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'Moment of reckoning': US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports (theguardian.com)
189 points by chriskanan 21 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 272 comments

I've always wondered why there couldn't be standard containers for products like jam, wine, butter etc. where the containers are designed to be easily washed and reused. Manufacturers could still create their own branded containers but would pay more somehow for doing so. Is there an obvious problem with this idea?

It's nuts that if you buy e.g. 4 bottles of wine they all have different bottle designs and if you optionally go through the effort of recycling them there might be some process involved where they're sent to another country, broken down, melted and then reformed it into new bottles at best. Just wash and reuse the bottle...?

I really think this is one place where standards could be transformative for society.

Not only the obvious benefits, but standardized bottle shapes allow manufacturers of, say, refrigerators and furniture to tailor their wine racks/dairy drawers/etc to fit the standard product packages perfectly. This gets you more room in your fridge, and your living room... And then places like Amazon can tailor their boxes to perfectly fit the products too.

I noticed this when I went into a Japanese bookstore and saw that all the books were the same shape, even from different publishers, and the bookshelves were perfectly sized to fit them.

I don't know what kind of power brought that about (small homes?), but compared to a North American bookstore where it seems every book is fighting to be a different size and shape, to stick out from the shelf and stand taller than its neighbours.

Size and shape are powerful differentiators in marketing. Just think of how recognizable is a bottle of Coke compared to a generic soda. With the money most companies invest(ed) in this they will be very reluctant to go to a standardized model soon. But I guess eventually efficiency will win.

We can ban different shapes, and the company will have to manage without this "differentiator".

Soda supplied to bars and restaurants in Denmark is usually in returnable bottles, including Fanta and Sprite (which elsewhere have shaped bottles). Coca Cola has a shape, but perhaps they sell enough to make it worthwhile to sort these from the usual shape.


(I drink close to zero soda at home. I know supermarkets sell cans and plastic bottles, both single-use but with a deposit. Possibly they sell the glass ones too. Most Danish beer is sold in a reusable bottle, foreign or microbrew beer just has a deposit but the bottle isn't reused.)

aluminum soda cans are a great example of standardized containers that work right now

The cans are almost never reused, instead they're recycled as the metal is too expensive to throw away and easier to render clean than almost every plastic.

It requires a lot of energy though to clean and melt. This recycling aluminum is not exactly green.

Recycling aluminum is very green when you compare the energy expenditure of recycling vs creating a net new can.

Did until recently- notice that you can now get regular Diet Coke (and I assume other sodas) in mini cans and the new Diet Coke flavors come in skinny/tall cans only.

It's a funny thing - manufacturers of products want to "stand out" from competition - so they use unique shaped containers for their products...

...the same is true for the container companies! The want to stand out from their competition - so they introduce new products (containers) with new shapes or sizes for that purpose.

While I am certain that some product manufacturers can dictate or have custom-shaped containers for their brand only, for many they just choose an off-the-shelf version and brand using labeling and/or color.

So - while going with standard-sized containers would be great for a whole host of reasons, for the product manufacturers - both for what is being contained, and the containers themselves - it presents a huge loss of profit and market share.

I'm not sure what we can do about this; it seems like something that would have to be dictated by government, because I doubt any of the other stakeholders (not even the consumers) will sway the decision toward standardized containers.

Soda cans (and for that matter, soup cans) are almost the only examples we have (ok - plastic milk jugs and paper milk cartons?), but as you have noticed, that's starting to fragment (it had already started with beer cans long before).

Of course a standard container would work just fine from the consumer's point of view and of course the companies will survive. The problem is for how long are they willing to delay this until losing the uniqueness of the shape is a better alternative to the social stigma attached to environmental carelessness.

And the Coke was just one example. A Google search for "iconic packaging" [0] will give you a lot of other examples of packaging so recognizable and unique that you can identify the product just by glancing at the shape.

[0] https://www.google.com/search?&q=iconic+packaging

Standardizing size and shape across brands does not appear to bother soda companies when they are packaging their product in cans. It doesn't seem unreasonable to require them to do the same for bottles in order to avoid mountains of plastic waste.

just ban plastic bottles.... cans work just fine.

Whole cans are easy to recycle, but doing so requires melting the metal back into stock and noxious chemicals to clean the metal.

That is all very expensive and environmentally unfriendly compared to potential for reuse of strong bottles.

Unless you force a redesign so that cans are reusable. (No more tab - instead a bottle cap, standard shape, no crushing, heavier, thicker, more expensive.)

I expect that soft drinks could easily be sold in a mini-keg form factor.

There exists aluminum bottles - Coke at one time sold their soda in them (I think it was some kind of commemorative edition or something like that).

That would have the same benefit as bottles: The ability to drink only part of the contents (like people do with water). The downside is that you can't see what is inside (an important factor for many people when they purchase - especially water).

There's the iconic Coke glass bottle, sure, but larger plastic beverage bottles have no discernible differences; same with cans, cardboard cartons, gallon jugs, even, for the most part, glass beer bottles.

On the other hand, many container types are already de facto standardized: the lid of the pint of the cottage cheese and the quart of yogurt in my fridge right now, for example, are interchangeable even though they're from totally different dairies. Milk jugs and cartons are standardized. Cereal boxes, most pop bottles. Instant noodle bricks. The list isn't as long as the list of all possible products, but there are clearly benefits to standardization even in the absence of legislation mandating it.

There are only a handful of carton providers in the world (TetraPak is leading in carton in Europe, for example). Everyone uses or clones their machinery and designs.

Right, the point being that even absent the requirement to do so, dairies have figured out that it's cheaper/better to all use the same packaging.

Size and shape reminds me of the arguement the music industry made about CD packaging and inserts being tangible, value-adds to the listening experience.

Turns out, especially with a lot of CPGs now being sold online, consumers care more about price and quality/quantity than size and shape....

Glass bottles had variation, because they had their own deposit/return chain to hang on to their own bottles for reuse. They could afford to use them as unique branding too. If they were getting Pepsi or Irn Bru bottles back, or no bottle back, it wouldn't work.

Now, a bottle of Coke is identical to a bottle of Pepsi, Irn Bru or cheapest own label, except for the label, colour of contents and cap. Just a standard, almost generic, 2l or 500ml bottle. Do they even sell glass Cokes any more? I can't remember the last time I saw one. Beer still comes in glass, so there's far more variation. Deposits are no more. Reuse is no more.

Can't be that powerful in differentiating or marketing in comparison to saving a penny or two using generic plastic.

While 2L bottles are roughly standardized in most markets, other commonly found bottle sizes are not as standard. A 20oz bottle of Coke looks extremely different from a 20oz bottle of Pepsi. And yes, Coca-Cola still sells Coke in glass bottles in many markets.

Marketing is zero sum. If we standardize everything, then marketers will find some other way to differentiate themselves. It's not a problem we as a society should give any weight to.

This is commonly done with bottled water in many European countries. You see stacks of formed plastic holders for the bottles in the back. As bottles get drunk, the empties are placed back into the holders, and the company servicing the restaurant comes frequently and swaps out the empties for full ones. You can tell the bottles are reused a lot because they have pretty substantial wear marks on their sides where they rub against the holders.

And yeah, it'd be great if the same kind of system were extended to more products in the US. It'd be awesome if we could standardize on containers of, e.g., size 50mL, 100mL, 200mL, 500mL, 1 L, both for liquid and solid goods, and just have everything be sold in those. Then you'd just recycle those containers as normal, and instead of being broken down and remade, they'd simply be washed and reused.

It’s not done for small bottled water in the US, but it is done for multi-gallon “water bottles”, i.e. the things you use with a water cooler. Mostly you’re not returning them, though (although you can return them); you’re just reusing the ones you own.

I feel like that might be a more sustainable system: a grocery store where everything is shipped to the store and held in large bulk containers (which can be reused between the store and the supplier), and then, when purchased (through a deli counter or machines), some of the contents of the large container are transferred to fill up a small reusable plastic container you’ve brought from home. (Either by plugging it into the vending machine—like with refillable water jugs—or by handing it to the deli clerk to fill. Or, in the case of bulk bins, just filling your containers yourself, and then weighing them at the self-checkout. [That presumes each container has some sort of standardized tare code on it you can scan so that you don’t have to weigh every container empty when you first come in.])

I never see water coolers anymore I just see water purifiers everywhere .

> bottles get drunk

I'd like to see some drunken bottles!

Oregon has a beer bottle reuse program. They aim for 40 uses per bottle. Apparently oregon's bottle law is unique because it put the beverage industry in charge of deposits and collection.


I run a Hard Cider company in OR.

We (the beverage industry/my company) are only in practice responsible for deposits. While we are required to take collections, no consumers really returns them to us. The return burden often falls on the retailers, who collect deposit directly from consumers.

When we sell product to a retail store. We collect a 10¢ deposit per can from them. The retailer then collects a 10¢ deposit from the customer.

My company gives all our collected deposits to a co-op (which is state run I believe) who handle the collection/recycling of the containers.

I interact with our bottle bill on a pretty small scale, but I believe that only changes my reporting frequency.

Some places have local "zero-waste" grocery stores that sell everything in reusable containers that you return when you come back to the store.

For people who don't live in those places, a few online retailers like Loop are trying to fill the gap[1].

1. https://cleantechnica.com/2019/02/19/loop-to-launch-zero-was...

Add to that, more bottled water should be in actual glass bottles not plastic.

Make it more recyclable like beer bottles or old school Coke bottles.

Aluminum and glass are better for recycling than plastic, if the cost is higher so be it, doesn't stop people from buying beer bottles.

Well glass tastes better, so sure.

But the benefits are not obvious. If we assume diesel as a substitute good for plastic [1] then the additional weight of transporting glass could cause more waste (by burning additional diesel)

So, if a commmunity doesn’t have a local wash and refill center, it’s not obvious that plastic wins.

[1] you can make diesel from plastic (not easy, but probably easier than recycling mixed plastic). Assuming the plastic will go to the oceans otherwise, that’s a pretty good thing to do since diesel will get burned anyway and plastic is diverted from the seas.

It's been proposed, and is being worked on. http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/reusable-packagin...

Also, beer bottles.

Here's another look at Loop with some more products: https://www.fastcompany.com/90296956/a-coalition-of-giant-br...

and a bit on Oregon's new "reusable beer bottle" for local craft brewers. difficult to pull off on American nat'l for the usual reasons… https://www.fastcompany.com/90239092/this-reusable-beer-bott...

Personally, I would 100% change my shopping habits around brands that adopted standards like this.

Go find a small local dairy (in the US.)

There's a good chance they wash and re-use the bottles. The deposit might be greater than the cost of the milk.

I vaguely remember buying a bottle of milk once at Whole Foods and needing to return the bottle for my deposit.

In the 1990s, I had an after school job at a local dairy that was loosing a ton of money on their bottles because they didn't charge a deposit, and many customers didn't understand that we needed them back. We had a giant machine to wash all the bottles.

We used to do that with soda bottles. I think some places still do.

It was also standard with glass milk bottles, in the UK at least.

UK glass milk deliveries still exist. We have milk delivered 3 times per week. (that's the cadence of the milk company, not our choosing) and until recently within last 6 months ish) ALL quantities were delivered an 1pt returnable glass bottles. now they deliver typical 2pt and 2L PET containers which is handy for the fridge but if you order a 1pt you still get glass (and sometimes multiples if they have a supply chain issue like when they changed recently from 4pt to 2L for the same cost :/ )

The Soviet Union did this. People used mayonnaise jars for everything and carried them around wherever they went.

My parents had this in the late 60s-70s in the country-side. It disappeared in the mid-70s/end-70s.

With the advent of plastic no doubt. The plastic/petroleum economy (parodied in Superman3) killed off many more sustainable (wood/glass/metal) programs, as they allowed more consumption with all externalities ignored.

Now we're paying the price. I'm at the point where I've started to change my purchase habits to avoid packaging in general. This means more veggies and paper-packed meat and less frozen.

Adding costs to dispose of plastic waste (preferably at the storefront) would greatly improve options.

> I've always wondered why there couldn't be standard containers for products like jam, wine, butter etc. where the containers are designed to be easily washed and reused.

This used to be the case in my country back when I was a kid and when we were still under (nominal) communist rule. Almost no jars or bottles were thrown out after use because that would have been similar to literally throwing money away, what was usually happening was that our parents would send us, kids, with a bag of empty milk bottles and jam jars to the closest general store and we would receive some money in return for said bottles and jars (not much of a sum, I agree, but it was better than nothing).

> too difficult

> impossible

These words are funny to me. It's not literally "too difficult" or "impossible" for people to sort their recyclables. I think they essentially mean, we don't know how to make people do this, or we think we'll be voted out if we ask people to do it. And what it boils down to is that, it's not a socially accepted/expected practice to sort your recyclables. But, you know what? That is a completely different thing from being "too difficult" or "impossible". And by conflating those two things, we as a society are operating with blinders on.

As a thought experiment, imagine everybody else was making the needed compromises (to their time, space, etc.) to properly sort recyclables. Is it still impossible for you?

IMO, you shouldn't ask people to sort recyclable materials at home for a few reasons:

1. It's not impossible, but it's impractical. You need multiple containers all of a sudden, and these can't be fixed-size containers because not everyone consumes the same proportion of any given material.

2. People are going to sort things wrong, meaning you need to check/re-sort at the processing plant.

3. How difficult of a challenge is it to build sorting machines, anyway? Are you going to tell me self-driving cars are coming soon but we can't build machines to handle this? If it really is too hard, have regulations put in place so that some machine-readable material tag be put on all packaging.

4. I think this is a good domain for regulators to step in. Tax things that are hard to recycle, and encourage packaging that is easy to recycle or biodegradable. Keep in mind, glass containers are recyclable and also reusable, meaning you can just clean and refill them at the factory, which is more energy-efficient than melting everything. No new technology needed, just go back to selling milk, sodas, etc. in glass jugs.

> IMO, you shouldn't ask people to sort recyclable materials at home

I don't know where you are, but I think your opinion is colored by the status quo in your country. In a lot of places in Europe people do sort them, and from what I've seen they do a good job at it.

Also, sorting machines are probably not that hard, but remember that this is a low-value product. You cannot justify a lot of expense. (..unless, of course the government pays; different discussion though)

I think this is a cultural problem. It’s built into culture in places outside is the US to sort, but changing behavior is very very hard on a massive scale.

I think tackling it at the source is probably the only real solution. If companies are forced to use easily recyclable or reusable packaging then they will. But they won’t do it voluntarily. I would happily pay a few extra cents or whatever on everything I buy if everyone was forced to use more sustainable packaging.

I think it's not change behavior, just how to incentive the people. There would be lots of people would like to do that if you pay the money, basically some places would buy those recyclable trash, like paper, glass bottle, cans, which is very normal in other developing countries.

How can sorting trash be built into culture, when it is quite a new thing itself? Did people sort trash in the 19th century? Did they do it in the 1950s anywhere in the world?

In the part of Denmark I am in we have a biweekly pickup of recyclables, paper, metal, glass, plastic, as well as other bigger items being thrown out - furniture etc. and a deal to pick up medical wastes cleaning supplies in longer periods.

Danish houses, and even the houses where I am located at, are typically smaller than American middle class housing.

When Americans talk about sorting they tend to mean sorting different kinds of plastics and such, not the top level "basic" categories such as paper, glass, metal, and plastic. Or at least that's what it meant in a couple places I lived (most places I've lived recycle different plastics, for example).

> How difficult of a challenge is it to build sorting machines, anyway?

Machine vision and learning, conveyor belts, lots of delta arms - seems doable to me.

Heck - maybe we need something akin to the whole "smart car" thing in China - let kids and others come up with trash sorting machines, compete in challenges (FIRST/FRC style?), etc?

Hmm - business idea:

Educational STEM startup focused on the above (aka - FIRST/FRC robot contests for trash sorting); all entries must be open source/open hardware; same company (more or less) could use innovations from the open source entries to develop full-scale machines and systems for implementation in actual industry?

I recently did a tour of a NYC Waste Management center in Queens. The installation was huge, roughly the same footprint as the entire wallstreet section of downtown Manhattan. Further, the technology at every step of the waste management process was very impressive.

Skimmers on top to separate oily waste, under-water conveyors to separate heavier materials, huge pools of bacteria that can "digest" organic matter turn it into methane that can then heat homes or create power, centrifuges that can do more precise separation.

They showed the before and after of the waste from the process. It starts as absolutely disgusting murky green water with dirty wet-naps in it, to crystal clear H20 (although I still wouldn't drink it).

The work involves nearly every engineering discipline from bio-chemists to electrical engineers to underwater mechanics to software developers. It's unfortunate it's a public job and the pay isn't great, it's interesting work.

But sadly, given all that, every time it rains the rainwater floods the system with more liquid than it can handle and it all gets dumped into the hudson river.

If it's already contaminated, with food waste or other, there's no amount of machine vision or labour that will get you rid of the contamination so you can send it to China.

maybe you use the machine vision and sorting machine to reject that item then, and still send all the uncontaminated items to China?

Years ago I dabbled in the agtech space and reasonably affordable spectrometers were available. Perhaps that could help pick out contaminated items?

I'd rather it not go to China. It is better that we manufacture our own plastic trinkets right here in the USA.

An implementation that I have experienced first hand in rural Maine where we did have to sort our recyclables. This admittedly doesn't work everywhere, but hopefully it provides insight. There was no trash/recycling pick-up. Most people made a trip to "The Dump" once a week with their trash + recyclables. For recyclables, There was a large building a few hundred feet wide with various windows in its face. One window was for black/white paper, one was for colored paper, one was for #1 plastics, another for #2, etc, glass, cans, etc... All containers had to be rinsed out and have their labels removed. It's preferable to sort these at home, but some people would just have a big bag of mixed recyclables and move between windows, tossing things in. A couple of employees inside would watch the windows and yell at anyone mixing recyclables. It's vary laborious and you might wonder why people wouldn't just throw recyclables away instead? We had to pay $2 per trash bag, which we bought at the Town Hall. This incentivized people not to throw away recyclables. The $2 bags were large enough to hold 3 or 4 13-gallon kitch-trash-bags of trash. With trash, you would stand on a platform and throw these $2 bags of trash into the top of an open shipping container which would be trucked away to a regional landfill. This solution was a HUGE improvement over the previous solution, which was a dirt road that led to a big hill that you would throw anything and everything off of (spoiler, we ended up with contaminated ground water in certain areas).

> You need multiple containers all of a sudden

You can do it the Japanese way and collect different kinds of wastes, in a periodic (say, weekly) rotation, placing the burden to sort and bag them correctly on citizens. Two groups of containers would be enough if recyclable waste equipments are not contaminated by non-recyclable waste. Same could also be applied to reusable products (reuse bin).

> You can do it the Japanese way and collect different kinds of wastes, in a periodic (say, weekly) rotation, placing the burden to sort and bag them correctly on citizens.

What happens to the others during a cycle; ie, let's say you recycle plastics, paper, metal - week one is plastics, but you still accumulate paper and metal - where do you put it if you only have a single bin?

You bundle your paper and cardboard. How much metal do you throw away?


I stage my recyclables in recyclable paper bags from my grocer.

We have single sort but I don't walk each piece out to the bin.

Which means you have to have multiple containers, right?

Yes, but is that an issue? We have four containers where I live in Canada: paper, containers (glass, plastic, metal), compostable waste, and landfill waste. Recycling and compost don't have limits and are collected weekly. Landfill waste is restricted to two 125 L/20 kg bags, with collection every two weeks.

We have three small recycling and compost bins under the kitchen sink, and large green, grey, and blue bins in the garage. Garbage stays in the kitchen trash can until collection, and we usually only fill one bag. It doesn't smell either, since it doesn't have any food waste.

For reference, this is for a family of seven.

So, if you have more than 125 L per week or more than 20 kg per week, you have a huge incentive to dump it somewhere illegally? It doesn't sound like they thought this through.

Certain holidays like Christmas have double the limit, and you can always buy a garbage tag for a few dollars to put on any extra bags. Or just bring it to the landfill, which is located right in the city. Dumping doesn't seem to be a problem.

The majority of our trash is plastic bags (milk, grocery, cereal, etc.), which aren't recyclable. And those don't take up much room at all.

That doesn't sound at all impractical, and actually sounds like it would make a lot of things _easier_ in my situation.

"3. How difficult of a challenge is it to build sorting machines, anyway?"

The answer is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT. The problem is that it is a network system. The number of possible connections of different elements with different elements is a mathematical concept called "factorial".


Even small factorials become extremely huge fast. Huge like the number of atoms in the entire known Universe huge.

In engineering we have machines that do only one thing well. For example, you can burn wood well. No problems.

If the wood have mercury(button batteries), even small quantities, you have a terrible problem (people dying from cancer near the incinerator), if the wood has pesticides or Teflon or chloric materials you will be creating dioxins which are one of earth biggest poison, making burning extremely expensive.

Just a single button battery can contaminate tons of material or water.

Wet wipes for example have made cost of sewerage to skyrocket.

Humans or living beings have something machines do not have: flexibility.

Something that cost 1 monetary unit to do with a machine, becomes 20, 50, 100 units when you get out of the working conditions of the machine.

The fact is that the cost have been externalized. Make people in Africa or Asia die from our waste pollution. It is a good thing that they start saying no and forcing us to deal with the real cost, so we have to be smart with our waste.

At the end of the day it is not that hard. The US was the absolute champion of waste, invented "the use and trow" concept, because they could do it without dealing with the consequences.

And yet somehow people think self driving cars are gonna happen any time soon. Yeah right.

Honest question about glass, from someone who also wants glass everything:

If we swapped back to glass containers for everything, would there be significant increase in CO2 emissions from the added shipping weight?

I suspect you are right to ask this question, and have a few items that might point in the direction of an answer.

Fuji water bottles are rectangular not only as a unique branding but in order to economize on space in shipping to reduce transport cost.

Large lightweight items cost a lot to ship because they are lightweight and inefficiently use the vehicle. The ideal truckload is a full volume at the maximum carrying weight.

So, compared to transporting loads of compacted glass shards, I'd expect that transporting truckloads of empty bottles could be not only high in monetary costs, but also CO2 costs.

>Fuji water bottles are rectangular not only as a unique branding but in order to economize on space in shipping to reduce transport cost.

It's Fiji and this is a terrible example. Fiji could just ship a tanker full of water to a bottler in their country of destination. Instead they ship the bottles to Fiji, then fill them at a plant that runs on diesel generators. Finally, they ship the filled bottles to their final destinations.

You'd have to compute what percentage of the weight of various products is taken by the container, and how energy efficiency of transport is affected by weight of items carried. To be completely fair, you'd also want to factor in how much energy is being saved by reusing containers as opposed to manufacturing new ones. Another thing to keep in mind is that electric vehicles are coming, so this should become less of an issue.

How do you mean? Electric vehicles just means that emissions don't come from the vehicle itself. I'm guessing you are assuming that the electricity used by the vehicle is coming from an energy source that is partially renewable/carbon neutral, which isn't the case in most states[1].

I don't think its unreasonable to think energy use is lower for reusing rather than making new glass containers, since you would transport them anyway. The tough question would be whether energy use is lower for transporting and reusing glass rather than transporting new, lightweight plastic. I'm also for all glass everything so I won't try to tackle that problem. -- [1] https://nyti.ms/2GDAzD8

While true, the larger generators used in power plants are usually more efficient than a standard internal combustion engine, burning less fuel for the same power. Additionally, there are fewer pollutants because you get a lot less partially combusted hydrocarbons. Furthermore, a lot of power plants are going to natural gas, which emits less CO₂.

> I'm guessing you are assuming that the electricity used by the vehicle is coming from an energy source that is partially renewable/carbon neutral, which isn't the case in most states[1].

You're looking at total generation, but you really need to look at how increasing demand over time is met, since that's really how marginal increases from changing usage (like switching to electric cars) is met.

You have to pay for your fancy recycling plant.

Places with high population density already have them. Elsewhere it's a big cost and doesn't make any sense. I've heard of big evil companies like Waste Management sending their trash stream though a sorting plant...

The many trips and washing cut down on the efficiency of reusing glass.

Well, in suburban & rural areas where there isn't recycling & yard waste service or uptake is limited, sending trash through a sorting plant isn't the worst idea. Cardboard and metal can be separated out, reducing the overall bulk of the trash.

Right, but the problem is distance and volume. Rural landfills are often already a bit of a financial mess. Here they've banned hauling trash out of the county, to increase the volume (and thus the fees they collect).

Add a significant operation in the middle of that and you better have a lot of support from residents, because they are going to be paying for it in taxes.

#2 is the fundamental problem here; home sorting is like asking people to please only use alphanumeric user names.

1. That's at least closer to the truth. "Impractical" is an opinion, whereas "impossible" is an incorrect fact. Now we're talking problems that can be solved.

3. Building that machine is actually probably pretty challenging. But not as challenging as getting the regulations you describe passed.

4. Not a bad idea.

I've lived in places where you sort them, you have a larger container then put bottles etc in bags in that.

There is no excuse for being lazy. If people are dumb, let them pay for it.

Honestly, I've been an avid recycler for as long as I could, voluntarily taking my recyclables to a center.

Recycling really is confusing (in the US). Different municipalities have different rules about what can and can't be recycled, and then we find out that most of the "recyclables" end up getting incinerated or landfilled anyway.

Honestly, this is something that robots really should handle. Maybe we can have two bins, but sorted according to things that are clean and things that are dirty. (Things that are dirty are diapers, wet food containers, ect.)

I keep telling people that I don't believe we'll have self-driving cars until the robots can sort our trash for us.

It's not impossible. It's German, and more and more European and the EU is pushing to improve the recycling rates.

Just think of aluminum: Though extremely abundant in nature, it require a lot of energy to produce a new alu can but when you recycle you get 20 alu cans for the same amount of energy put in.

There was actually a different article a while ago about this topic. There are a ton of corner cases, for example, you can't recycle cardboard pizza boxes, or plastic envelope windows.

The rules for what is recyclable and how to sort it are complicated. They can change when the recycling technology / provider changes, and there's no feedback to tell people when they're doing it wrong.

That's one of the practical factors that makes education difficult.

I personally think they could make progress by adding a feedback loop: Bring in 2% or so of the bins and check them by hand, after labeling each bin with its source. Then send a letter to tell people what they're doing wrong. If 2% of bins are checked, then on average, a poorly educated consumer who's regularly polluting the bin with non-recyclable materials should be informed of the error of his ways within a year.

Here's the previous article: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17359807

I grew up in a very conservative area of America and we sorted our recycling. It was no big deal.

Then I moved to a fairly liberal area of the country and was stunned to see the “all together” recycling was the standard.

The stunningly low expectations we put on people is depressing. And the justifications I see in this thread below just show how prevalent this attitude is, that basically most of humanity can’t do the simplest of things.

The thing is most sorting requirements are idiotic and despite them, trash still needs to be checked by hand, mostly because people put them in wrong bins(for example some paper cups shouldn't be put with paper - because they consist of 3 layers, and one of those layers needs a different process for recycling).

Over here the requirements are to sort your trash into 7 categories, of which 5 are recyclable.. and we generally speaking live in pretty small houses/flats compared to US.

why not make a simple system consisting of 3 categories: food waste(wet trash) - which you dispose daily because it stinks otherwise, dry trash - which won't stink, and recyclables?

The main idea behind recycling should be to make people recycle(emphasis on people), not to make it easier on sorting company, nor recycling company.

“To the timid and hesitating everything is impossible because it seems so.” – Sir Walter Scott

The standards China is demanding are not really relevant to consumer sorting. It's a sorting that is always going to have to be done in specialized facilities. China is requiring an 0.5% contamination rate. By comparison, curb side pickup currently has about a 25% contamination rate. Improved consumer sorting might help but it's not going to be the whole answer.

People can deal with paper, metal, plastic, and compost as categories, particularly if they have different bins. What make it break down is that anything more complicated than intuitive categories will just result in people going for "good enough." Either make it have "good UI" and make sense to people or do single stream sort later.

Counter argument: If everyone else was doing it why would I? The amount of garbage I individually generate is negligible. I do recycle and compost but I can imagine that a lot of people will have this same thought.

How about teaching it at school at an early age? I think it comes down to education.

The value of my time that it would require far exceeds the value of this activity. It's of net negative economic benefit to society.

You do realize that there are plenty of countries where people separate recyclables at home, right? And that it’s not a big deal. Your attitude is why we can’t have nice things, like a healthy planet for my grandkids to live on.

I wonder which is more expensive to the environment: OPs refusal to sort recyclables, or the existence of your descendants.

If it's so valuable, you could pay for someone else to do it for you. Just like you pay to have people clean your house, wash and sort your dishes, do your taxes, walk your dog, etc etc etc.

Only a couple of products are efficiently recycled anyway and as more types of recycling we have people sort at home, the _less efficiently_ we recycle.

You have no idea how much time it takes if you think it’s too much.

Source: living in a place that legally requires to sort garbage into 5 (five) fractions.

Where I live, we sort 6 different categories: Food, glass, metal, paper, hard plastic, soft plastic. Was a hassle at first, but now I get warm fuzzies knowing that I am reducing waste.

I only have 2 categories of recycling, and even those can be a hassle (e.g., I can never if soft plastic bags go in the plastic bin). But I too get the warm "fuzzies" when I do it. But those fuzzies are more than just being seen as "eco-conscious" or whatever, it's about efficiency. We go through enormous lengths to be efficient about our time, sleep, food we eat, etc. Being efficient with the products we use and waste we create makes me feel like my life is running like a precision machine rather than a beat up old clunker.

I'd personally love the concept of living a life that created no waste, where every output I created could be used as another's input. Alas, I don't think we're there yet.

we used to be there before industrialization. there was scarcely any waste - pretty much everything solid except broken pottery was repurposed for something else. the challenge is making it reasonable to do when economies of scale make it cheaper to discard stuff instead of reuse.

There was plenty of waste pre-industrialization... e.g., the most basic form: feces. In some cases, industrialization made us more efficient with our waste; modern waste management plants can turn feces into methane and heat homes.

Industrialization's negative effect wasn't about efficiency, it was that it allowed us to create far more stuff. Today, we go through far more single-use products than ever could have been imagined pre-industrialization. We're far more efficient about handling that waste than they were, but because we create so, so much more of it today, the net effect is more waste. So even though industrialization had a big effect, it's not for the reasons you raise.

Going one step further, industrialization doesn't have to be the enemy. There could very plausibly exist a society with mass plentiful produced goods that all get easily recycled/reused. Industrialization can help here.

I'm sure you could hire someone whose time is less valuable so they can do your part for you...

And I'm sure that would also be grotesquely economically destructive.

Let's do some simple math, shall we?

One of the most recycleable commodities is aluminum. A soda can contains about 15 grams of metal. You can get maybe $0.40/lb for aluminum can metal. This comes to about $.013/can. If I were to value my time at $10/hour, then if I spend more than a few seconds recycling a can it isn't worth it.

So, no, it's not worth it to hire anyone to recycle most stuff. Labor is far too expensive, compared to the value produced by recycling.

But it doesn't take a few seconds. When you are about to throw it you just throw it in a different bin. It doesn't take more time. Where i live (yes Europe) we have compostable, recyclable and general bins, so we have the same mini bins at home.

And nobody was recycling 40 years ago so it's just a matter of habit/culture.

They don't require you to wash out your cans before recycling? That itself will take more than the couple of seconds per can.

Yes, it's habit/culture. Lots of silly things are done just because it's the habit to do them. It doesn't mean they're good ideas.

I've long maintained that plastics recycling is worse than useless -- washing all of that plastic takes loads of water, and there just aren't many uses for recycled plastic. Consider the plastics around you. How many objects are virgin plastic? How many are recycled? There's not some secret destination for recycled plastics. Clearly it's being dumped or burned, and it has been for a long time. Now we're doing it in the U.S. again, it's much harder to pretend that's not its fate.

We need more public education on the Reduce and Reuse portions of the 3 Rs that only have Recycle as a last resort. We’re getting further away from those in the name of convenience, with things like meal delivery like Blue Apron. Start small: dont use those bags for produce, bring reusable containers to eat out for bringing home leftovers, use a reusable water bottle, buy as much in bulk as you can (with reusable containers).

Why should the onus be on the consumer when the reality is that there are massive corporations that aren't paying the external costs they are inflicting on our environment?

Even if I never consumed another piece of plastic in my life, a single cargo truck destined to Walmart will contain more plastics effectively ruining what I can do.

It would be smarter to actually have politicians who want to regulate and fine companies these corporations that are destroying out planet than trying to blame people who aren't the real problems.

>Why should the onus be on the consumer when the reality is that there are massive corporations that aren't paying the external costs they are inflicting on our environment?

There are zero companies that create and distribute products for the simple enjoyment of doing so. If consumers didn't buy these products in their packaging, the manufacturers would not produce them.

>people who aren't the real problems.

People are the real problem. What's more is that it's poor, stupid people who are disproportionately the problem. But it's out of fashion to criticize poor people as they are, supposedly, victims of circumstances and not to be thought as functioning humans who are capable of making choices.

How do I have a choice as a consumer when companies have no incentive (through force of law or massive fines) to correct their actions? I live in an area that has typical grocery stories, everything inside is covered in plastic. There's no option to buy spices and put them in my own containers, neither the grains or rice or lentils.

What am I suppose to do? Drive 100 miles to the nearest store so I can by rice that's not in several plastic bags?

Why don't our politicians put our needs first? Why are they bought out by life damaging companies like Koch Industries who instead encourage people to "reduce" or "recycle."

What a crock of shite.

If companies were forced to pay 30% of their yearly gross profits for needless plastic usage (IMO 90% of all plastic use pointless) they would change their policies.

I'm not talking about "enjoyment" I'm talking about no incentive to correct their behavior. Corporations are fucking over the Earth because are politicians are too chickenshit to tell them otherwise.

I honestly hope I die before this all these travesties come to fruition.

Your complaint seems to be that it's not convenient for you to take responsibility for the choices you make.

It's trivial to order bulk grains and dried beans online delivered in cans, paper bags, or barrels. Regardless, if it's 100 miles to the nearest big city, that's shouldn't be a problem. Plan ahead, know how much you need, and buy six month's or a year's worth at a time.

You write as if it's a human rights violation that choices you would like to make require effort on your part. Sorry, that's not the case. Take personal responsibility for your choices. If you can't be bothered to make environmentally responsible decisions, that's on you.

Agree wholeheartedly that regulation must come into play. But ultimately people have to ask for the regulation and vote accordingly. Bit of a chicken and egg problem. I grapple with the fact that my efforts aren’t even a drop in the bucket, but raising awareness does help to get others doing the same.

If the plastic is burned in a really high quality incinerator, with a great scrubber stack, it at least isn't putting out lots of pollutants, and can generate power to boot. This might be a better fate than having them end up in a landfill, though of course they are releasing CO2 when you burn them (though I don't know if that's significant at all compared to global CO2 released in manufacturing and transport).

About the same CO2 impact as manufacturing them.

The problem is burning it clean. To do that you have to run a very hot furnace, near gasification temperatures.

Otherwise, you will be releasing cracked chlorine, sulphate, partial urethane chains and other hydrocarbons into air. They're invisible but noxious and sometimes stinky.

Electroscrubbers have limitations and high energy cost too.

>This might be a better fate than having them end up in a landfill...

If you're not recycling them, why is burning them better than putting them into a landfill? Is it the fact that plastics don't biodegrade and will last in the ground for thousands of years? Isn't that good? Aren't we trying to find carbon sequestration techniques?

Whenever I see stories revolving around this sort of thing, I'm always reminded of the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode they did on recycling (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0771119/). They argue that landfills really aren't that bad and may actually be better than recycling. Of course the entire _premise_ of that show was that you shouldn't just blindly believe everything you're told -- INCLUDING what the show itself tries to argue for. So I have no idea how valid any of their argument actually is.

If I recall their entire argument was based on whether or not something financially worth it. And so they recommended recycling aluminum, because aluminum is worth so much. Whereas everything else loses money.

If it were true that recycling plastic were better for the environment, but was a financial loss I'd be for it. I'm not sure this is true, but the point is that purely financial considerations miss the bigger picture here.

As other HN posters have pointed out, it seems that fewer disposable plastic containers is the better path here. (really, as few as possible!)

Consider: it might be cheaper in total long-term ROI to dispose of things in landfill now, and then let people a hundred years from now dig them back up if they have need for the materials then, than to recycle those things right now. And by “cheaper”, I mean for the entire economy that includes both us and the hypothetical future people digging those things up! Our recycling now might have lower ROI (higher costs, less reclamation efficiency) than their digging-up + recycling would! (This is actually a thing in archaeology: frequently sites that are hard to dig up will be left to future archaeologists who—it is assumed—will be able to reclaim them more cheaply and effectively than we can today.)

It’s sort of like the “bargain” of cryptocurrencies: what promotes long-term GDP growth more, bank fees or massive electricity use? Crypto miners are hurting the environment right now; but they pay for their own externalities. Banks impose fees that lower net productivity in a way that might mean that the companies/technologies that we need to reach sustainability take longer to come into existence. So will we be in a better place with 100 years of crypto mining + 100 years of an economy [including green industry] that was spurred on no bank fees; or vice versa? The question doesn’t have an immediate, intuitive answer.

A stupid but weirdly-precise analogy: when playing an RTS like Starcraft, anything that slows down your “economy” (mineral mining) prevents you from “teching up” as quickly as your opponent. In humanity’s case, our opponent is Malthusian resource starvation (in the small—of individual resources) and habitat loss from climate change. Anything that slows down our economy from “teching up” to face these problems, for a reward of merely moving around in time our ability to use our resources (rather than decreasing permanent losses/increasing permanent gains of resources), isn’t really worth it, if we’re “racing the clock.” (That’s a big, hotly-debated “if”, of course.)

> what promotes long-term GDP growth more, bank fees or massive electricity use?

Assuming they have the same cost, bank fees promote more GDP growth, hands down, at any time horizon.

Money simply changing hands will always beat money changing hands with added useless usage of resources and labor.

And that's not even considering the reality, that average electricity costs of a BTC transaction are orders of magnitude expensive than the average bank fees on money transactions.

Oh, no, I meant that the other way around. As in, "what promotes GDP growth more—companies and individuals having more money from a [lack of] bank fees, or power grids having more spare capacity from a lack of miners consuming electricity"?

That was certainly something they talked about and focused on. But I recall that they also talked about how landfills take up such a ridiculously small amount of land, and they are so efficiently managed these days, that it's not even really an environmental issue either. I'll have to rewatch the episode, but they may have even suggested it was _better_ for the environment to throw it out, because the energy involved in recycling was actually worse.

Similarly: I have a friend who recently told me they were trying to get away from using disposable paper towels and instead use cloths. Again, this episode immediately came to mind. I couldn't help but wonder if the amount of energy, detergent, etc used in washing the reusable towels was _worse_ than simply using paper towels.

I don't know that there is any true way to definitively answer either of these questions. There's just SO MUCH involved, that you can go down a million rabbit holes (the manufacture of the washer uses X, the design required a team that required an office that was built inefficiently, etc). This is currently a premise on The Good Place: no matter how hard you try to be the best possible person, you can't control the entire pipeline of ramifications.

I think part of what ought to happen (and likely won't) is simply for people to change their behaviors.

Many things do not need hazardous detergents to clean. If something is sufficiently dry, it can easily be sterile enough to be considered clean. And so, a gross-looking rag might not necessarily be unhealthy. Further, people could just own "categories" of rags: one for cleaning the house, one for work with cars and machinery, one for biological use, etc. And each of those could be treated separately so as to reduce chemical usage.

I'm not confident people would ever do this, instead just that avoiding some of these problems is not conceptually difficult. That's more of a problem of behaviorism and consumerism. (and, as you point out, education)


I do agree with your point, though. Apparently you can compost paper towels, too. So as long as you're not cleaning anything you can put on your lawn, you don't even need further transportation costs to dispose of or recycle.

financials are easy to fix - tax plastic containers to the point where it's more cost effective to recycle and let the market do the rest.

replace tax with any other way of artificially increasing the financial cost of plastic if you don't like taxes.

I like Penn and Teller magic shows but that’s about as much as I trust them. They are entertainers with a very obvious political bias, which is usually one that encourages ignoring climate change. Their environmentalism episode was a total joke.

Somewhat related: Adam Ruins Everything: The Corporate Conspiracy to Blame You for Their Trash


Could we make standardized durable containers that can simply be scrubbed, optionally polished and reused? Or just melted down and reused. Seemed to work ok for the dairy industry decades before my birth.

That's the amazing thing about what the developed world right now, recycling is the worst of the three things we should be doing. i.e.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Go to a developing country and the deposit on the beer bottle costs more than the beer in it. They are all clean and reused. Tons of countries charge money for plastic bags, or have even made them illegal. We need to catch up.

Catch up???...

Anyone even semi educated or over 55 recalls that when they grew up, most items came in glass containers, containers that you were required to place a deposit, and return for a refund.

It's only recent history, that a non conservative society which values expediency at a price of disposability and non ownership for freedom has become the norm.

More than this, the recycle scam is finally being exposed, and not soon enough in my estimation.. Islands of plastic in the Pacific ocean, so that people in cities feel better about themselves while driving to and from yoga in their prius while finger wagging truck driving hillbillies in the middle of the country.

Meanwhile, mayors, local reps, and governors try to export the problems somewhere else while millenials look to the federal govt and the administrative state as their saviours, so nothing really has to get done. Cue the food/milk/bag/whatever delivery as a service folks. This has cash cow written all over it..

Deposits and glass work well for fairly local industries; the big soft drink companies have a broader geographic reach and so are motivated to make a lighter bottle to reduce shipping costs. Legislation would probably be needed to require reusables or make disposables unattractively expensive to corporate HQ.

And that's before we even mention sachets. The very devil.

Big soft drink companies have bottling plants all over. Coke isn't made in Atlanta Georgia and shipped to Des Moines IA: it is made in Atlantic IA and Shipped to Des Moints. I don't know where else Coke has plants, but I would guess nearly every country in the world - with many having more than one. Coke delivers to the local store and goes back empty for more so this would work well if they would go back to glass bottles.

It isn't that simple though, I have relatives that worked for coke back in the glass bottle days and they would never drink coke from a glass bottle - they knew first hand how hard it was to get those bottles clean again. New plastic bottles and cans are always clean.

Soft drinks are usually bottled/canned fairly close to the consumers. For example, Coca Cola has six manufacturing sites in the UK [1].

Sometimes the concentrated syrup will be transported to the bottling company; I think this is probably the usual case for smaller markets.

[1] https://www.coca-cola.co.uk/about-us/our-business

Tons of Developing and Undeveloped countries I've spent time in have reuseable glass coke bottles.....

It can be done

The thing is that 'reduce' and 'reuse' are basically anti-consumerist/anti-capitalist, and thus there is formidable opposition to them.

Consider a neighbourhood where everyone has a lawn to mow. The lawnmover companies want to increase (not reduce) sales. So we end up with everyone having their own mower, which sits idle 95% of the time, instead of one community mower that's shared by neighbours. It's just a little example, but it extends to everything.

You are 100% correct. At this point it's become anti-American to even suggest spending less money.

This episode of EconTalk addresses the issue of transaction costs for things like lawnmowers and drills, and how future apps might solve that problem: https://www.econtalk.org/michael-munger-on-sharing-transacti...

But there's more to it to desire an own mower:

1. Everybody wants to mow at the same time

2. Community goods are often treated careless, leaving me with a dirty or non-functional mower when it is my turn

3. Who is responsible for repairs

Not only that, but the last lawn mower I bought (with my first house) lasted me 20 years. Whereas I'm sure a lawn mower that is used 15 times a week wouldn't last much more than a season or two.

Off topic, but when I bought a new mower last year, I couldn't believe how far the technology has come. No more primer bulb, starts easily on the first pull, and a few other items I don't recall off the top of my head. Same with cars, for example if you get out of it while it is still in gear it automatically puts itself in park, and it can limp home with loss of coolant (it fires every other cylinder pushing air through the others for cooling).

There are many different grades of mowers. A cheap residential mower is cheap and lasts just long enough that you don't think it was junk when you have to replace it. A commercial mower is used more in a month than most people mow in a lifetime and is built to higher quality (and price).

The neighborhood mower would cost 10x as much last just as long and serve the needs of 20 people - so a better deal in the long run. However what price are you willing to pay to not have to use the mower on your neighborhood's schedule - owning your own is probably worth it for you.

Do you have a reference for the car engine thing? I did a quick search and couldn't find anything yet. Sounds really interesting, I'd like to read more.

Here is the owners manual for my car: http://www.fordservicecontent.com/Ford_Content/Catalog/owner... On page 259, under the heading "Fail-Safe Cooling".

  If the engine reaches a preset
  over-temperature condition, the engine
  automatically switches to alternating
  cylinder operation. Each disabled cylinder
  acts as an air pump and cools the engine.
  When this occurs, your vehicle still
  operates, however:
  • Engine power is limited.
  • The air conditioning system turns off.
  Continued operation increases the engine
  temperature, causing the engine to
  completely shut down. Your steering and
  braking effort increases in this situation.

Ford has been doing this for decades (I think I saw it mentioned in the docs for EEC IV.) It turns off fuel for a cylinder here and there intending to pump heat out of the engine (a cylinder with no fuel is an air pump.)

It doesn't really let you operate with no coolant. Might get you farther before you die if you push it.

You are correct, that the manual doesn't specifically say it can operate without coolant (now that I re-read it). What it does is active fail safe mode, then will shut the engine off once the temperature goes above another (higher) threshold. So I guess if coolant is completely gone (instead of just low), you may be able to drive for a few minutes then be shut down for a while before driving again (the main purpose is to give you enough time to find a safe spot to stop).

> it can limp home with loss of coolant (it fires every other cylinder pushing air through the others for cooling).

Wow, this really cheered up my morning. Thanks.

Slightly ironically, your desire (understandable) to own your own mower overall contributes to the ultimate community good, the world, being left dirtier and non-functional.

This is not true. What happens in the real world is that the communal mower will be hogged by the committee members put in charge of managing the mower. They need to do this for the good of the community. Pretty soon they will need to manage other community resources. Some animals are just more equal than others after all.

You could ask the same question about coffee makers in an office, but we don't have coffee makers on every workers desk.

I think you have less congestion. I can come back 10 min later if the maker is blocked. That doesn't work with mowers.

Start a landscaping cooperative?

Nobody wants to drag a lawnmower from the other side of the neighborhood every time they want to mow their lawn.

And over the long run, sharing lawnmowers wouldn't even reduce total lawnmower production. The shared lawnmowers would run more hours per week and need replacement sooner.

> And over the long run, sharing lawnmowers wouldn't even reduce total lawnmower production. The shared lawnmowers would run more hours per week and need replacement sooner.

This is only true if people fully utilize their personal lawnmower before discarding it. I doubt this is the case. It seems that sharing would result in less discarding of under-utilized lawnmowers, and thus reduce the number of lawnmowers needed. Of course, I'm not saying anyone should be forced to do this.

Working lawnmowers get sold and used, not discarded. So that has virtually zero impact on the number of lawnmowers needed.

I feel like I am the only person around me who maintains (changes oil, rebuilt carb etc.) equipment and people seem to treat lawnmowers the worst. I swear I think people throw them away because they're out of fuel sometimes.

Unused working lawnmowers can rust and stop working.

Lawnmowers rust if they're not properly maintained, regardless of use. There's no evidence that shared lawnmowers would rust slower. Probably the opposite because when people own their own lawnmowers they're move like to maintain them properly. So no, sharing wouldn't reduce the net demand.

I understand the point you're making. (lawnmowers are simply a single example of a resource people do not wish to share)

But, they're also a great example: we shouldn't have lawns which add nothing to the ecosystem and require resources to maintain.


Most things won't pass your "test" on worthiness. You might be in a lonely group thinking it's a great test.

I'm not sure what you mean.

Most of us have a lot of things which add nothing to the ecosystem and require resources to maintain. Why single out lawns?

Because each yard out there could in principle support at least a little biodiversity: at least some plants, some insects. Curated lawns tend to the opposite.

But plants are "weeds" and insects are "pests." So people spray neurotoxins, and see how much biodiversity they can destroy.

There's no shortage of biodiversity where I live, and my kids sure seem to enjoy the lawn. If there's a problem with certain lawn care chemicals then address that through the appropriate legislative process.

I'm glad to hear it. I'd much rather be wrong on the internet, and have it turn out that you guys have some nice plant and animal life.

Do you think the rest of the world is ready for milk in bags?

And most other non-carbonated liquids?

Why would you use a plastic bag for milk? Most of the milk I buy comes in paper cartons.[1] Paper should degrade much faster than a plastic bag, plastic bottle, or glass.


The inside of that carton is still lined with plastic tho.

Plastic foil, much more biodegradable and probably compostable to boot, unlike PET.

24% polyethylene is still much better than a near 100% plastic bag or milk container.

It depends. If your county has the right equipment to recycle those mixed paper/plastic cartons then probably so, otherwise the whole thing goes into landfill or is incinerated, and that's more material than a plastic bag. You can check online if your county has the facility (unfortunately mine doesn't).

Tetra is expensive. Great for long term storage and backpack durability, but not worth the added cost (read: resources used in their manufacture) for something that must be consumed within 1-2 weeks of opening.

I do buy cheap wine in tetra boxes. They have a spigot to limit air-intake, so you can take your time to finish it.

I get my milk in sturdy glass bottles, which come with a $2 deposit so you bring them back for a wash and reuse.

In China there actually is milk (and soybean milk) sold in bags: https://static.businessinsider.com/image/4b05d2300000000000d...

We had milk in bags in elementary school in the late eighties in northern FL. You could pop your straw in, place on the table, apply rapid downward pressure: milk cannon! Amazing design, 10/10

Glass bottles?

Used glass is difficult to transport and not very efficient to recycle. It's a great option as long as you re-use the container locally.

I wish Heinekin’s World bottles succeeded: https://worksthatwork.com/artefacts/world-bottles

We could, but then industry might get together and form a littering organisation to reframe the problem into one of personal ethics and responsibility. Neatly making it nothing whatsoever to do with those that made the problem. Like they did in 1950-something forming Keep America Beautiful when one US state was encacting legislation to require deposit and reuse.

As we can see, it worked really well. The environment was saved, waste and littering are things of the past.

Some people still believe it's a grass roots organisation simply trying to improve the beauty of the country. Edit: founding members Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola

It will probably happen. Industry will get on board when they know they won’t have to pay back a lot of those deposits.

I’d prefer a straight tax instead so it goes into general revenue instead of bribing industry.

Thing is, unless industry are on the hook at both ends, they are incentivised to discourage, find ways around, or market against it.

So I'd prefer manufacturers responsible for every last cent of running a full-scale return and reuse programme. If that makes fizzy drinks more expensive, well, I'm not sure that's a bad thing either. Externalities are what started us on the way to this mess in the first place.

The pool company does this with chlorine jugs. You pay ten dollars or so for the jug. Or you can bring your own to trade in for a full one.

Beer growlers are a similar concept. Maybe this just spreads to more and more products.

> Or just melted down and reused

That's called recycling

Based on this article, it looks like "Or just melted down and reused" doesn't work very well.

We could start with the simple things, like reusable and standardised takeout boxes and cutlery. Add a small deposit on the return and make sure that any takeout place is required to accept returns, which they in turn can wash and reuse.

We’ve been doing that for thousands of years. The only tiny issue is convincing people to use it, and informing public that free market has failed as a framework for making environmental decisions.

Why would you say the free market has failed? If you're assigning blame shouldn't you be pointing at the democracy which regulates the market? You disagree with how a majority of your fellow citizens vote, so either you were simply outvoted on what is important, or you believe democracy failed.

Not the OP, but this is straightforward: the market fails to price externalities. Costs are distorted and borne by others. You can regulate it, but if you have sufficient control to price in all externalities and then do so, you are not talking about a 'free market' anymore.

And what is the role of democracy in regulating global public goods? How are you going to vote on environmental protections on other continents?

Just because you add a few more rules to a free market doesn't cease to mean it is a free market.

"How are you going to vote on environmental protections on other continents?"

Trade negotiations? Or are you asking if invasion and war are an option, which they absolutely are not.

I imagine the grocery store of twenty years from now will just have giant barrels of products and everyone brings in their own containers to fill up.

Look at photos of shops from the late 19th century, even big ones.

Tea came in chests, sugar and potatoes in sacks, there'd be large jars for the shop owner to measure out from. Most things went to the shop in bulk.

Only a few were pre-packed right from the start, like bars of soap and bottles for instance. Those bottles would almost certainly have a deposit scheme. Most of the individual packaging, and variance of packaging, came with supermarkets.

> Tea came in chests, sugar and potatoes in sacks, there'd be large jars for the shop owner to measure out from. Most things went to the shop in bulk.

It also allowed for easy adulteration of products (ever read old formulary books that were popular back then? They had a ton of "recipes" in them on how to extend or change a product to make more money from it, or sell expired goods, etc).

Imagine bulk flour sold by a company. Shop owner pays some money for it. Then reads how to "extend" the product using wood flour (aka sawdust). The shop owner reaps a much high profit, but the company that milled the flour gets a bad rep.

This kind of thing still goes on today with a variety of products that are sold to the consumer in bulk, especially where the consumer can't easy see what they are getting (or can't test it properly; for instance, it happens with gasoline occasionally).

Classic tragedy of the commons. Unfair competition for anyone trying to do it honestly.

It certainly made adulterating super easy, and in no small part led to the food safety laws both sides of the Atlantic, and the UK's trading standards. Things like alum in flour, or other equally unpleasant additives.

More recent variations on the theme have been more aware of the tendency to cheat, so have tried to make it a little more difficult. We'll always need spot checks from trading standards for restaurants and shops as someone will always try.

Or just bigger containers.

If laundry detergent doesn’t go bad, why aren’t I buying it in 25L or 50L barrels?

We buy 10year supplies of other products (the machines themselves), why not their consumables? They go up in price every year too.

That or buying the concentrate and diluting it yourself with the old container. That bottle of windex (spray glass cleaner) is 95% water.

Put a nice big tax on consumables, reduce the lowest rates of income tax with the revenue (or write cheques) and voila.

50 L is very heavy. You'd then need an automobile (which maybe in your country you already have, but if every human had one, we'd be in worse trouble.)

Instead of bigger containers, reusable containers. I have a 4 L container for laundry detergent that I fill up at the store on my walk home from work, fits nicely in my backpack.

A fair point. But larger containers would be a good option for those that can.

Instead, I just buy 10x 5L containers when they’re on sale. A big waste of plastic.

Wouldn't be a waste if you could return the containers and the design does not change often.

Barring that, plastic foil is more friendly. Buy a refill if available.

You can buy powdered detergent in a cardboard box.

Not recommended for High Efficiency washers.

I’m not sure if it’s just a scam to sell me liquid detergent tho.

At that size I'm sure there would be delivery options.

This is super exciting. One of the grand challenges I've been thinking about is tackling waste. Why is any material considered waste? The first principles approach to this problem says that landfills are mountains of energy and diverse resources waiting to be tapped.

The first step though is to ignore the pervailing reclamation, recycling mentality at the macro level and begin the gruelling work of building a new ecology. We're at a point now where concerted effort into engineered (or found through directed evolution) organisms gives us the opportunity to break down and then re-integrate these dormant resources.

In the future a 'recycling' plant will accept any and all waste and be the front end of a manufacturing hub that outputs both new raw materials and finished products. In between the two ends it will be biotechnology that enables the transition from waste back to usable component resources.

What you describe feels a little like a water treatment facility: stuff comes in, you deal with it, and materials come out (and still some waste). Water treatment is a little simpler since only water comes out... but then it's more complex because the inputs are all literally mixed together.

It probably still requires some pre-sorting. People used to just pour paint down the drain. Some things can poison the system. I suspect we don't fully know what things will be problematic until we really try reclamation.

> landfills are mountains of energy

If you're talking about literally turning garbage into fuel, there's, as I understand it, very rapidly diminishing returns unfortunately.

Even the apparently simple act of just burning garbage to generate electricity is complex, because you have to be concerned about what the heck is in there and what you're releasing into the air.

In principle, plasma gasification can be made to work net positive energy output, plus slag for whatever you want to use slag for.

In practice, it's really expensive to set up and operate without a lot of throughput, so it doesn't happen that much.

Though, I've read the US Navy is putting plasma gasifiers onto its newest generations of big ships.

I asked a local waste handling company owner whether he'd be interested in plasma gasification. He told me that one plasma gasification plant would require all the trash from Vermont, plus parts of NY and NH and MA to keep it fed and economical. So that would require a lot of trucking. Still, that seems better than releasing all the toxins in the materials into the environment and means just one plant could service a large rural area. More plants would be needed in more densely populated areas. Still seems like a great solution.

No, think more "food for micro-organisms to do useful work" rather than "fuel for humans."

Multiple reasons: Lifecycle energy is a big one. We can recycle a lot of things, but if you look at the big picture: because of scale factors some things use less energy to make new from mined raw materials and dump the result into a local landfill than to collect the waste from distributed points.

Note that I said some above. There are thousands of different materials in the world. Some are very cheap to recycle some are not. A large part of useful recycling efforts is good material selection in the first place. If you really want to make a difference you should start there: choose materials that are not so difficult for the waste stream.

You describe the situation today accurately. The grand challenge is changing the energetics curve through biotechnology. That preselection of materials is the mindset I was referring to, so exactly the opposite is true; to make a meaningful advance you need to start with materials which are difficult and energy-cost-inneficient today and shift the work from exogenous sources to self, or nearly-self sustaining processes.

A large part of this is the new rules on contamination that exclude a lot of material. 0.5% is China's new limit, while a average city with curbside collection could never meet that. Think about your typical recycling bin: You put in some newspaper that is prime recycling material, but then a milk jug or soda bottle that hasn't been fully emptied or rinsed gets tossed in and the paper gets soaked and is now unusable for recycling. Same with pizza boxes that have grease, stuff that gets rained on, people putting stuff in the bins that isn't recyclable in this manner (including electronic components and such [0]), and suddenly you're throwing away (or burning) a huge amount of material.

"China, once the biggest single processor of recycling, said in the spring that it would no longer accept loads of recyclable items — such as plastic, glass, cardboard, and metals — that were more than 0.5 percent contaminated. Officials said they were trying to cut down on pollution from processing dirty recyclables.

Philadelphia’s contamination rate is anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent. That meant its previous contractor for recycling, Republic Services, had to find other markets for processing or begin disposing of portions of contaminated loads in other ways, such as in landfills or by incineration.

As recently as the first quarter of 2012, Philadelphia was getting paid $67.35 a ton for its recyclables. By summer 2018, Republic was negotiating a new contract to process recyclables that would cost the city $170 a ton."[1]

[0] "Reduce, reuse, incinerate: Why half of Philly's recyclables aren't recycled" (Feb 11, 2019) https://www.npr.org/podcasts/657780675/the-why

[1] "At least half of Philly’s recycling goes straight to an incinerator" (Jan 25 2019) https://www.philly.com/science/climate/recycling-costs-phila...

Okay, serious question: how much carbon is sequestered in plastic if we toss it in a landfill? Given that there's a finite amount of oil left in the world, and that it gets more expensive as supplies dwindle, I almost wonder if using more disposable plastics helps the fight against climate change. Better to turn the carbon into a solid and bury it than burn it and put the CO2 in the atmosphere, right?

The core problem with this is finding the land to fill. It's not as simple as any ole hole, the stuff is a low-grade contaminant that oozes nasties over decades. For the huge bulk of plastic waste that's a lot.

Better by far would be local recycling instead ; this is a fine thing for a government incentive as the (arbitrary, fickle) market incentive has gone away.

Not a direct answer, but 4% of global oil production goes to plastics, so I'd put the ceiling slightly higher.

4% does not seem a big enough slice of the carbon puzzle pie to really make a huge difference compared to something like fuels. seems like we should just focus on a solution that minimizes local and immediate human suffering.

Another good article on the topic:

China's Import Ban Broke Plastic Recycling. Here's How to Fix It


Fully aware that it’s not a globally useful solution, but I am surprised there aren’t alternatives to China for trash dumping. Why aren’t there alternatives. I refuse to believe all other countries are so eco-minded that they wouldn’t take a dirty cash grab

A lot of the value proposition of sending trash to China is that the containers that bring things from China go back empty, so sending them back filled with trash wasn't a huge marginal cost.

Going on pieces I've read in the last few months, others are backing away from being the world's recyclers too.

I recall a piece about Malaysia no longer being willing to thanks to a large increase in localised pollution, and illegal burning of non-recyclables (wrong plastic in bundle, labels, lids, etc). A fast search doesn't turn up a link.

They might also realize they can get the same inputs by creating domestic recycling programs.

Relevant: 99pi recently had an episode on China banning imports of recyclables - https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/national-sword/

It seems like we need better education and publicity campaigns. It should always be easy to look up the local rules. People should feel like it's more important to keep the recycling stream clean than it is to recycle at all, which is the opposite of what they do today where putting more stuff in the recycling bin is somehow thought to be better even if it doesn't follow the rules.

Unfortunately, garbage companies are not necessarily very good at publicity or education. (My local company's website is badly designed and it's annoyingly difficult to even find the page with the rules.)

"...or burning it in huge incinerators like the one in Chester, which already torches around 3,510 tons of trash, the weight equivalent of more than 17 blue whales, every day."

I love that they compare it to the weight of a blue whale!

"There isn’t much of a domestic market for US recyclables – materials such as steel or high-density plastics can be sold on but much of the rest holds little more value than rubbish"

It's clear to me from the article, does that mean paper and cardboard as well? It seems to be mentioned that China won't take it, but is that getting burned now?

IIRC it's the mix that's the problem. Pure newsprint has value, but it takes very little laminated paper or food contamination to make it cheaper to throw it all out than to sort it.

Another issue is that optical scanners read the code on plastics, but the black plastic on things like to-go coffee can’t be read (they absorb the light).

Small changes like “Number 5 plastics cannot be black in colour” would help without any consumer impact.

Isn’t there a way to incinerate such rubbish such that it outputs energy (electricity) and any heavy or toxic materials are scrubbed? May be a bit more expensive but the tech exists.

There are. Someone I used to know in the waste industry referred to it as "recycling by thermal decomposition". Norway has deployed this pretty liberally, to the point that they actively import waste to fuel their plants.

I believe that Germany does this as well, I recall an article from a few years ago about Germany being a destination for a lot of waste in Europe because of their technology around that.

There's a cement plant in Belgium that burns trash and filters the toxic materials. I seem to remember a figure of 99.99% of toxic materials filtered.

What happens to the residual material after incineration?

Yes: https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/publicworks/recycling-trash/en... for an example facility (it apparently also uses treated sewage water as its coolant).

Waste-to-energy tends to be a relatively win-win way of dealing to trash, but a lot of environmentalists tend to be against it because they feel it takes away from efforts to reduce waste.

We have a facility like this in our county (northwest of Washington D.C.)


Not every bit of trash goes out there. I believe plastic and metal are separated.

Absolutely! One right down the road from here, Pinellas county waste->energy plant. http://www.pinellascounty.org/solidwaste/wte.htm But it's more expensive than selling the rubbish to China.

I'm not an expert, but if you sort your inputs well, and scrub fly ash from the flue gas, you should be able to avoid most of the issues with heavy metals emissions.

That’s the only way to “recycle” a Tetra Pak.

Not really. The paper in a Tetra Pak is easily separated and recycled. The tricky part is separating the plastic layer from the aluminium. There are Chinese recycling factories that manage it with a chemical bath. A Spanish company also managed to boil the plastic away from the metal.

Not exactly true. You can separate off the paper component and then do "something" with the plastic/aluminium composite that remains:


I doubt it's worth it, though - it's a lot of work for a little low-grade paper waste, and incineration is probably more efficient.

You can just compost that plastic too, for use with plants and bacteria that like aluminium rich soil.

I've been watching a few companies that convert plastic back into oil. it sounds great, but I have no idea yet if it actually works, or is just all glossy brochure.


It is either energetically expensive or dirty. Reforming carelessly is what Germany did during WW2 to make synthetic rubber and oil from brown coal. The result is the Black Triangle due to sulphite pollution.


Funny fact, garbage was literally the biggest US export to China until the ban.

That's interesting, do you have a source for that? A quick Google search turns up aircraft, machinery, and agricultural products (and doesn't mention garbage), but I'd be curious to learn more.

> For more than five years, scrap and trash has consistently been the US’s biggest export


And it is likely to be more as trash is often declared as raw plastic, cellulose, aluminium billets, or "electronic components" to evade numerous bans that China been enacting over the last decade.

This is also why American own material statistics by US ITC is likely a better measure (access to ITC data is paid)

That article doesn't contain the quoted line. However, it does contain the following line:

>Since 2007, one of America's top exports to China has been... trash

Assuming positive intent, it is possible that the article was edited in the five hours since you linked it. However, it was written in 2013 so that seems unlikely.

I was homed onto the link by https://qz.com/82640/china-doesnt-want-your-trash-anymore-an... the quote is from there. Did not notice that it wasn't from the original article.

It probably is by volume.

Lots of otherwise empty containers going back. Makes sense to jam them with junk when the ship has to be repatriated anyway.

Imagine sorting waste is some amount of effort per item.

You could get the homeowner to do it, or you could pay people in a factory to do it.

Just like the poor economics of making your own paper, it turns out centralising all the effort works out to less effort expended overall.

I therefore don't really see the appeal of the European model of having homeowners separate glass, plastic etc. It seems to simply be a way to make hundreds of mllions of people waste a few minutes each, rather than employ a few thousand full time at a lower total economic cost.

Not even getting power out of burning the stuff.

This from the place that once had a power plant with a huge illuminated sign "Electricity is Cheap in Chester".[1]

[1] https://ruins.wordpress.com/2006/11/10/electrical-power-and-...

I find it difficult to imagine the USA giving up its plastic addiction, given the high levels of consumption and the convenience plastic provides.

I think a reasonable approach for regulators might be to require all single-use plastic packaging to be industrially compostable (corn-derived etc). This way you still get the convenience of the packaging, no need to change habits, but the waste can all be turned back into soil without pollution.

I get compostable cups... The liquid will only be in them for a short time.

But can a compostable bottle last the months needed to hold a beverage on the shelf?

I'm convinced that a tax on all plastic containers is nessecary to avoid the negative externalities of manufacturing them.

I am surprised we are not building more Plasma Arc systems to process the waste. Surely this would be better than creating all this dioxin in the air.


>The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers and other items into recycling bins.

Pizza boxes are not actually recyclable due to the amount of grease they absorb which is unable to be separated.

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