Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Era of Easy Recycling May Be Coming to an End (fivethirtyeight.com)
76 points by SteveNuts 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

From a linked nat geo article:

“I never thought plastic recycling would work,” says Roland Geyer, an engineering professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of the study “Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made.” “There is a viable business model around metal, but plastics never has had that. It’s too low-value, too contaminated, with too many different polymers mixed together. And you can only make it work with a really low cost of labor.”

Fascinating stuff. Perhaps it's time to step away from plastic containers for foodstuffs. I'm a little surprised we didn't move at least a little further away post BPA awareness.

In Salt Lake City they stopped accepting many types of plastic in the recycling bin this summer, it's been a huge PITA. It's also led me to recycle less. This bugged me so I've changed my shopping habits a bit to compensate. For example, I avoid shopping at Trader Joe's, because everything there comes wrapped in plastic. Everything. It doesn't seem like retailers have quite caught on that it's becoming more difficult to recycle.

You're on the right track; if you don't want to dispose of it, don't buy it.

I feel like this is just one aspect of environmental awareness that has degraded since the 90s. Packaging has become more wasteful, and there's more of it too, because everything is individually shipped in a box in a truck now (from Amazon etc.) Cars have become bigger and more wasteful than ever (the SUV trend). All the new architecture is full of huge glass windows & curtain walls... one of the most energy-permeable and wasteful barriers (to the extent that a wall is supposed to be a barrier) you could possibly design. But it looks great! As does that hermetically sealed pre-packaged salad in the plastic clamshell. I dunno, we seem to be responding to the problem by pretending all the more ferociously that it doesn't exist.

In this way, recycling has been one of the most catastrophic environmental efforts ever. If we had stuck with just "reduce and re-use" the world would look drastically different. But no, recycle got included and we got the 3 Rs, so now I can purchase that salad in a single-use clamshell plastic container and feel zero guilt because, hey, recycle!

I mean maybe it is, but then comes the problem: Plastics are used because they're cheap, they're not worth recycling because they're so cheap but you can't just do away with the packaging material entirely because that just leads to, in the case of food, spoiled goods and foods which can't be stored or transported for so long which can cause its own environmental issue.

It doesn't make economic sense to use a different material which is more recyclable because, by the definition of this problem, they're much more expensive.

Perhaps the answer is re-usable plastic containers - maybe some system where you can post them back to the manufacturer for cleaning and re-use.

It might just be that once oil drilling for energy goes away, so does some of this problem - at least in that plastics would cease to be so cheap.

You're right... There are some powerful heuristics in environmentalism-- disposable is generally worse, plastics are bad, recycling is better for the environment...

But these will break in some special cases. We should avoid treating them as dogmas and be open minded when examining the entire lifecycle of products.

For example, styrofoam is so much less energy intensive than firing ceramics. Given the hot water used in rewashing, you can get some unexpected consequences where disposables are the better option.


(That analysis is sensitive to how energy efficient your dishwasher is, and how durable the ceramic is.)

So imagine if even after we stop using petroleum, Texas finds a giant pool of easy oil next to abundant landfill space... Could be Texans should probably just use plastics and toss them in that situation.

New Yorkers might have a different calculus, because the cost of trash hauling and processing is more significant there.

It all depends.

Disposables are only the better option when you move some part of the entire planet outside the system you are measuring.

Is your worry that we'll convert every inch to landfill?

Rest assured, at the rate we create landfills, the tectonic plates will push our landfills below the surface of the Earth and create new untouched landmasses before we run out of space.

There are unintuitive results in this domain. Highly recommend you check out some of the lit, like Hocking mentioned above.

Have a talk to any marine biologist about how effective landfill is as a means of disposal. Single use plastics are a hair behind AGW when it comes to existential threats to humanity as a whole.

We’ll poison the oceans long before landfill becomes an issue.

> in the case of food, spoiled goods and foods which can't be stored or transported for so long which can cause its own environmental issue

How do local supermarkets compete with TJs? Seriously, I love me some TJs but if the plastics are truly non-recyclable I will need to consider - we need go back to using a more sustainable method.

Also paper, glass and wood are all much more easily recycled. Re-Use should be king.

Because TJ's is essentially 1/4 of a grocery store. There are many many things you can't make from ingredients at TJs that you could from even the worst stocked super market in the blandest food areas.

TJ's in many ways is a way over stocked 7-11 full of prepped foods and the most common of things.

> you can only make it work with a really low cost of labor.

Yet, isn’t that what automation provides? It has been two decades since supermarkets in the Nordic countries have whizbang bottle-return machines that take back plastic, aluminium, and glass bottles as long as the barcode is still legible. Is there really no way to make a machine that scans the barcode of various other forms of plastic packaging (like yoghurt containers, ketchup bottles, etc.) and then directs the item to the appropriate container? Since the machine will know the exact categorization of the packaging on the basis of the barcode, then consumers would not be required to correctly sort plastic rubbish themselves.

Oh man, the Nordic nations. I remember studying abroad and being the industrious-borderline-alchoholic I am, taking the empties from any classmate I could, so I could re-up the beer supply for free.

Here in salt lake, however, we actually have to pay extra to have a glass collection bin at home. There are a dozen or so sites in the city that one could dump the glass, if they were so inclined, or into the general trash bin it goes. We certainly don't get paid for our our glass.

It's extra disappointing because local...legal strangeness, has been encouraging a bit of a local brewery boom. I'd love to return the glass to the brewery for cleaning and reuse, but that's not an option here.

All that said, there's a ton of plastic that goes into single stream recycling that isn't barcoded...

>I'd love to return the glass to the brewery for cleaning and reuse

This is one of the few cases where glass "recycling" makes sense. Unfortunately, glass is stupid cheap in terms of base material and production process so the only way to make recycling glass products worthwhile is to put the used product right back into service in its whole form (after cleaning of course). I'll try to find the study I'm thinking of but from what I recall, glass recycling isn't just uneconomical to recycle, it often winds up requiring more energy to recycle than it does to obtain the base materials and create a new container. Contamination knocks down the efficiency and the logistics of collecting and sorting glass are far less efficient than the bulk mining and transport of silica into a centralized production plant.

A possible solution to this, IMO, is to force bottling operations to standardize on a handful of containers in different sizes, colors/opaqueness, and closure type. This could also work hand in hand with a ban on plastic bottles for common products like juice, soda, etc. Marketing departments would hate it but the centralized redistribution of reusable containers that are useful to every bottling operation would finally make glass recycling a rational concept.

This is what a local milk company does in Illinois (Oberweis). You get $1.50 for returning the jug to the store.


> force bottling operations to standardize on a handful of containers in different sizes

And voila, that's exactly the case in Denmark

(I live in silly valley now and it makes me nauseated to have to deal with all the waste here - I refuse all the packaging I can but rarely plan well enough to bring a stainless steel container)

No one gets paid for returning bottles in Nordic countries. They get the deposit back that was paid during purchase.

If you return other people’s bottles because they are willing to forego the deposit, then you do make some money. One of the ways that I survived my time as a skint foreign student in a Nordic country was picking up bottles in the city center on a Friday or Saturday night when everyone was drinking in the street and couldn’t be arsed to hold on to their bottles and take them back for the deposit. (I hear that now students find it harder to make money like this, because Roma immigrants have cornered this line of work.) Even later when I wasn’t so poor, there is pleasure in hosting a BYOB party and then being able to get the deposit for all the bottles and cans your guests brought.

Here’s one from my student days:

We define the derivative of a party as the amount of alcohol that can be purchased by returning the empty bottles left after the party. A good party is a party such that the second derivative of the party is positive.

A new giant type of automated recycling station has been installed around Sweden during the past couple of years, called the "Pantamera Express". I like this thing. You dump your stuff, it processes all kinds of things at a quite decent rate (~100/minute) and in the end you get a value check that can be redeemed in a grocery store.

Here's a cheesy video demoing it (turn down the volume):


It's pretty big:


The bigness is a good thing, most of it consists of storage space for (compressed) returned packaging. One of the more frustrating issues with the common variety of bottle/can recycling machines is that I nearly always get confronted by the 'machine full - call store clerk' message while feeding it. This takes up my time, the store clerk's time and that of the person waiting behind me with a bag of bottles/cans.

Exactly. That's been one of the core problems with the 80s-style in-store "chewers".

It isn't about products it's about opaque lids mixed with clear bottles. Films mixed with stiff boxes. Plastic mixed with food residue and stuck on labels. A tiny contamination can massively lower the value of the batch by making it difficult to work with/have limited usefulness.

Nobody is going to do that without a deposit, and that is hard to push through.

IMO use tax policy to drive it. Put a $5 tax on plastic clamshells and they’ll be gone in six months.

And replaced with “reusable” clamshells that somehow don’t count as plastic and they’ll be five times as thick and use way more resources to produce. :-/

Props to amazon for their frustration-free (and shipping cost friendly) packaging effort.

I have seen a marked reduction/elimination of clamshells the past decade of buying from them.

I'd love to complain to retailers nearby: "see this, I'm returning it and buying it from Amazon right now because of your consumer-unfriendly packaging"

Or cardboard boxes.

And there is the liability with "clamshells"


> It doesn't seem like retailers have quite caught on that it's becoming more difficult to recycle.

They have, they just don't care. It's not directly their problem that you can't recycle their waste until people stop buying there or start returning their waste to them.

That's why plastic should just be "recycled" in a waste to energy plant.

That would raise an entirely different set of issues in Salt Lake City.

Plastic is fine, as long as you get lots of uses out of it.

We have knit plastic bags that we can put veggies in. Super light (no tare needed) and can hold a lot... Yet we've used them hundreds of times.

Now think of that crappy flimsy plastic bag, or plastic wrapping. It's used once, and "thrown away" (please: define where away is..). That's the problem - single use and nearly impossible to use for anything else.

I hassled decor (home plastic container company) about BPA and they said their food grade containers had never had BPA.

Oddly they saw no need to market on this.

It’s a risk area because the risks of BPA likely exist in whatever they are using.

I always assume there’s something nasty under the surface with plastic drink and serving ware — like 6 months after the first BPA studies hit the press, GE sold its plastic and silicone divisions.

Producing high-purity plastics that don't contain any of the many usually toxic ingredients is quite difficult and requires finely tuned and monitored processes. There is a huge price differential between plastics used for consumer garbage and e.g. plastics used for industrial piping and fixtures (when they're nominally the same plastic) which is gladly paid for.

We need to code this in law.

Any type of plastic used in consumer products needs to be recyclable easily, otherwise outlaw it.

Any food containers need to be compostable.

I'm willing to pay much higher food and product costs so that the waste we create can be easily recycled. If it makes the product economically unviable then maybe the product isn't that useful.

Industrial-grade plastics are recycled to some degree, but only certain plastics are and they are collected completely separated by type and coloring (usually just natural or black). Only a tiny number of companies are able to do this.

The oil industry is interested in the maximum amount of use of plastics. The less reusable glass and other materials we use, the higher the profits for the big oil and chemicals conglomerates.

>the higher the profits for the big oil and chemicals conglomerates

is that relevant if plastic is still the cheapest option? should we pay more just to spite them?

Yes. Doing the right thing is often less convenient and more expensive than doing the lazy and easy thing. So we have to stop being so lazy and cheap.

Yep, seems the solution is to get rid of it or make plastic producers pay part of the share of recycling it.

The plastic wrap should be recyclable along with plastic bags. Your local supermarket may take them.

We need to focus more on reuse than on recycling. I'd like to see regulations and tax incentives to encourage beverage companies to use glass bottles that can be washed and reused, rather than disposable aluminum or (even worse) plastic.

It's a common sight in Silicon Valley offices to see greasy empty pizza boxes in the recycling bin. People just don't seem to realize that greasy cardboard can't be recycled, and might even contaminate other material.

> People just don't seem to realize that greasy cardboard can't be recycled

I think a lot actually do realize it. At least where I live, the garbage bins at residences are about 1/2-3/4 the size as the recycle bins (glass has a separate bin). A lot just use it as a garbage bin, because the recycle bin is usually "free" and some pizza boxes don't even fit in the actual garbage bin (without taking time to break it down). A pizza box can take up a lot of room in the actual smaller trash bin, and they'd rather fill it with other trash. I'd attribute it more to laziness and convenience.

We need to focus on reducing production, with reuse as a secondary and complementary measure. We have a ton of disposable crap and packaging in our lives, much of it is inherently garbage. Reuse what we can, but reduce the production of things that become waste.

Does reducing production fit with our brand of capitalism?

It can. For example, instead of buying bottled water or olive oil or vinegar at a few grocery stores near me, you can bring in your own bottle and fill up.

Instead of buying pre-cut veggies and fruit, you can get the individual ones and do it yourself.

Unfortunately, what this thread sees as waste consumers often see as a benefit: buying items in sealed containers lets you have peace of mind against spoilage or in-store contamination (anyone can open up those pour-your-own tubs of olive oil and sneeze into them).

Additionally, packaged things stack up better, so you can offer consumers a wider variety- laundry detergent scents, drink flavors, and so forth. Offering pour-your-own means maintaining and cleaning goods and equipment that are exposed to both product and air, which is more expensive for grocers.

Finally, packaging (especially the clamshell variety) is often used for protection- from damaging the contents in shipping / handling to acting as a mild anti-theft device.

So, yes, there is a market for reduced-production goods. Produce, grains, soft drinks at gas stations, and some other goods are already there.

If there is a reasonable way to protect goods, ensure their freshness, offer a unique variety in a low maintenance fashion, there's money to be made. If you can't do that and still want to reduce production, you're going to either end up creating more waste through some side effect of the tradeoffs involved.

It would be a great way to differentiate retail.

Get your authorized Tide refill at Target instead of having Amazon ship it. People don’t like glass because of the energy used to produce it, but it’s always seemed like a no brainer to me.

It is common in Japan to sell refills of shampoo and detergent in plastic sleeves:


It is still some plastic, but I assume it is less waste than a hard bottle.

> Get your authorized Tide refill at Target instead of having Amazon ship it

You write that as if Target didn't used to sell Tide refills but gave up because nobody bought it.

You can compost many greasy pizza boxes though. Thta's the guidance up here in Seattle.

They don't know because most recycling is the "feel good" type of mentality. People don't actually know what can and cannot be recycled.

So let's start with better education maybe? In Japan each ward/city office publishes online manual with detailed explanation and, probably more important, with illustrated examples.

Telling users to RTFM seldom works here.

But as the article suggest, most glass is contaminated and thrown away.

It's tough to recycle glass. That's why I suggested we focus on reusing glass bottles. Use deposits to encourage consumers to return bottles to retailers, then send them back to bottling plants to be washed and refilled. That actually used to be common in the US but doesn't happen much anymore.

There is a slow turnaround happening in this area with milk, at least in the cities I’ve lived in the last several years. You can buy milk in glass jars, (as a bonus, produced within the state) and take the the empty bottles back to the grocery store for a $2 credit.

But, the impact of glass wastage is just landfill volume.

I get milk delivered from a farmer in resusable glass bottles. We lose like 1% a year, which represents probably 95% less waste than buying disposable plastic or cardboard containers.

With single-stream recycling.

Single stream recycling was a big scam that worked as long as China was accepting this kind of garbage. The more people used this type of recycling, the more they could send to China and the less garbage had to be processed locally. Now that they have to deal locally with the realities of recycling, you see that the equation is changing.

This is primarily a cultural issue.

Taiwanese children are taught from day one how to sort recyclables. It is standard not only to sort properly, but also wash containers and decompose them into parts if they are made up of different materials.

Not only that but due to Japanese influence, reuse is a huge part of the culture already.

There's even a completely different conversation about how children are taught how to fold their trash and stack containers to minimize space use in trash.

Weird how if we take advantage of the neural nets we are born with what we can do...

Wonder what would happen if plastic bags and straws were just no longer used, I already pack my groceries in a school bag when I go shopping because the plastic bags are flimsy.

Straws aren't also necessary, I don't drink coffee I buy with a straw and I'm managing fine. Soft drinks can probably just have those coffee caps and then gradually transition.

I think this is coming. Straws are getting banned in EU next year and many countries already implemented the ban. Where i am from they got replaced with paper ones and in bars etc with metal / glass ones that get washed like regular glasses. Plastic bags cannot be given for free so you have to buy them and many chains are transitioning to paper or more durable ikea style bags.

The big problem in my eyes are trash bags. Don't know how to replace those.

> The big problem in my eyes are trash bags. Don't know how to replace those.

Composting, and recycling glass, metal, and paper greatly reduces the need for plastic trash bags. Most of my regular trash these days is plastic that can't be recycled - either food contaminated, or thin plastic bags. And when you have so little landfill trash, you don't need to buy those massive plastic garbage bags. In my household, we just use the plastic bags that we get our produce in - and we don't even bag all of our produce, just things like leafy greens (delicate) or green beans/okra (hard to keep together)

I think really it has to be a push that plastic is only for extremely durable things that are significant enough to be worth recycling.

Something like https://www.c2ccertified.org/ being applicable to every usage of plastic, essentially.

Straws and plastic bags get all the heat, but they are actually a pretty small proportion of plastic produced and littered. Straws are like .001% of plastic in the ocean, vs. 50% for discarded fishing equipment.

Those "flimsy" plastic bags in particular have a ~65% re-use rate in the US, whereas the heavy duty "reusable" bags often take far more plastic and energy to product, so you have to re-use them at far higher rates than the flimsy ones to make up for the cost to produce them.

40% of shoppers who have those bags forget them, so there's a world where we are actually producing more plastic and incurring food born illness from people not washing out their re-usable bags.

People not even trying to recycle is a huge pet peeve of mine, but I think the plastic bag bans tend to be kind of stupid. Nevermind that now people have to buy garbage liners instead of just re-using the bags.


I would like to see something to get the soda industry back to aluminum, but even moving to glass the costs of it all are not very easy to track, because the significantly higher impact on energy required to move glass in bulk vs. plastic.

One good move you can make is do things like purchase bar-form soaps and shampoos for your bathroom… but ultimately we've got to get people off of K-Cups and buying so much plastic bottled water when they can just re-fill something, or bring your own container to a coffee shop.

And maybe give up on 2-day shipping from Amazon, or try to bulk-ship your order instead of placing a new one for every item you think of 30 minutes apart…

The closest solution will probably come from some kind of plastic-consuming bio engineering, or energy-harvesting incinerators like in parts of Europe and Africa: https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/21/africa/reppie-waste-to-energy...

That, and maybe move away from the "big blue bin" which has made people think they can just throw anything in there which has had the unintended consequence of causing recycling to cost much more and have way more contaminants.

Aren't those "coffee caps" made out of plastic? (FWIW, I don't drink coffee, so it is highly possible there is new non-plastic coffee lid technology.)

Yea, it's a sort of transition that mitigates usage of the straw, right now plastic cups served at fast food restaurants have both a cap and a straw. I think it could be easier for customers to accept just having a cap right now and then later on removing the cap as well and drinking from just a cup.

Paper straws are fine for a single use.

Plastic is hard, but it does not necessarily need to go back to what it was.

Burning it or turning it into asphalt or other kind of building material might be easier/cheaper

Recycling and trash separation would be a great a project for a "moonshot". You need big advancements in robotics, computer vision and probably a lot of other areas to make this. I wish some billionaire would throw some money at it. It would be more helpful to humanity than flying to Mars for example.

I can't wait for the glorious era of fusion-powered recycling. Dump literally anything in the bin. It all gets vaporized (thanks to plentiful, cheap energy), and is centrifuge-sorted into its constituent atoms.

Out of curiosity... Just how delusional am I?

High heat is one of the ways PCBs are reprocessed to constituents. Given the energy cost to make long chain molecules it seems a shame to spend energy breaking them. I think it might be better to not make as much in the first place and make kinds which are thermo-mouldable to repurpose

I believe you are referring to a fusion torch!


It would work, but we can do much better than brute force. What you’re describing is how I’d turn the Moon and Mercury into a Dyson swarm (as the mineral extraction part of a clanking replicator), but I suspect that even in that example someone who only just managed a chemistry BSc could do vastly better than anything I can imagine.

Out of curiosity does anyone know of any startups in the trash/recycling space?

There are compostable plastics (e.g. http://www.worldcentric.org/biocompostables/bioplastics)

(No info there on pricing ...)

"Bioplastics can take different length of times to totally compost ... and are meant to be composted in a commercial composting facility, where higher composting temperatures can be reached and is between 90-180 days. Most existing international standards require biodegradation of 60% within 180 days..."

By weight, I estimate that my household produces about 1/3 recyclable trash vs. landfill trash. But by volume, it's almost at parity (before compaction, since I'm a household).

I wonder if an equal alternative would be to collect each type of recyclable once a month. Eg.

- 1st week: paper/cardboards

- 2nd week: plastics

- 3rd week: glass

- 4th week: metals

Yes it would mean more trash cans but in total volume I don't think it would be much different than my current single-stream bi-weekly collection.

Different parts of the UK have different collection policies, but for us, our food waste is collected every week, while recycling (paper/card, plastic, metal, but not glass in our area :/) and rubbish ("garbage" for merkins) are collected on alternating weeks.

There was uproar when we moved to this from weekly rubbish and recycling collection, but most of the time it really seems to work - we recycle far more than I thought we would.

I'm not sure how it is elsewhere, but here if you peek inside the separate bins outside, or in restaurants, it's basically just mixed trash.

Aside from the usual problem of people not caring about sorting, one or more of the bins is often full, and homeless people sort through the trash to take the aluminum cans, leaving mostly the incorrectly sorted stuff behind.

Some domestic recycling was partially sorted to separate cardboard and paper from glass and metal. I think cost shifting and effort/cost decisions here are heading back to the user/consumer input end having more work to do. Incentives here would have to be things like a discount on the waste levy.

It is surreal, but it's true, the biggest American export to China was literally garbage...

And it kept being such after decades of different rounds of bans, until the blanket ban last year.

Maybe this is a silly question, but what are the downsides of going back to sending more trash to landfills?


That mentality, combined with the spinelessness of US government and corruption by industry, nicely sums up the article: it can't be improved, we'll have to live with the pollution!

It's just much more difficult to separate stuff after everything is mixed up, like it says in the article.

Most European countries show that it is possible to do much better. I have to separate plastics/cans, glass, paper, vegetables and non-recyclables (5 streams). And the occasional batteries/electronics. Really, it's not that hard, if you furnish for it. In my household, the non-recyclable waste has shrunk to just one garbage bag every two weeks, for a family of four.

And still I think much should be improved, starting with much stricter regulation for packaging. We still dispose a lot of plastics, around 3 medium size bags every two weeks. Just forbid (or tax into oblivion) single-use plastics entirely, and let the food and retail industries innovate their packaging/distribution/fulfillment using paper, carton, bio-plastics, glass or re-usable.

Much should be improved, and everyone should play their part. Maybe there is a startup idea servicing people who just refuse to do so?

> spinelessness of US government and corruption by industry

There are beneficiaries to this negligence and they are handsomely profiting (and giving their cronies in Congress campaign contributions) while the world starts to resemble the one in Wall-E more and more.

Campaign finance reform and fixing broken electoral processes has the best probability to exposing and removing the corruption.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact