U.S. kids have been conditioned since the 90's to believe everything is recyclable, and you commit a public disservice if you throw things away. Slowly people are realizing that 'single stream' recycling just results in a lot of contaminants and ends up being thrown away anyways.
Up until 6 months ago, one of my party tricks was to explain to people that glass is not commonly recycled, but actually ground up and used as 'daily cover' on a landfill (2-3" of material to help keep down odors, start the decomposition process, and provide long term stability to the pile of trash). The reactions ranged from "ha, I figured..." to jaw dropping denials.
People are finally starting to realize that, hey... Maybe a bunch of 'recycled' (read: shattered) beer bottles of mixed colors (green, brown, clear) present much as much of an OSHA workplace hazard as they do an 'environmental benefit'.
There was all this focus on pure weight of recycling, as though consuming more stuff to then recycle more of it was a good thing.
And I bothered keeping all my stuff cleaning, pulling plastic windows out of spaghetti boxes to put in the trash, so the box was just paper. It's trivially easy to do this stuff. Separating the stuff after it gets dumped in a truck in one big mix?? ABSURD
I feel like single-stream as a whole concept was a complete destruction of actual recycling efforts and progress up to that point.
Nope. Routine. There are shakers, screens, magnets, blowers, crushers, and optical sorters. It's not that complicated. Mixed recycling goes in, and aluminum, ferrous metal, glass cullet sorted by color, paper, and trash come out. Separation is working fine. The problem is that the markets for waste paper, glass cullet, and plastic are weak, even when fully sorted.
Waste paper, especially. Paper mills in North America have been closing for years.
Plastic bottle recycling is coming along well. CarbonLite has a huge plant near LA, and plants in Denver and Pennsylvania. Recycled plastic bottles go in, and plastic pellets ready for injection molding into new bottles come out. This is the area where things are getting better.
Glass cullet is in trouble. Fewer manufacturers are using glass containers and there's a cullet glut.
All this is at best marginally profitable and tends to need subsidies. Aluminum is the only real moneymaker.
Encouraging such carelessness gives a false impression about the whole system, encourages ignorance…
It's one thing for single-stream to be feasible in terms of a mix of clean paper, plastic containers, and metal. It's another thing to discourage consumer thoughtfulness and end up with all manner of plastics, strange mixes of rules in different municipalities, and tons of problematic contamination — all of which could have been avoided if we didn't aim to make recycling a mindless activity.
Obviously the real problem is the externalizing of the whole waste cost from the manufacturers. If we could make all manufacturers pay for all the recycling and environmental costs, they'd change their products to be more recyclable and less wasteful.
I mean - is it much more complicated than just 'grind it up somewhat and throw it into the a hole' ? Or where do the problems arise?
Also, bottle recycling, where there's a bottle bill, has the further desirable externality of reducing bottle litter.
This is one of many areas I wish YC would focus more on.
So many 'big opportunities' in 'real world' businesses outside of SaaS etc..
What? No mention of corporations, of the many corporate interests that this material serves. I don't want plastic wrapping on everything. So long as the product gets where it needs to be nor does the manufacture really care. It is the middle men, the retail stores, that insist on the extra packaging. Lots of packaging is there for purely commercial interests such as to prevent easy theft or as space for advertising.
I recently ordered some flashlights from china. They were made of aluminum and came in simple cardboard boxes. Nearly all of the order was recyclable. No inky labels, no bubble wrap, no silly nylon lanyards, no plastic beyond a tiny piece of tape to hold the box closed. Nothing was in those boxes except for the exact product I ordered. That's the progress we need.
I've noticed with a lot of electronics nowadays, most of the packaging is made with cardboard although, because it doesn't need those properties.
Unsurprisingly, they weren't very popular. Customers have brand preferences, rational or not, and the word "generic" has strongly negative connotations.
(Speaking for myself, I can say that real Pop Tarts taste much better than the store brand alternatives I've tried, which were edible but rather unpleasant.)
For physical retail I don't think packaging is going to go anywhere, and I suspect manufacturers would rather package everything the same, whether it's going to physical stores or being sold online.
I imagine they would have fared better if they had been mixed into the rest of the aisles the way store brand products are today.
I remember seeing this style of packaging in the '90s, but as far as I saw it was really more like stealth branding because it was all from the same company (Valu Time). This company allegedly operated like a store brand supplier behind the scenes despite the store's name not appearing on the packaging.
Source: Former subscriber to the trade magazine PLBuyer.
If I order gift-wrapped perfume online and it's shipped as a bottle in a presentation box inside a gift box inside a shipping box, that's one type of waste packaging.
SD cards sold by bricks-and-mortar retailers come with big, tough clamshell packages to make it hard for shoplifters to fit a hundred dollars worth into their pockets. That's a different problem with a different solution.
If I buy a cucumber and it's wrapped in plastic, it's because the producers think the savings from the extended shelf life and reduced damage in transit outweigh the cost of applying the wrapping. That would need a different solution again.
If I buy a gallon of milk and it comes in a plastic jug, well, it has to come in something and glass bottles aren't cheaper. Once again, needs a different solution.
If I buy a computer monitor, and it comes with wasteful obsolete and foreign cables, that's yet another different problem...
One of the things that I believe plastic waste would be good for would be large (say 3'(1m) x 3'(1m) x 6'(2m)) bricks, designed with three holes in them and a tongue and groove design such that they could be stacked on to recycled metal rods that had been pounded into the ground to form barriers. Not a bullet proof as concrete but certainly functional for things such as levy re-inforcement, keep out zones, and wind shelters.
Ballpark (very, very much so, but attempting to round towards “plastic is cheaper”), a solid two cubic meters block has the carbon of 10 barrels of crude oil, and burning it releases about the heat of burning at least 6 of them (crude oil 40MJ/kg, non$reuse plastics 30MJ/kg (https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Energy-Values-Non-Rec...). That would cost at least $250 today. A concrete block that size costs about $100, excluding transport costs.
The better idea probably would be to make the equivalent of sand bags out of the waste plastic, and fill that up with earth to build those structures.
One could even build containers for reuse in that way, just as Heineken’s “World Bottle” did (https://laughingsquid.com/heineken-wobo-a-beer-bottle-brick-...)
As the article pointed out, the value of sending it to China was that the cost of moving the container back there was going to paid anyway, so filling it with plastic was a kind of a win for the Chinese.
The origin of this concept was Jeff Bezo's call to figure out what we could do to help the most people. So a philanthropic angle were the 'cost' was the externalities of poverty, homelessness, and the unemployable. My brother in law is a structural engineer and we were batting around ideas about recycling waste into housing for the homeless. But neither of us were looking to create the favelas of Brazil or the slums of Mumbai, to be successful we thought the homes should be, to the greatest extent possible, "normal" homes. And how would we build those out of cast off materials while employing people who might have few skills and perhaps mental health issues that made working traditional jobs difficult. So how could you build a self sustaining community that was doing something good for the world so they could take pride in their work, anyone could contribute in some way, and facilitated a higher standard of living.
So what is the value of that? Versus the cost of the waste plastic? (and glass, and metal) San Francisco spends nearly $200 million a year on helping the homeless. They keep raising the garbage rates because the cost of landfill is going up too. Add in the costs spent by San Jose, Oakland, and Los Angeles on similar programs. And you have some fraction of over $1B/year that could be going toward a program like this rather than stop gap measures.
That is the idea at least.
(I may have missed quite a bit ...)
On the other hand I visited London Zoo yesterday with my kids and we sat on picnic tables that were moulded (I presume similarly to your method) from waste plastic water bottles (that otherwise would be chocking penguins, the point the zoo was making)
The essence of my post was my discouragement that the only reason to recycle things is to profit from it. That is the point of view of the recycling plants. I'm discouraged by that because I think if people looked at the bigger picture they would see other opportunities. I even wrote my congressperson suggesting that the plastic bricks idea could be a way to get something positive out of the wall idea that the President is pushing. It wouldn't be any more effective at border security but it would take a lot of plastics out of the ecological streams they are now polluting. I could get behind spending $5B on sequestering waste plastic in a way it won't do any future harm to the environment.
The concept of using it to build housing was context for why I was thinking about this idea in the first place, thinking "outside the box" as it were on multiple problems at once. Combining solutions for the biggest bang for the buck. Noting that even a 4 year old can build a house out of Lego bricks, what would it take to do that for "real?" and could we make bricks that would make for actual houses? A bit of research on the structural characteristics of the various plastics in the recycling stream (and even those that are currently excluded) and yes, it is technologically feasible.
Something like IEEE to get externalities properly priced so that there is incentives to do recycling "properly" might help too
I don't know about where you live, but where I live plastic is out of fashion as a building material, after incidents like  highlighted its flammability, the sticky burning droplets of melted material that cause fire spread, and the dangerous smoke some plastics give off.
Doesn't completely rule it out as a building material, but I hope you're not making your buildings very tall!
That said, there are chemicals that you can mix with the plastic as your making bricks that will make them self extinguishing (and its fairly important that they are, otherwise you get the "pile of recycled tires on fire" problem.) The chemicals can change the plastic's tensile strength (but leave the compression strength alone) so they generally not included in sheets like building cladding.
Self extinguishing plastics were made popular by Dow Chemical in the late 60's.
1 - https://www.dw.com/en/bricks-made-of-plastic-trash/a-1879955...
Imagine those bricks scaled up by a factor of 10. Quite the R factor as well. It would take better solar ovens to melt them into bricks but that is a matter of resources not technology hurdles.
The thought was that lumber could be screwed into the brick and then off the shelf siding or drywall could be attached to the lumber. The grooves also provide channels for in wall services (power, water, communications).
Some specialty ones for window casements and door casements.
The original concept was to set up a processing center in the California high desert near a rail line and provide employment and shelter for anyone who was willing to work at the plant to process the recyclables into stable building materials. Sort of a community that is both saving the world and providing homes, work, and community for those less fortunate.
Most plastics (unless specially formulated and/or treated) will break down when exposed to UV light. So weathering and release of plastic particles is indeed a concern.
We'd be better off looking for more things to make out of cardboard printed with non-toxic inks, glued with non-toxic (and non-plastic) glue.
Edit: to be clear, I'm asking this because I'm actually curious about the answer. A quick Google search doesn't find anything particularly convincing.
If you burn it for heat and electricity, this is actually an excellent use for it. As long as your region has oil- or coal-powered plants, burning plastic waste means that you got more use out of the oil than if you had burned it directly.
You are absolutely correct in that recycling is an unquestioned good, everyone "knows" you should recycle, but noone thinks about what it means and what actually happens with the stuff that gets recycled, or how it is recycled, or if it makes economic or environmental sense to recycle a material.
In Sweden, which doesn't really have landfills, and where recycling is also elevated to some kind of saintly status, there was an article published by some environmental agency a couple of decades ago which challenged this. They basically got labeled heretics, but the points they made were actually good:
1) Aluminium should absolutely be recycled, the energy costs of converting bauxite into aluminium are astronomical, compared to recycling used aluminium containers.
2) Glass should be recycled for the same reasons, it's cheaper and easier to do than to make new ones.
3) Newspaper, cardboard, and similar low-plastic paper products should be recycled, you can easily make new newspaper or cardboard out of it, saves you some trees.
4) The rest - fuck it - burn it all. Recycling plastic is hard, you can't turn it into high-value plastic products such as clear plastic packaging, you can only make low-value plastic products, and then you might as well burn it, and offset your oil-powered plants.
Sure but that could still mean that it makes sense to sort it? Can you burn plastic trash more efficiently than mixed burnable material I wonder..?
Also, one big reason that we have less landfills (I'm pretty sure I've heard that we have at least some for some particular purposes) - is that we do a lot of incineration. We even import from neighbour countries.
Sure, probably, but now you need a trash incineration plant and a plastic trash incineration plant...
Screw it. Burn it all. Modern incineration plants are very good at their job.
The problem seems to be with many of the other things that are allegedly recyclable. Just because someone somewhere can recycle it doesn't mean your local recycling facility can do anything with it.
I live in Hawaii, and I usually buy local eggs. They come in a polystyrene container, and polystyrene is something that shouldn't end up in landfills. So the company graciously offers to recycle the container for me, the only thing I have to do is mail it to Washington State. From Hawaii.
(Thankfully, Hawaii incinerates most trash, so that goes straight in the trash!)
It would be interesting to know if the environmental impact of the plastic containers for the local eggs offset the environmental impact of transporting mainland eggs to Hawaii.
Hawaii has a high percentage of oil-powered electricity, and it burns all trash, so me throwing the plastic container in the trash should offset some oil, which drastically reduces the impact of the plastic container per se. So the polystyrene containers might be the better option.
Figuring out the actual best environmental option is really really hard. And the exercise above is just for god damn egg cartons.
Then again, there's plenty of low-hanging fruit to solve before my choice of eggs start to count. If you live in a place that has landfills, that should be the number one priority to fix. Landfills are terrible, burn the trash instead, it allows you to recover a lot of energy.
My beef is that (at least the general US population) isn't aware of what the resources required to produce packaging vs. the packaged item are. Probably the plastic packing on that 1/2 pound of bacon has a small carbon footprint compared to the meat inside, but I can only guess.
Humanity modern history was essentially focused around growth. Now for any long-term survivability, I guess we better start using our immense capabilities to ensure some sustainability to our societies.
Just look at the billion years of evolution and natural selection we stand on: everything works in cycles. Earth only gets sunlight in and heat out, entropy rules, that's all we have. Now, you can't build a new car out of pure sunlight, nor can you dispose of the old one as infrared light into space. Yet life flourished on our space rock. All past and present species who did well relied on cycles. Those who ate everything and shat all over the place? Died quickly. The current world economy is an unfinished work: produce > use > dispose, a perfectly linear system. Recycling closes the loop. I get we happen to prefer making, buying and using new things, inputs, over dealing with garbage. I recall instagram was once filled with food plates, not so much with whatever happens on the toilet 8 hours later.
As much as we love to play elaborate games on who does/gets what/how much/how long, there's still no way to cheat the laws of physics to keep playing forever.
If not now or not here, the universe doesn't care very much, see you on the next episode on that other planet to see how long an intelligent life can survive with limited ressources ;)
Yes, this is it. With some planning, regulation and 'sustainable' thinking around product design, it seems possible to me this could work.
We currently put 0 effort into how packaging 'deconstructs' into something recyclable. Some work there could yield tremendous difference. Maybe even totally painless on the part of the consumer, i.e. 'it just works'.
Re-use grocery store produce bags to portion food in the freezer or as lunch/sandwich bags (like zip loc bags), and later as kitchen trash containment to limit odors and fluid leakage in your trash. I also use them as trash bags in smaller bins around the house (bathrooms, bedroom, etc) instead of buying various sizes of trash bags.
Use the backs of letter-sized mail and physical spam as scratch paper and for note-taking before discarding/recycling.
Rip the flaps off cardboard boxes and use the boxes to sort items in your closets and pantries (and the flaps can be used as dividers too). I even use smaller delivery boxes to sort items in the fridge because it's easier to clean (by throwing out) than wiping fridge spills.
I feel like most of these sorts of things are no-brainers, but the typical western consumerist household freely generates tons of trash and just buys even more things to fulfill these roles generating even more trash that it boggles my mind.
My guess is that it's not against the laws of physics . But it would be pretty far beyond any current technology to do it economically, or at the scale to handle a significant fraction of the waste output of a large country. And also pretty energy inefficient.
If you have a grasp of the engineering issues (I sure don't), feel free to chime in on the (in)feasibility of this idea.
 I'm no astrophysicist, but this is basically what happens to "recycle" planets or asteroids, if a star swallows them and then goes supernova.
Unfortunately my current impression is that there is a strange blindness to these first two: reducing waste in the first place seems ignored if the item is recycable. And if you couldn't avoid packaging, choosing to use that item again makes no difference - just recycle it!
It is like 'recycle' has some ultimate environmental positive power on people's attitude. If something is recycled, or recyclable, we don't need to worry about anything else. Quite concerning.
However, Molten Salt Oxidation can handle pretty much anything non-metallic, including plastic (which is reduced to "synthesis gas"), and it's exothermic (you're basically burning stuff in a liquid salt bath).
They use it to deal with chemical weapons and stuff. We have all the technology we need, we just have to be smarter about how we meet our needs.