?

This process starts with the shredding:


And then giant bales of plastic chips are hand sorted by color in China!

Going entirely on memory, so I may have misrepresented a bit or been out of order. I seem to remember there's an initial automated sort and wash before shredding to remove dead mice, contamination from single stream recycling, assorted junk thrown in the wrong bin and so on. Then after shredding there's washing and rinsing stages, and a steam and abrasive stage to remove glue and labels etc. It left me quite astonished how incredibly involved it is when I looked into it.

Hand sorting? This really is fundamentally broken isn't it?

My college room mates and I were still doing this with Miller High Life bottles as late as 2003-2004. If you collected a dozen cases you'd have enough returnables for a free case of beer!

Similar for the plastic beer pitchers at UW-Madison's terrace. You'd pay like a $1 deposit on the pitcher, if you bring the pitcher back, you get the dollar. Drunk kids or the indifferent would leave their plastic pitcher and some enterprising person would come by pick it up and return it for cash. There is a lake nearby, so it's important these didn't make it in the lake.

The deposit system seemed to be pretty effective. Folks took an active role.

Maybe there are modern day systems that could be developed. I wonder if people would subscribe to a Uber/UPS like system for fluids like beer, soda, milk, yogurt or water? Comes in sterilized glass bottles using an electric vehicle. I suppose it could be reusable plastic, but for folks paying a premium, glass would be nice. Something like $50 month for a couple cases of beer, going up in price as you order more.

A festival in Brisbane, Australia had exactly the same approach.

The festival was Parklife and I think it was back in 2012?

$1 price increase on all cups, bottles and food containers. If you brought the item back (it didn't have to be yours!), you got a $1 back per item. It started off as coupons so you could purchase other goods with the coupon but at the end of the festival you could cash them in.

Never in my life have I gone to a one-dayer EDM festival and went home with significantly more money than I started with.

The economics of the choice being, the festival didn't need to pay for cleaners on significant overtime rates. And we're incentivised because I made a fucking profit from an EDM festival!

For the life of me I can't find an article on the event.

Needless to say after some choice after market vitamins, I was motivated to clean the venue during artists I wasn't too interested in. I was also incentivised since the festival was held in my cities Botanical Gardens which are around the corner from my office.

At the end of the festival, not a scrap of rubbish could be found.

It wasn't an absolute success though. Some people started fishing rubbish out of bins to get their own coin back towards the end...

It was the same in Spain, we carried the casco in the basket (of course not plastic, but hemp)... only the meat and the fish were wrapped in waxed paper and of course the cans, but there were only a few products that weren't fresh.

Now there's an absurd mass of plastics.

Ridiculous isn't it? We even kept milk bottle tops and handed in the aluminium foil, and the daily milk was delivered in an electric vehicle.

Bottles got reused enough times (a little less with milk bottles) that older Coke, other pop, and beer bottles started to look rather archaeological from going through the lines 40+ times.

You have to look at it holistically. In one system everything is thrown in the trash.

In another system you separate out recyclables to be sold, and to reduce how much trash needs to be disposed of. Now you need multiple bins, you need to ensure that trash is not mixed into the recyclables, different trucks or more trucks, more staff.

The cost of labor, the cost of disposing of trash, the capital costs to implement the system, and the income from recycling all effects whether it is sustainable.

They still do that in Spain. It really is unfortunate it's not a standard practice everywhere. With most areas having local bottling plants, it really shouldn't cost /that/ much more to ship bottles back. Regardless, I would love to see us switch back to glass. Even if the bottle doesn't make it's way back into circulation, it will never be an environmental hazard. It's inert and breaks down into sand eventually.

Recycling is only economically viable if:

cost of production from raw material > production from recycled material


value of recycle material > cost of recycling

My guess on milk bottles is some kind of sanitation and product liability issue.

Yeah, except you can pull the policy levers to change the results.

These kinds of punitive policies have a very obvious side-effect. You dump the garbage in a ravine or stream, or somewhere easy to dump. And so what if you get caught. You get fined a few hundred dollars, where you saved 5x that by dumping.

The problem with recycling is it's recycling... There's a reason why the phrase is "Reduce, Reuse, and finally Recycle".

The upstream firms are Reducing their costs with little regard to reducing environmental impact.

The upstream firms guarantee you can't reuse - it's a missed sale.

So, you percolate through the layers, and then recycling is this all important thing.

This. Where I used to live the only scrap yard would only accept nonferrous metals and the towns would charge for scrap metal. Washing machines on the side of the road was a routine sight, or it was until a new scrap yard that would accept just about anything metal opened up.

edit: I'm struggling to wrap my mind around why this is getting down-voted. I'm providing a real world example of the behavior the person I'm replying to described. I'm not endorsing dumping things on the side of the road. Do people seriously not believe that above a certain price point people will illegally dump their trash and risk the fine?

I mean with scrap metal or whatever it's one thing, but your weekly trash? Unless the cost is exorbitant people are probably just going to pay to have the bags for their trash. Like I think in Japan they were about $5; I'm not going to start trucking my fish bones to the local stream to save five bucks.

It all really depends on how much painpoint there is regarding refuse/recycling.

The more rules, fines, restrictions the state implements, the less people will comply. And lack of compliance means stuff is thrown away in others' yards, dumped on the commons, or otherwise hidden to the nature of the trash.

Because of onerousness with local ordnances with regarding paint, many people just end up hiding the containers in dog food bags. I've seen quite a few of those already in the local dumpster.

I see this a lot across British Columbia Lower Mainland, but rather with old mattresses and soft furniture. It's relatively expensive to recycle those, so people just dump them in bushes and even on random people's front yards.

Now you doubled CO2 emissions of your fleet and incentivize people to litter or dump in public trash cans.

A better solution would be human or robotic waste sorting at the dump, or clean incineration.

Agree completely. Saw it firsthand in Fiji. City trash fee just drives people to dump in the bushes. My suggestion of adding dumpsters was met with concerns about reducing tax revenues. Yeah, they don't have dumpsters because they are afraid people will put trash in them, FFS :(

I have to counter regarding incentives with my own annecdote. I was buying a lot of sparkling water and got tired of collecting and recycling the empties. I bought a popular carbonating unit.

I suspect culture will have a huge impact on how well the solution works.

I would love robotic waste sorting, I hope someone is working on that!

Perhaps a color coding for different materials would make consumer and robotic sorting simpler.

This or a very primitive 4 bit rfid

I’ve teavelled entire Taiwan by car and did not notice any excessive dumping.

Yes, and that's a dataset of n=1. Things like littering have a million different factors go into them, including culture. It's not unreasonable to think that in other cultures, increasing the incentive to litter would in fact increase litter.

An exponential fine on littering would, however, absolutely destroy any incentives on littering. Starting with $10^n, where n is the n'th time you are caught littering. Also a corporate fine for dumping trash and waste illegally, $1000^n.

It really is not hard to take care of your environment!

Holy moly! Thirteen bins!!

Still not clear how people are prevented from throwing garbage into the recycle bins. Is the recyclable stuff not placed in bags and therefore easy to be vetted by the staff?

Japan (Sapporo) has a similar system- recycling was placed directly in bins (I don't think there were 13, but there were several).

Norway and the Netherlands are successfully trialling waste-to-energy with carbon capture. If some waste cannot be economically recycled, why not use it as fuel for electricity generation?

We're still going to need some amount of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. A yoghurt pot or a pizza box might not be recyclable using current processes, but it's perfectly good fuel.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187661021... http://www.vivis.de/phocadownload/Download/2017_eaa/2017_EaA...

> the residents sort their recyclables and compost into thirteen distinct bins

13. There's a moment you have to choose between the fine and getting the fuck out of stupid land. Around 3 different bins will do it for me: consumers waste is nothing compared to industrial waste. Trash sorting is the little act which help some people feel good but helps a lot less than not going on their annual holiday to the other side of the world. It's green theatre.

If 25 Liters is a “tiny” bathroom trash can I shudder to think what is used in the kitchen.

Right. We put 3 liter bags into our tiny bathroom trash can, and 25 liter bags into the big kitchen trash can.

We have the pay-as-you-throw waste model in my city in GA. I think it works very well. We also have a very liberal recycling policy. I think these things really changed my family's trash habits for the better.

This model of only accepting trash in official bags, or requiring a pre-paid sticker/tag for each bin/bag collected is quite common around the world. Certainly not unique to Taiwan.

It sounds similar to the Japanese model. But it requires serious changes to the type of goods produced. For instance, Japanese drink bottles have labels that can easily be removed because the bottle, cap, and label are recycled separately. It's not like you just start categorizing the trash and you're done.

Also, the way waste management is handled at the municipal level definitely complicates things for us.

In Vancouver we have standardized waste bins which come in different sizes, and the amount you pay the city annually for waste collection depends on the size of bin you choose.

(Recyclables are handled separately and there's no charge for them regardless of the volume you're leaving for collection.)

This system is a great incentive for people to put all sorts of stuff into recycling that they shouldn't.

I'm not sure what it's like in Vancouver, but in Niagara Falls if the garbage people see something in your recycle bins that isn't supposed to be there they don't pick up the bin and leave a note saying what was wrong.

If anyone is interested in seeing these crazy garbage trucks, I have a video. You can hear them coming from far away.


This works pretty well in Germany too, and in Palo Alto, but it causes people in the UK and in eastern California (and likely other places too) to just dump their trash by the side of the road.

That pay-as-you-go system is used in Wellington, NZ as well.

Recycling bags are free, but you have to pay for landfill bags (around $2). That way, there's an incentive to recycle as you save money.

Japan has a similar bag system too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jv68j5KQUU4

25 liters is like a medium to large kitchen trash.

Given an estimated 13 liters per person per week in the household here, $5 for 20 isn't providing a whole lot of incentive.

Pay per bag is not uncommon in the US where trash is collected by private companies. Many charge for each bag they pick up.

-removed by author-

Because no city had ever passed laws that the President doesn’t like.

And the President is also in charge of local waste disposal, as we all know.

-removed by author-

> the executive branch followed certain norms around this, until this administration

Which norms? Which administration didn't act differently than all others? Reagan firing the FAA unionizers was a new one.

Obama said he couldn't “waive away the law Congress put in place.” DHS went and legalized a few million anyway, years later. Sounds very familiar, but somehow different?

I'm not sure what you're talking about, but it sounds awfully revisionist.

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