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As Costs Skyrocket, More U.S. Cities Stop Recycling (nytimes.com)
284 points by mykowebhn 37 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 284 comments



It makes me wonder if we were ever really recycling, or if "recycling" was a marketing buzzword for "cheaply dumping your trash in China".

I seem to remember a lot of controversy over recycling in the 80s and early 90s, with my local town government insisting it was too expensive. Suddenly everything changed in the late 90s, right around the time that globalization took off, and recycle bins took off everywhere. By the late 2000s everything was moving to "single stream recycling", where you just throw all your trash, cardboard, plastic, etc. in one bin and somehow it'd magically get sorted at the facility. That frankly seemed a little too good to be true to me, but everybody was buying into it.

Suddenly Plastic China comes out, China stops accepting recyclables, and we're back to where we were in the early 90s. What if all the "progress" was just an illusion where companies figured they could brand trash-hauling as recycling for eco-friendly customers, charge more for it, and then dump the trash on an unregulated Chinese buyer who could do whatever they want with it?


Many years ago while dropping off a pickup full of cardboard I got to talking with the guys at the recycling plant about what they did with it. They said the aluminum, iron, and clear glass gets recycled in the US; non-clear glass is sent to huge piles of glass somewhere to be stored indefinitely; and all the plastic, paper and cardboard is sorted out, compacted and bundled, then put on a train that goes to a freighter that takes it to China and then they recycle it there. I researched the Chinese side and found the plastic stuff is stored in huge piles for years on end because it's all dirty and rural villagers eventually bike it to their house and individually clean each piece using spring water, and only then is it suitable for recycling. And the cleaning process toxifies their rural farm land and streams. The cardboard and paper is shipped to inner China where it is burned.

At that point I stopped recycling paper plastic and glass since it was clearly absurd and far more resources such as fuel and labor were being expended on this charade than if one were to simply burn their trash in a barrel in the backyard. I'd tell people about what I'd learned but no one believed it.


What if all the "progress" was just an illusion:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Space_Merchants#Plot_summa...

"Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that the quality of life is improved by all the products placed on the market."


I recently have 'converted' to minimalism, after having watched a few documentaries (Minimalism, True Cost, etc.) it made perfect sense to me that since using MORE and recycling MORE is not the solution (especially when 'recycling' it not actual recycling) and now I feel and I do better for me, and the planet's future.

I also came across this nice video: The History of Stuff [1] that describes ncely the current production - consumption model and why it is not sustainable.

It is 20mins long but I found a great educating value to it.

[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM


The three "Rs" were always about the first one: Reduce.

People got caught up in the wave of recycling with the idea that somehow we could actually recycle all these materials with anything approaching reasonable effectiveness. Outside of aluminum, it's basically worthless - and in the cases of recycling paper, it has led to Superfund sites and terrible pollution.

Rainforests are regrowing [0] as at least America has forced companies to actually care about replanting and not just widespread logging with no consequences, but China doesn't give a shit. It's important to note in the blame game that America has done an incredible amount to reverse CO2 pollution, rampant logging, and reverse other environmentally damaging practices in surprisingly quick fashion over the last two decades, but it hardly matters, since industrial Eastern countries have essentially zero environmental regulations.

[0]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-rainforests/tropical-rain...


First step is Refuse. Refuse to buy anything that has unnecessary packaging. Otherwise Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

I started bringing my own containers when shopping for groceries. Reduce my trash to 4-5 kilo per week.


I like this idea. I'm wondering how much extra time and effort you put into this. Loading up the containers to bring to the store, bringing the containers into the store, filling the containers, cleaning the containers, etc.


Don't forget that what we consider "progress" today is capitalism progress.

It's all about owning more and constant economical growth, it has very little to do with social or ecological progress, these might benefit from capitalism from time to tie when their goals are aligned but that's all.

Recycling is like everything else, it's done when it's economically profitable (via state/country funds, tax returns, &c.)

"At the heart of capitalism is a vast and scarcely examined assumption: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived. If you can pay for them, you can own entire mountain ranges and fertile plains. You can burn as much fuel as you like. Every pound or dollar secures a certain right over the world’s natural wealth."

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/15/capita...


I wonder how western nations culture and ~religion even will adapt to the fact that we reached equilibrium. Meaning that we can't explore new spaces, or consume more. So we'll need to live in around a balanced zero. Over consuming will become a sort of a crime and maybe games of efficiency will appear as a sort of leisure.


That's the end of out current economical system for sure. It relies on constant growth and ever increasing production/consumption.

Everything else is considered a failure.


in case people missed it, it's on online archive (see external links category down below the link)


I suspect you are correct here. We were shoving "recycling" in otherwise empty shipping containers and sending them to China where they get dumped on the ground and the poorest of the poor pick through them for the few things that are actually recyclable.

I saw at least one person say back in the 2000s that single stream recycling was basically a lie, but it was worth it to get people into the recycling mindset. This is the same reason many towns still do "recycling" pickup, but then haul all of that straight to the dump. Personally, if it's just not feasible I'd rather they go back to only taking aluminum, steel, and maybe glass than try to pretend that they're actually reusing any of that plastic or paper.


> I suspect you are correct here. We were shoving "recycling" in otherwise empty shipping containers and sending them to China...

This actually makes sense. The container trade imbalance leaves the U.S. with a large excess of containers (it costs more to return them than for China to make new ones apparently).

I actually just bought a condo on eastern shore of MD. The small town stopped recycling a few years ago to save $800K/yr, and is instead burning the trash in Pennsylvania at a power plant. I wrote the council an email and said I'm willing to pay more to reinstate recycling, and I bet many residents feel the same.

However, I do wonder, even if this hurdle is jumped, if the refuse is actually getting recycled in the end. Ignorance has been my bliss, but maybe it's time for me to stop being ignorant.


Consider advocating for plasma gasification after the low hanging recycling efforts have been picked (metals, glass, and construction material must be presorted from gasification feedstock to prevent excessive slag production). It's cleaner than incineration, and the resulting syngas and slag can be used for energy generation and road construction (respectively). There is a cost of course, but is arguably a net positive versus landfilling or burning recyclables.

In the end, with much effort, America is going to need to adopt the sorting required for multi stream recycling/waste disposal if we want to "clean up our act", until such time a machine is invented where unwanted matter goes in and desired matter (and/or energy) comes out.

https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Sustainability-Recycl... (Warning, PDF: Gasification of Non-Recycled Plastics From Municipal Solid Waste In the United States)


Recycling is basically fake outside of aluminum (and other metals, and very specific plastics - but those are effectively impossible to sort properly by consumers [0]).

[0]: Remember all those codes on the bottom of bottles in the 1990s?


What about glass? I always assumed that was pretty recycling friendly


Clear, maybe. Mixed glass? Unlikely, since who wants weird looking glass?


Re-reading this article from The New York Times Magazine, “Recycling Is Garbage” (1996) is really interesting today. It goes over the whole panic that kicked off the recycling movement during that time period.

https://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/30/magazine/recycling-is-gar...

I had almost forgotten the story of the Mobro 4000. For days the national press was obsessed with watching it try to find a place to offload.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobro_4000


Tierney had a followup some years later. Little had changed.

http://www.aei.org/publication/john-tierney-in-ny-times-recy...


In many ways, China's chief export for the past two decades has been its environmental sink capacity -- that is, absorbing both pollution and extractive environmental disruption.


It hasn't just been China. Pharmaceutical manufacturing in India is an environmental disaster.


Certainly, much of the developing world is in the same boat.

What's notable is that China is actively and aggressively transitioning.


Becoming the factory of the world was never China's end goal, just a step on the road to a first world economy. Now that China is becoming more middle class they don't need low skill jobs as much anymore.


Anywhere I can read more on that?


Viceland has a good series called Hamilton's Pharmacopeia which goes into some of this as well as other third-world drug manufacturing... processes.


The movie "Plastic China" is must-see, in my opinion. It is streaming on Amazon Prime:

https://www.amazon.com/Plastic-China-Jiu-liang-WANG/dp/B06XV...


There was, and still is, actual recycling. I remember taking the (sorted) recyclables to a recycling business, which paid by the pound. I remember watching the homeless guys in LA pick aluminum cans out of the blue bins early in the morning on trash day, presumably for the money.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised if the single-stream version were largely marketing (by weight). WM or whichever company picks out a few things that are valuable enough to separate, then treats the majority as waste.


Yup. Metals are actually worth recycling. Little else is.


If a business or government pays you for it, then recycling is effective. If they don't, then obviously it isn't useful.

I never really understood why people could not grasp this basic concept.


A much simpler concept is that you pay for the trash that you don't recycle.

Switzerland recycles 93% of all glass bottles(color sorted by consumers) and 83% of all PET bottles. Everything else has to be burned in a plant with minimal emission to recycle energy. PET recycling is financed by a fee of around 2 cents per bottle that every manufacturer has to pay.


However, if the charge for trash is too high, it encourages littering, illegal dumping, and discourages public waste receptacles (which encourages littering even more).

This can only really work if the cost of disposal is baked into the goods at sale, and refunded for recycled goods. I suspect it would just end up causing people to use the landfills they have paid for.


Cost is around one dollar per 35 litre bag. There are no landfills for common trash. Average is around 80 dollars per person per year. Less if you use PPP-Dollars. That is not enough to cover all cost of proper disposal, so the rest is payed by the state.

Point is, it works. There is no excuse for other countries to do the same.


Remember also that in Switzerland you pay for your trash bags. A bag that you have to throw away costs €1-2. Recycling is essentially free.


Do consumers generally color sort? What about the eight percent of men who are color blind?


This is one of those things where you can probably just go to your local sorting center and ask for a look at what they do.

Cardboard is profitable to recycle domestically...


I had the opportunity to do this about 15 years ago. I found it pretty shocking. The recycling center consisted of two large and open warehouses on the site of a landfill. Inside were a series of multi-level conveyor belts staffed largely by Hispanic workers.

In front of each worker was a station on the other side of the belt with several chutes for different types of materials. The workers operated in shifts with the belts moving at what felt like an impossible pace. The primary job requirement according to an overseer was not vomiting during a two hour trial run working in front of the belt.

Despite being in central Arizona, the interior was darkened with a confetti of small paper particles hanging in the air and covering every surface in nearly an inch of "dust". The only thing I could liken it to was the ash particulate in the aftermath of a volcano eruption. I wouldn't want to spend any time in there without heavy air filtering, yet I saw many workers operating without even light paper masks.

The experience brought home what the cost was for single stream recycling. Short of automation I have a hard time justifying that human sacrifice even as I continue to recycle out of habit.


That's true. Sort of. Clean cardboard is recyclable. But cardboard with broken glass, not so much. And not cardboard with food waste. Or even cardboard with too much plastic tape.

Recycling only works with source separation. But how does that work when there are so many types of plastics in use? And worse, stuff made from multiple types of plastics? Often now plus aluminum and paper.

It's a mess.


I assure you that anything metal gets recycled. It's much cheaper to recycle than dig more ore out of the ground.

tosses brake rotors in city recycling pickup bucket


In my neighborhood, you can leave metal objects on the curb and they're gone within hours, loaded into a pickup or trailer and taken to the scrap metal recyclers for cash. That came in handy when I was doing rental property maintenance, but unfortunately used mattresses have 0 scrap value.


Mattresses and couches are a mix of fabric, wood and metal. Most places don't accept them unless you strip them down, which is a PITA (which is precisely why they don't take them).


I assume there's a lot of things cheaper to recycle than to create new, but the problem is how to extract/separate it out of an overwhelming stream of unrelated materials, is it not?


Person from Germany here where we have 4 different bins per household - paper, recyclables (metal, plastic), compostables and dump (+ glass by color, batteries and electronics at dedicated sites). We get to a recycling rate of about 20-30% (effective at plant) with really wanting to and having it ingrained into our culture.

Recycling is hard at the best of times. Unless packaging gets much better at identifying as recyclable it will be a long road ahead (it's the small things, black plastic is hard to identify and get's burned, composite plastics are problematic, like different plastic foil over plastic canister). At least people think about it around here, but it is a very hard problem.


Consider also: recycled black plastic is often made from electronic waste, which isn't done very carefully, and so black plastic often has heavy metals from computer components. Problem is, this recycled black plastic is often used for food containers.

What could possibly go wrong?


Damn, I had no clue that it was just 20-30%. That's depressing.


German 66.1 percent recycling rate in 2015. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&plugin=...


Germany used to export 69% of collected plastic to China too, so they will likely face a similar crisis as America. https://qz.com/1310240/chinas-ban-on-plastic-recycling-impor...


  tosses brake rotors in city recycling pickup bucket
No core charge or other incentive from the parts store?


Not on brake rotors, no[1]. They are always from new - there's nothing to recondition on them, they're only suitable for melting down again. I'd think they would be prohibitively expensive to handle for the retail chain, given their low scrap value.

[1] Aside from top-end stuff that has a separate bell and rotor, but this is maybe 0.001%, if that.


Have you ever been to Australia where iron ore is less than 1 meter below ground?


Australia is rich in many minerals. Nonetheless, I'm willing to bet that people sending the metal to a truck to bring to a foundry is still cheaper than mining with all of its environmental impacts. Also, this: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/metal-recycling-where-australia-...


Is that really true?


Accurate to within an order of magnitude. The Pilbara has a number of mines that are perhaps more accurately described as ditches. Source: Mining Engineer, been to the Pilbara.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channel-iron_deposits#Economic... - the 'little or no need for drilling and blasting' suggests <20m deep to me. There certainly is iron on the surface, the Pilbara Banded Iron formations can be something like 300m thick or something silly - I'd be surprised if it didn't outcrop. The issue is more which parts are most economic to mine, which is a question of depth vs grade.


Single-stream recycling may well have been an illusion. Certain types of plastics, too. But clean streams of many types of recyclables are even today still plenty profitable.


Copper and brass, for example. Maybe too profitable.


Exactly. If the 'recycling' is actually a one way door to dump all trash on China and forget about it, it is not really 'recycling'.

It is right about time that Western countries to come to realization that recycling need more smarts and efforts other than making it other people's problem.


> It is right about time that Western countries to come to realization that recycling need more smarts and efforts other than making it other people's problem.

This is not just a Western problem. A look at emissions and other pollutants show it is actually far less of an American problem and far more of an Eastern problem.


It was an illusion. Specifically, it was an illusion that allowed capitalism as normal to largely continue, with a bit of greenwashing here and there.

Things you can actually recycle: Aluminium, iron/steel scrap, and to a lesser extent glass.

Plastic was never recyclable in the sense of "circular economy indefinitely".

Recycling was never an effective way to save resources, compared to its ugly stepsisters "reuse" and "reduce". But they didn't accord with "buy it, use it, bin it".


If done properly, PET bottles can be recycled into PET bottles.

Consumers have to do their part though. But that is possible. 83% of PET-Bottles in Switzerland get recycled, this is done without any bottle depot. Recycling cost is between 1.9 and 2.3 cents per bottle.

For all other trash, the most environmental friendly way to dispose it is to burn it and use the energy.

Overall, top countries recycle more than 50% of all trash. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recycling_rates_by_country


Paper must be recyclable, or else all of these "made from 100% recycled paper product" things wouldn't be possible, nor the many actual plants the recycle paper.


There's a category of things that can go once or twice around the carousel. Paper, becomes low grade paper, become toilet paper, and gone. Plastic, becomes "bags for life", becomes bin bags, and gone.

I refuse to call them recyclable. The circle isn't closed.


Sure. But it's only clean paper that's recyclable. And not just clean paper, but the right kind of paper. Low-lignin paper and high-lignin (e.g., newsprint) can't be mixed.


Some are things like the scraps from the factory when they trim the edges of the sheets of paper. But some things are labeled as having some "post-consumer" recycled paper content.


> Things you can actually recycle: Aluminium, iron/steel scrap, and to a lesser extent glass.

Agree, with one caveat: Very specific plastics can be recycled as well, but it requires source sorting by consumers and industry and that's just not gonna happen.


Not into things of equal quality. You can just melt and re-cast glass, but with plastic, it's going to be something lesser, like a tile or a bag.


Glass quality also lessens due to impurities, which is one important reason why certain glass types, like beer bottles, have a mandated deposit and collection system.


Public utilities manage residential trash pickup and incinerators. The state also owns and manages landfills. Yes, there are private or at least nominally private exceptions to both, but state-owned facilities have unavoidable economic calculation problems, and these — along with legislation that permits certain levels of pollution — spill over into other distortion.

We seem to agree that the cost of waste disposal is too low. It isn’t capitalists who are setting that price.


Single stream recycling doesn't mean what you think; trash and recycling mixed and someone magically sorts it all out. It just means the recyclable materials don't need to be separated.

Sadly this is a very common misconception with single stream recycling and leads to significant contamination of the recyclable material [see article!].


I see where you're coming from, but some of the things you said don't gel with the state of recycling pre-Plastic China:

1. Waste management companies charge less for recycling to incentivize separating trash and because it was profitable to sell.

2. Single-Stream recycling programs still require consumer separation of non-recyclable trash from potentially recyclable material.

It's all about capital investment. It is expensive to develop and buy machines that specialize in sorting massive amounts of trash at a high throughput. Globalization allowed us to export that to places where labor was cheap enough that real humans would actually sift through the stuff.

The thought process is: why make the investment in specialized machines when there's human labor cheap enough to do it by hand, land cheap enough to store it in perpetuity, or environment regs lax enough to openly burn it and all that’s preventing these alternatives is government regulation?

In places where there’s strong faith in government like Europe you see many companies investing the R&D dollars in these machines. They also have strict packaging requirements that limit the number of inputs that these machines can expect to handle.

Here, the EPA and Dept of Interior can change hands every four years to people wholly uninterested in preserving our commons for the next generation. This administration is selling off pieces of National Parks for oil exploration, to name just one of many examples. It’s no wonder no one wants to actually put dollars towards green R&D.


I moved around some last year, and locals I met in New Mexico and Illinois would swear that their local recycling organization simply throws away their recycling into the landfill.


That's part of the reason people are sceptic with programs to "solve" climate change and other various green initiatives, there is too much politics and money involved and it is very hard to understand what's going on, what are the right solution and who is earning from what. As per usual, letting the market do its own thing will probably be the best solution, if recycling makes sense the free market will figure it out, same goes for all other green initiatives, take it out of the government hands and let the market comes with solutions.


The packaging industry is going to fight tooth and nail so it can continue to spew out single use plastics for every single sales transaction that occurs.

There's big money involved.

Imagine the costs to the packaging industry if it was no longer allowed to create infinite garbage.

I do find it strange that there seems to be zero noticeable social pressure on bottled drink companies to stop using single use plastic bottles.


I think there will eventually be a public outcry since now based on the research, it appears that plastic has made a full loop into the human food chain. Plastic fibers are being found in human sewage...which basically means we have plastic in our diets.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/news-...


Most people could use more fiber in their diet.


> zero noticeable social pressure on bottled drink companies to stop using single use plastic bottles

Plastic water bottles - of any size - have been illegal in NSW, a state of Australia for many years. It has been fantastic.

Governments need to grow a spine and stop taking so much corporate money as bribes, and actually get to work making our world better.


I'm drinking from a plastic water bottle right now in NSW, so I'm no sure what you're referring to.


Some small towns like Bundanoon [1] have banned water bottles, but in no way have water bottles been banned across NSW.

There has been a push from leading supermarkets Coles and Woolworths to ban single use plastic bags, with great success. But that's a private matter, not from the government. Other states have banned them, but not NSW. [2]

[1] https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/bundanoon-in-wo...

[2] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-03/supermarket-ban-sees-...


Is it for water only? If yes, did consumption of other drinks still sold in plastic bottles increase?

Genuinely interested, if no hard numbers exist anecdotes are fine


That's been a very long-term strategy. See Annie Leonard's "Moving from Individual Change to Societal Change":

In one of the most iconic ads of the twentieth century, a Native American (actually, it was an Italian dressed up as a Native American) canoes through a river strewn with trash. He disembarks and walks along the shore as the passenger in a car driving past throws a bag of litter out the window. As the camera zooms in to a single tear rolling down his cheek, the narrator announces, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

This 1971 ad, just a year after the first national Earth Day celebration, had a huge impact on a generation awakening to environmental concerns. Children and young adults watched it over and over, shared the faux-Indian’s grief, and vowed to make changes in their individual lives to stop pollution. That response was exactly what the ad’s creators hoped for: individual action. For the ad was produced not by a campaign to protect the environment but by a campaign to protect the garbage-makers themselves.

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/sustainabilitypossible/wp-conten...


It's a little more nuanced than that. The ad was produced by soft drink companies, because the tabs were strewn all over the place. The goal of the companies banding together and creating this campaign was to put the onus on the individual to clean up garbage, and defer responsibility themselves.


That's Leonard's message, precisely.


As a counterpoint, single use packaging is a godsend to people with food allergies.


Out of curiosity, what's wrong with single use paper packaging or some other non-plastic alternative to the same effect?


Broadly speaking, I expect the answer is that plastic better prolongs shelf life and leads to less food waste. And plastic is cheaper.


I wonder what's worse, food waste or plastic waste.

Food waste: water pollution, pesticides, destruction of biodiversity

Plastic waste: fossil fuel consumption, plastic pollution into ecosystems

My first thought is that I'd prefer food waste, because the image of "albatross/sea turtle choking on plastic junk" comes to mind. But then again, farming is pretty destructive and invasive too.


Making food requires huge amounts of energy. Pretty sure food waste is way worse, especially since there actually isn't that much plastic in food packaging per unit of food. For example, some ready-cut cheese, say 100 g, might come in a resealable plastic packaging; but that packaging maybe weighs a couple grams at most.


For example, in the UK a punnet of strawberries in the supermarket has a little rectangle of bubble wrap glued into the bottom of it. It is there to reduce the amount of physical damage to the fruit. It looks like it couldn't do anything. But the food companies would love not to have the extra cost of the rectangle of bubble wrap and the gluing process. They do it because it works.


I always thought it's more like a nappy than bubble wrap; it's always stained with the colour of the fruit, so assumed it was there to absorb moisture from bruised fruit.


Oh yeah, sometimes there's a nappy thing, but I'd say bubble wrap is more normal for strawberries. I think the nappy thing is impregnated with something that absorbs ethylene. See http://www.itsfresh.com/Absorbing_Ethylene.html

The bubble wrap can be seen in a photo in this BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/monthwithoutplastic/2008/08/in_se...


The original poster specifically mentioned plastic bottles, which, I imagine, are hard to make from paper.

Refillable glass allows for exactly the kind of cross contamination that makes otherwise safe products inedible.


I've started to see boxes of water. They look like milk cartons.


Those are not at all better. They're mixed materials. Much harder to "recycle," in practice even if collected, usually just burned.


Not-recycled paper is an improvement over not-recycled plastic. The coating I don't know.


Problem is, it's not paper.

It's called [Tetra pack][1], and contains both paper, plastic and metal. Physical separation is virtually impossible (at scale), chemical separation is very environment-unfriendly.

Unfortunately in Switzerland it is dumped to trash; in Easter-Europe it is collected for separation though.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetra_Pak


Plastic is airtight. Food packaged in paper will just rot.

And if it's wet, it will destroy the paper.


Paper is not air tight and is also food for some critters, attracting more pests.


Plastic is very cheap.


It would create infinite other forms of garbage that people throw in the trash anyway.


Single-used cardboard wrappings for non-perishables don't have nearly as much impact on the environment as plastic, even if just thrown away.


It really depends on whether you value apples or oranges more highly.

My understanding is that paper fares better on the litter front, since even the stuff that escapes landfills still degrades quickly, while plastic tends to fare better on the carbon footprint front, because it's lighter (which reduces fuel burned to ship things) and less energy-intensive to manufacture.


I'm no packaging expert, however we did innovate ourselves in to this mess, it seems reasonable we may be able to innovate ourselves out of it.


Is that anything more than a sentiment? It's easy to come up with counter-examples. For example, it's easy for me to "innovate" myself into a 15-foot hole in the ground, and likely impossible to innovate myself out of it without outside help.


Couldn't you use whatever you used to dig the 15 foot hole to dig an angled hole that you could climb up?


Maybe he dug a steep sided hole with a backhoe and jumped in.

Just because someone is smart enough to dig a hole big enough to get trapped in, it doesn't mean that they were smart enough to allow for a way to get out.


What is the point of this comment?

I’m not suggesting any one individual attempt to innovate themselves out of a world polluted with plastic without outside help, but I guess digging yourself a 15-foot grave could be construed as one method.

It’s always easier to say why a thing can’t be done than come up with methods of doing a thing and implementing that thing.

I have friends who intentionally restrict the amount of plastic-packaged items they buy, they would struggling to throw out a 200mm cube of tightly bound plastics every month or two; so we know significant reductions in plastic waste are possible on an individual scale.

In the scope of, for example, landing a probe on an asteroid and returning a sample, the engineering challenges facing us in the form of reducing plastic packaging use seem to me, the non-expert, fairly trivial.

I could list some possibilities I, and others, have consider, though they seem to be extensively thrashed out in the comments here and the internet at large.

Was going to the moon, or being able to buy an all electric production vehicle, or the modern microchip, not a mere sentiment at some point?

It seems like the primary lack in this context is the desire for collective action, which appears to be changing.

Perhaps I wildely misunderstood your comment?


Recycling has nothing to do with plastic pollution. Plastics that don't get recycled instead get buried in a hole in the ground.


It’s not clear to me what the point of this comment is.

Do you mean to imply that when walking the southern coast of Tasmania I don’t see the area densely littered with plastics?

Or perhaps you meant to imply that the oceans aren’t littered with plastic such that cetaceans are dying from eating too much of it?

These don’t sound like arguments anyone would intentionally make.

Are you certain recycling has nothing to do with plastic pollution? And are you certain that recycled or buried, as a binary choice, are the only two possible outcomes for plastics?


Recycled plastic is the kind thrown in bins. If you remove recycling programs, it still gets thrown in a bin. Not polluted.


Ah, right, I see where you were going with that.


Not all forms of garbage are equally harmful to the environment.

We should enforce prioritizing producing garbage that provides nutrition to the things it passes through. Plastics do the opposite, to the extent of killing the animals mistaking it for food.


Plastic lasts essential forever - aluminum and steel do not


In countries with good waste management I assume they are burned if they are not recycled. Other containers such as paper might sometimes even be worse as it will cost more energy to produce them than plastic.


>paper might sometimes even be worse as it will cost more energy to produce them than plastic

That's the point. Plastic is cheap to produce but costly to look after. Paper is costly to produce but cheap to look after.


And my point is that it is not necessarily true in countries with good waste management. I will take Sweden as an example with plastic bags.

I cannot find the quotation now but a researcher was asked about plastic bags and the environmental impact on them and the point was that it was not as clear as people think. In Sweden almost all plastic bags ends up being burned like this: https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/e...

That is very cheap. And the result would be that the total environmental impact for the complete life cycle might be greater if you choose a paper bag as more energy was required in creating it.


>>In countries with good waste management I assume they are burned if they are not recycled

Those countries are so rare that it's almost not worth mentioning. Vast majority of places around the world, including most of the developed world do not have "good waste management" by this definition. Even in countries as rich as UK, Germany and France most waste goes to a landfill, not an incinerator. Sure Sweden shows a good example how it can be done, but it's like dismissing the problem of car-related pollution because there exists one hydrogen car that you can actually buy. Yes, it doesn't have those problems but in the large scheme of things it's completely irrelevant.


Not true in the UK anymore. Nearly every local authority has or has under construction a 'waste to energy' plant (incinerator). Most of South London's waste has been burnt since 1994: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SELCHP, for example.


I’m not seeing the problem with plastic going into landfills. That means it doesn’t result in plastic pollution in waters and the ocean and is sequestering the carbon back in the earth.


Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Austria

All these countries throw less than 5% of their trash into landfills.

https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/environment-at-a-g...

Germany throws 0% of their waste into landfills.


Landfill has been falling steadily in the UK for a long time.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/...


> Even in countries as rich as UK, Germany and France most waste goes to a landfill, not an incinerator.

Dumping untreated waste into landfills has been illegal in Germany since 2005, so that's not a thing anymore.


I don't get the logic behind this?

How can the packaging industry force companies to order superfluous packaging?

And if it isn't superfluous, getting rid of it might be a net negative?


>>> How can the packaging industry force companies to order superfluous packaging?

By strongly opposing any initiative to implement returnable, multi use packaging, coming up with a bunch of plausible reasons why it doesn't work - maybe it's unhygienic, maybe things can't be washed etc etc


But if multi use packaging would work just as well other single use packaging, wouldn't the packaging industry make the same profits?


Many types of wasteful packaging work better for them, when they don't have to pay a lot of the costs. That doesn't mean they're the better overall choice.


Why would THEY have to pay the costs, and not their customers? Presumably, if the costs for packaging would go up, packaging industry would also rice the prices to make up for it?


Charging the customers at point of purchase is perfectly fine and equivalent. Customers are already indirectly paying, the point is to move that cost to a point where it's super obvious and affects purchasing decisions.

Customers as a group were already paying the cost of the garbage, but there was no pressure on the manufacturers to reduce it. Once you make the change then the total cost is the same, but now reducing packaging can improve a manufacturer's profit margin[1], even if it costs them a tiny bit more to make! This pushes things toward reduced waste, with the total number of [shelf price + garbage harm] dropping by some number of pennies.

[1] Even if you charge the customer directly, presumably the manufacturer still wants to hit a specific shelf price.


You mean indirectly paying because of the costs of pollution, that society pays for?

But garbage disposal already costs money, doesn't it? Maybe it doesn't cost enough - but then rising prices for garbage disposal would at least have similar effect to mandating multi use packaging, without the market distortion?

The difference is that garbage disposal is the price for the actual damage that needs to be avoided. Multi use packaging is just an idea for avoiding it, without proof of overall effectiveness.


> But garbage disposal already costs money, doesn't it?

Itemizing the cost and tying it directly to the product price makes it much more effective as an incentive.

> Maybe it doesn't cost enough - but then rising prices for garbage disposal would at least have similar effect to mandating multi use packaging, without the market distortion?

Yes, that's what I was suggesting. But you need to do it in a way that packaging choice impacts the manufacturer's profit margin as directly as possible.


People keep saying that China was accepting recyclables. They weren't accepting them, they were buying them.

It's hard to make a case that it was all just trash when somebody was paying for it.


It wasn't all trash, but a significant portion was. Without expensive sorting machinery, recycling is generally only profitable with extremely cheap labor and a disregard for environmental damage caused by tossing the unprofitable stuff in the nearest dump. What was profitable for 1990s China would not have been profitable for the US.


"What was profitable for 1990s China would not have been profitable for the US." And may not be "profitable" for China. Indeed, one might argue China got a leg up in development by trading environmental destruction for capital - but now they have the capital and the destruction is haunting them.

And that's the thing. Recycling everything might be affordable but when skimming the best and tossing the rest is more profitable, operations like that will squeeze out operations that pay some of the high cost of proper disposal. "Externalities are externalities"

Essentially, I think you can make an argument that private enterprise can not do recycling properly since collecting money for taking the junk and then disposing of the junk as cheaply as possible is going to be a better business model. And hiring an agency to watch the private contractors is going to cost less than having a state agency do it themselves. See the company that was paid to recycle all the CRTs from the early 2000s and wound-up just storing them.

Just as much, as recycling exploded, regulations wound-up pandering to upper-middle-class consumers and allow plastic to be marked as recyclable, using unsorted recycling and similar things that kept consumers lazy and ignorant. Of course, this contributed to no real recycling being possible even as a few years it seemed universal.


> recycle all the CRTs

I'm really glad to be done with those. Ugh. Back around 1970 my dad said the world was waiting for two great inventions:

1. A TV you could hang on the wall like a picture

2. A typewriter that you could back up and correct mistakes on. (Few people likely remember Whiteout. Glad to be done with that, too!)

And great inventions they turned out to be :-)


If he said that in 1970 he only had 3 years wait for item 2. The IBM Selectric II Correcting was introduced in '73.


Correcting by stamping white ink over a letter was indeed a marvelous improvement, but nothing like what came later with a word processor. Later word processors, like the Wang in the late 70's, destroyed Selectrics, and obsoleted the job of "secretary".

I remember my Mom typing his thesis over and over on the Royal typewriter. What a boring, dehumanizing task that was.

My dad abandoned his typewriter when he bought a Trash-80. I abandoned my typewriter when I discovered the printer in the computer center at Caltech around 1975. I'd use runoff, a marvelous program that is a precursor to HTML.


Recycling will never be profitable, but we can't just keep burying trash and forgetting about it, or maybe we can, I don't know.


I don't know about never. The price of a product is related to its scarcity. At a certain point, there will be recyclable materials we are almost out of. At that point, I can see recycling becoming very profitable.

I can see a time when we mine garbage dumps for materials.


I think about this a lot too. Plastic is extremely energy-dense. The landfills of today could easily be the fuel mines if the future. And yes, it will be full of contaminants, but coal is tainted with heavy metals and radioactive materials.

Anyway, recycling has always been a resource drain to make people feel good. It's definitely better to recapture and contain as much waste as possible, but people don't think about things like how much water is wasted by rinsing all those bottles out.


What matters is what is being recycled. Some recycling makes economic sense today—metals for example and car batteries. The recycling of some plastics makes sense, but it has to be sorted.

There is plenty of land for landfills, but for recycling there may always be things that makes sense to recycle and things that just don’t pencil out.


Or perhaps we could just stop creating it in the first place. Is there really a need for all of the one use plastics or the excessive packaging ?


My city Bangalore effectively enforced a plastic ban. So some grocery stores now only have paper bags even to pack veggies. I think it's doable. The government enforced the ban as there was no alternative, we don't have enough space for landfills.

A city like Singapore however uses a lot of plastic and thermocol. I wonder where they find space for their landfills. Probably they are doing the same, exporting all the trash to China or Indonesia.


China still accepts rare-earth/metal trash, but also properly sorted trash too. For example, recently mainland declined to accept Hong Kong trash until they implement sorting. On these conditions, they can continue sending their garbage to the mainland China.


That's the "reduce" part. But just how does one roll back packaging practices? I can't imagine how that would work.

Maybe the German model. But in the US? It seems unlikely.


What is the German model? I don’t recall there being a massive difference in packaging there except for the reusable (deposit required) soda bottles.


Extreme source separation. And laws that impose waste-management costs on manufacturers. See https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19411646 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19411250


Thanks. Will take a look at those.


What's missing from the "profitability" equation are all the costs that are pushed elsewhere:

- polluted water so we're all injesting micro plastics - polluted air as the manufacturing is a mess - increased energy consumption to manufacture "perfect" looking packaging.

These all have real, hard, cash driven consequences that aren't factored into the normal profitability equation.


Make sure to tell your local scrap yard.


I don’t know the industry but it seems to me that if the “trash” was bought by Chinese companies only to be dumped there for the most part then it’s still trash. Was it cheaper to ship this stuff to China than to pay American landfills to handle this stuff? I don’t think having someone pay for it matters. Isn’t it the end result that matters?


Could you please stop creating accounts for every few comments you post? We ban accounts that do that. This is in the site guidelines: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html.

HN is a community. Users needn't use their real name, but should have some identity for others to relate to. Otherwise we may as well have no usernames and no community, and that would be a different kind of forum. There are legit uses for throwaways, just not routinely.

Lots more explanation: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20community%20identity...


> Users needn't use their real name, but should have some identity for others to relate to. Otherwise we may as well have no usernames and no community, and that would be a different kind of forum.

There's an interesting middle ground here which is to let users specify whatever username nobody else has ever used for their posts. Then they can choose to link them to prior posts (or not) as they see fit. It's not clear to me that this prevents having a community, but I'm not sure what the consequences are.


Generally when I reach a certain number of points I destroy the account by changing the password to something that I can’t remember and I don’t use an email address with my accounts. There is no delete option that I’m aware of. I’ve been on the site for a long time. Since the beginning. I didn’t know you guys kept track of MAC addresses or however else you track this stuff. I won’t do it again. This is the push I’ve needed to stop coming to the site. Thanks. I mean it.


I think you mean IP addresses. :-)


IP addresses change.


You only need an IP address overlap one time to link two accounts. It's pretty much guaranteed to happen if you aren't actively avoiding it.

But let's revisit the fact that remote servers cannot see a MAC address.


If I remember correctly IE used to have a way to view mac addresses through javascript.


Public WiFi share IP addresses.

>I didn’t know you guys kept track of MAC addresses or however else you track this stuff.

Revisit however else.


Why didn't you just use a single account?


Not sure about burning recyclables, but burning trash in general is more environmentally friendly than it seems. Sure it releases CO2 (which isn't really an issue if that energy would otherwise come from fossil fuels) but it's possible to scrub out most other contaminants, and it prevents the burnable materials from languishing in a landfill producing methane. It's not recycling, but it is reusing.

I'm kind of skeptical about the benefits of recycling certain materials that are so cheap that the operational costs of recycling are much greater than the value saved. This seems to be happening in the article where people are increasingly subsidizing unprofitable recycling programs. As far as I know, it's not an environmental disaster to just dump aluminum, glass, and plastic in a landfill, and it seems cheaper to just produce more of those products from their original materials than to recycle the used materials. Maybe we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether it's worth our time to recycle certain materials.


High temperature burning is a bit better environmentally than people just burning garbage at home. The extremely high temp is the key.

There is a demand for aluminum and metal, many people make a bit of a living collecting these for money.

The problem with glass is that it has food residue on it. This causes leaching in the landfills.

Farmers need COMPOST! Soil around the world is nearly depleted. We need an efficient way of cleaning out the food particles from food containers, before disposing or recycle, and having those particles end up on farms.


When I first moved to the UK I was frustrated about the fact that I had to separate my food waste from my general garbage, or my glass from my general recycling. I can see now why it's a better system because the potential to reuse these materials is higher when they are separated at the source.

Not to mention the fact that cities have landfill/recycling centers you can drive to and get rid of anything and everything for free.


Wouldn’t it be better in terms of co2 production for plastics to stay in a landfill rather than being burned? seems like they would sequester carbon for a very long time


It would, but far more CO2 is emitted for transportation, heating, and power generation. Plastics are maybe 2% of petroleum use:

https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=oil_use (see "petrochemical feedstocks")


In this context no, burning is not reusing. The point of reduce-reuse-recycle is to reuse in its original form. For example: reuse a yogurt cup as leftovers storage, or a shoebox as a storage box.


> In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill.

I heard other cities doing that. It is interesting in municipalities where people diligently separate their recycling into multiple streams, everything neatly going into a separate bins and so on, and then it all goes and gets dumped in the landfill.

That says something about human psychology. People need to engage in this ritual because it makes them feel better. They might say to themselves "I am separating my glass, from metal, from plastic, I am saving the environment! I feel good about myself". The economy doesn't work out in the end, but nobody dares to tell the people that, so they happily continue to sort their trash. It's kind of a dystopian win-win situation.


It is common in Starbucks. I don't think anyone can recycle their disposable coffee cups, but they have blue bins with a separate coffee cup hole that winds up in the same pile of trash at the end of the day.


It's just an API migration. You can't actually start recycling until you start receiving pre-sorted waste streams, so you roll out the pre-sorted waste streams and just source all of them to the same landfill you've been using. Later, you can source some of the recycling streams (independently of each other, even) to recycling.


Except I think the migration is in the other direction, which makes it more interesting.

If you'd like to think in terms of software, it's like they had bought into the microservices trend year back, then migrated back to a monolith underneath but still left stateless microservices APIs and shims running on Docker containers spread throughout just so they can claim somewhere they still do "microservices" and feel good about themselves.


Well no, the environment gets ruined so it's more of a "everyone suffers and die ahead of time" situation


Recycling is completely unrelated to most of the actually serious environmental issues. (E.g., climate change)


That's why I called it a "a dystopian win-win" :-)


Recyclables, Please! Steam greenlight that stat. I’d buy it. Maybe the plot twist is you’re homeless all along!


Or the recyclables are made out of people.


The problem is not waste but the fact that is not a problem for consumers or manufacturers. A lot of product packaging only makes sense because you don't have to worry about disposing in a responsible way. Milk used to come in glass bottles, which the milkman would take back for reuse. Not anymore. There's no more milkman and the factory uses cheap to produce one time use packaging. Disposal cost is not their problem.

The solution is twofold.

1) we can do better now at separating waste using AI and robotics. Instead of having 3 or 4 bins at home where we toss things based on our mood, gut feeling, or simply which bin is the least full; a robot could confidently be sorting waste into hundreds of buckets. And unlike humans they'd get it mostly right. Waste becomes a resource when you treat it properly. There are some places where former land fill sites are being mined for precious materials. This stuff is not worthless anymore.

2) Price for disposal needs to be part of the deal when selling a product. E.g. disposal cost for e.g. washing machines is part of the sales price in some countries. They take back the old one when you buy a new one. Already payed for when you bought it. Also, super convenient to not have to do that yourself.


Something like https://zenrobotics.com?

Sorting action in https://youtu.be/X_1sOPqM_VA


In Germany you pay a deposit when you buy a bottle and when you bring it back, you get your money back. At least when I lived there the system worked well. there is always a lot of pressure from industry to go one-way though.


I was a kid in Oregon in the early 70's when they implemented a bottle deposit. It was $.05 then which would be $.30 today. To bad they haven't increased the deposit amount.

You also could return older, non-deposit containers at the beginning. This spurred me and my friends to clean every roadside and field within reach of our bikes. For a month we made more money than we had known in our entire lives. Then it was over and a valuable lesson was learned.


It's a dime now, with 90% + recycling rates. But 30 cents is huge.


It's about 30 USD ct in Germany (25 euro ct) for plastic bottles (that you have to pay up front). Very few bottles are not returned around here.


It's not just bottles. Manufacturers must register packaging materials they use on their products with a central register and pay fees for all the packages they produce. Since january 2019 a revised form of the law is in force which also applies to packages used by online distributors, e.g. amazon has to pay fees for the cardboard packages it wraps around the manufacturer's pre-existing packaging for which the latter has already paid.

There also are mandatory recycling quotas.


California has this as well -- CRV, but I dont see too many people taking advantage of it. Part of the problem is that most stores dont accept the bottles back -- you need to bring them to a recycling dropoff point that seem to be relatively rare and far in between.


It's now become a weird social welfare system for the homeless, some go around collecting large bags and drop them off at recycling areas for cash in urban areas.


I think that's not a bad thing. When I was a kid in Germany we always looked for bottles to return to make some money.


I think it's a perfectly fine source of cash for people in need and willing to hustle.


It's not optimal when the poor and disadvantaged are forced to sort through the trash of others to eke out a bit of a living -- without any sort of protective gear or easy access to healthcare to treat any injuries/illnesses.

It'd be a little safer if they could just pick through recycling bins, but that's illegal [1] so they are forced to pick through trash bins.

https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Recycling-bins-are-ta...


Good point on the health externalities.


The recycling locations also significantly underpay CRV in my experience: if you show up with more than a small amount (I think the threshold is about 40 items) they'll only "pay by weight" at a rate that seems to be maybe half of the per item CRV (based on a single time I bothered to count it out in advance).

Going more frequently with smaller amounts would pay more but waste more time... and I estimated that it didn't make sense to do so unless you valued the cost of the trip at less than about $1.


almost every rung of the recycling ladder is beset by small cheating like this.. second note is, many, many honest recyclers simply die economically after some amount of hardship, depending on the setup


It's also too cheap. The deposit needs to be significant to make sure people bring things back.


Only enough to make very poor people collect it. In most of the bigger German cities it is considered rude to put a deposit-system beverage container inside a public trash can, you are supposed to put them on top of below, or even in a special tray so that collectors don't need to use their little LED flashlights to search the inside. Some progressive beverage companies have even made it part of their brand identity to print instructions for easily accessible abandoning on their labels.


Here in Germany, almost every store takes almost every bottle.


In oregon every store has to accept returns of at least what they sell, even convience stores.


Is there a law or is it voluntary? I don't remember.


When you sell something with a deposit on it you have to accept returns of stuff with deposit on it.


Nit pick, things work differently for multi-way and one-way containers:

- There are no special regulations for multi-way bottles (glass and plastic alike). Most stores will accept only those they are incentivized to, i.e. the brands they sell (manufacturers are eager to get them back to be able to reuse them).

- As soon as a store sells a kind of one-way container (plastic bottles, aluminum cans), they have to accept, pay out the mandatory €0.25 deposit for, and properly dispose of each and every one-way container of that kind customers bring in (in household quantities). There is a clearing mechanism, since store's sales might not match their returns.


I was looking for an intro on economics of reuse the the other day but I haven't found anything useful.

So, for example, if law allowed only for a small number of different container types (to turn them into a commodity) and then taxed production of those containers heavily, what exactly would happen?

Naively, one would expect companies to cut costs by buying second-hand containers rather than buying expensive new ones.

That would create a market for used containers. For an ordinary person it would be very much like deposit: Buy stuff with the price of container included, then sell the container to get back the money.

It would, obviously, provide a new way to cheat: Produce new containers and sell them as used ones, thus avoiding the tax. But that's just a tax avoidance trick and could be dealt with using the existing anti-tax-avoidance mechanisms.

It would be interesting to know what would be the unintended consequences of such a law.


Re: one-way bottles, it was not always that easy. When the one-way deposit was introduced in ~2004, shops were only required to take their own SKUs back. This was absolutely horrible for consumers and producers alike, so retailers introduced the shared system voluntarily.


Good point. Fortunately, that seems to have been mandated by law since 2006 (at least for stores larger than 200m² ≅ 2150 sq ft).


A remember some stores stopped accepting recyclables after it became a pattern for homeless to scavenge for the good stuff and leave a mess behind.


Most supermarkets have bottle recycling ATMs (outside the entrance) around here in Germany. The homeless scavenging bottles from public bins and returning them are doing just fine. I'm not aware of the lot of mess this causes though, not sure what you are talking about there.


Sorry I was not clear. I meant in the US.


Same in Finland.


If the deposit was more than a tiny token amount, they could make money taking them


That is also a thing in a few states. But based on the labels on the bottles, I believe it's maybe 4-7 states that participate in that program.


The bottles are labeled at your local plant for your area. My bottles talk about NY-NJ-CT.


Isn't it also the case that the bottles are reused, rather than recycled?


Standard shape glass bottles are, and those have the smallest deposit too: beer, soft drinks, water, I believe that's it? Non-standard glass bottles are recycled. PET and aluminum cans are obviously recycled, not reused, and have a steep 25¢ deposit.


For reference, Lidl (a German discount supermarket chain) advertises that ~50% of their bottles' PET comes from recycled bottles.


Glass water and beer bottles are reused, thick-walled PET water bottles are reused, while most plastic (mostly PET) bottles and all cans are, at best, recycled.

For other and broken glass items there are glass containers pretty much everywhere, broken up by color (white glass, brown glass, green glass). Plastics delivered by consumers are separated but never recycled.


Assuming we are still talking about Germany, yes, plastics collected via "Der Grüne Punkt" (engl. the green dot, named after the label on the packing) are in fact commonly reused.

According to official figures about 51% of plastics are recycled, 38% is burned [1].

[1]: https://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/17/129/1712978.pdf


In my state glass is neither reused nor recycled, it's crushed and used as filler for things like environmental drainage projects. A big part of the problem in rural areas is the cost to transport glass makes it worthless to buy and recycle, and there's a high contamination rate, so increasingly it's back to the landfill for glass.


Even better!


That's what happened in Ontario Canada. We had a deposit system for glass bottles, but it was lost when 'recycling' and plastic bottles came. Both recycle and plastic bottles where an industry reaction to not wanting to have a deposit system.


We have this in California and it provides a basic income for many homeless people (at least they're doing something positive by picking up the aluminum/plastic bottles).


If they were picking up trash from the ground, that would be one thing. Generally, they instead harvest redeemables from existing recycling and trash bins... often dumping the remainder on the street or ground in the process.


I often wonder how much of the plastic in the ocean actually came from "recycled" plastic being shipped to another country for burning and/or burial.


This is a market opportunity to come up with less costly systems that can operate at slim margins and with scale.

Recycling will never be the greatest of businesses. However the scale of demand in a country as large as the US is extraordinary. 5% margins at $100 billion in sales is ultimately a giant, $60-$80 billion market cap business. That's the kind of opportunity this presents for an enterprise that can quickly move to be the solution to the post China recycling problem.


I always think this is a great opportunity for AI and Robotics. Sorting recycling automatically would be a huge improvement.

Edit: I know you are not supposed to ask about downvotes but I have no idea why this got downvoted. This would finally be an application of AI that benefits mankind instead of more surveillance for ads.


I didn't down vote you, but I do know that some robotics is used now. In addition with different sized mesh screens to filter size. Then they use float/sink and melting point to further separate.


Is there anyway to get transparency on what individual communities are actually doing? At our last county fair, the recycling department had a game set up to help people understand what should go into trash versus recycling. I was asking the manager about the specifics and he said that the recycling was taken to a local facility where local people were paid to sort through it on a conveyor belt to pull out stuff that should've gone into the trash. It sounded feasible at the time, but reading through these comments I wonder if the recycling was actually being shipped to China (this was before the whole thing about China refusing recyclables started). We are on the west coast by a large port, so I would think it would easier for us to have been shipping recyclable to China that people farther inland.


Recycling was always a lipstick on a pig. Inefficient, subsidized, hypocrisy.

Wanna help the environment? Reduce consumption overall.


In order of priority:

1. Reduce.

2. Reuse.

3. Recycle.


Sounds about right.


I hope you don't mind if I add to your list -- I like the 5 R's:

1. Refuse 2. Reduce 3. Reuse 4. Repurpose 5. Recycle

Arguably Refuse and Repurpose are derivative, but I still like calling them out.


The "Three R's" have been a thing forever. https://home.fandom.com/wiki/Reduce,_reuse,_recycle

"Refuse" sounds like you're just repeating the point of Reduce (=> Reduce consumption). And "Repurpose" is exactly the same as "Reuse".


I like your first addition, though really your 1 & 4 roll into the traditional "reduce" and "reuse", respectively.

I'd like to see far more internalisation of full sourcing, energy, and sink costs, as that's ultimately the most effective way to shift usage patterns, though this seems unlikely.


very specifically: don't take the plane, don't got to work with your car, and live in high density housing.


And then rue in the fact your individual, or even the individual contributions of the personal lives of all citizens, are a sliver of a pie dominated by agriculture, manufacturing, and resource extraction. Almost all of which have much less impactful changes to make that aren't lifestyle shifting but who are not incentivized to without the regulatory initiative to force them to.

Make whatever changes in your life you want, "every little bit helps", but remember that individual willpower and grit is taking a cup of water out of an ocean. You don't change the tide that way, you need to recognize the importance of political action to see the situation improve.

For everyone who goes vegetarian instead of attending town halls or petitioning their representatives or staying home from protesting business waste they are missing the forest for the trees on what matters in environmentalism.


>And then rue in the fact your individual, or even the individual contributions of the personal lives of all citizens, are a sliver of a pie dominated by agriculture, manufacturing, and resource extraction.

Agriculture, manufacturing, and resource extraction all exist to serve consumerism society.

Our personal individual contributions might be just a tiny slice of it, but aggregated individual contributions are 100% of the problem.

Society is us.


I was wondering how much I save by working from home. We have a single vehicle, an SUV. I fill it once every 6-7 weeks because we drive so little. It's actually quite amazing how much all the savings compound simply by working from home.

I think that getting all these older managers on board with working from home as much as you can may be a colossal savings on all fronts.


Not disagreeing, but looking at global temperature readings, temps were almost flat from 1940-1980. Weren't those decades characterized by interstates and polluting cars, and people living in suburbia? At least in the US.

Was the temperature ramp-up from 1980-2019 a delayed reaction? Or due to emerging nations getting industrialized?

Graph: http://berkeleyearth.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/TimeSeri...


Within climate change what you're asking about is called TCRE or "transient climate response to cumulative carbon emissions". E.g. this research article should answer some of your questions. It's an analysis of historical temperature, CO^2 emissions, and the relation between the two: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsta.201...

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transient_climate_response_to_...


Also note that US population was about 1/3 and 2/3 of present in 1940 and 1980 respectively. The developing world has grown a lot faster than that. So the number of people living the highest-carbon lifestyles is up while the number of people aspiring to do so is WAY up.


Not all reactions are linear. Some have discreet "breaking points", after which become visible.

Also, if we compare 1980 to today, or even 2010, it's like the stone age re: production and consumption.

Population was just 4.4B -- now it's 7.7, almost double.

Large swaths were in far more dire poverty and much less consumption. Chinese industrial production was not a thing -- now it's the biggest industrial site in the world. The whole of USSR and Eastern Europe were communist (and would be for 10 years still).

And even Americans consumed much much less than today. Consider how little gadgets and stuff the average person had in 1980. Even clothes were much more valued than today's "quick fashion". Malls where just starting to be built everywhere (now the world's a big mall, and the internet can deliver to your door in the next day, so they aren't even needed).

US production here shows more than double too: https://www.macrotrends.net/2583/industrial-production-histo...


If you live rural in a rural area, use solar for electricity, work remotely, and grow your own food you are probably producing a lot less garbage than someone in a high density major metro.


nope, and by a very long shot.


Only if you don't count second and third order effects, to tout the usual "dense urban living".


And have a vegan/vegetarian diet.


Sarah Taber explained the complexity of this aspect of dietary environmentalism better than I ever could in this thread on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SarahTaber_bww/status/100636377572388864...

tl;dr: the effectiveness of vegetarian diets is dependent on local conditions. Vegetarianism in a globalized world relies on fossil-fuel-based transport or farming techniques.



And don't have kids.


I think this is a misguided sentiment, and this article sums up the reasons why pretty well: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-03-14/want-t...


The old adage should be reduce & reuse. Not reduce, reuse, recycle.


There is a problem with the materials the packaging industry uses. Are there any start-ups or big companies working on a solution?


I think that we should have started with municipal composting, paper recycle and plastic Reduce programs. Most of the contamination is from food waste and it makes up most of the weight of trash (obviously because of water content) and I imagine is the major source of methane in our landfills.

Somehow we started with recycling plastics programs (perhaps industry manipulation) which is a complicated mess. Where I live, they still can't recycle black plastics so they end up in the landfill anyway. The these latest developments, I am sure if we actually looked, we would find out that there are provinces in China making a fortune importing recyclables that actually just went straight to a landfill. Of course, now they have decades of trash to contend with. Meanwhile we can all sit pretty thinking about how wonderful we were for separating our recyclables.


I can't even find a way of properly recycling batteries. It would be nice if all the fire halls allowed you to drop-off batteries, and old fire-alarms (they contain radioactive material).


Someone I knew was trying to make a film a couple of years ago following the recycling stream from his neighborhood in nyc to China. His takeaway was that basically nothing is recycled.


I have a family of 5 (three young children). We don't bother trying to recycle paper or cardboard anymore. We compost it or use it in the garden as sheet mulch.

Still our recycling bin fills faster than our "trash" due to packaging.

I also make eco bricks out of any plastic bags or plastic wrappers.


Please share more about your eco bricks, this is the first I've heard of them. Is it as simple as filling a 2L plastic bottle with other plastics? Do you donate them, what are they used for?


I use Gatorade bottles. I'm currently using them between the studs in my shed to act as insulation.


Is there some life cycle assessment (LCA) writeup somewhere on the whole plastics issue? From what it looks "recycling" was big lie due to no accountablity? So all consumer facing regulation in societies with a working waste disposal system is pretty much pointless, if the mess is on the systems top end side.

In Germany, I now get everything in single use paper bags as the default, if I don't intervene, which I see as worse environmental impact, the then few grams of plastic bags we had before. As long as you have a closed system, with near 100% waste caputure, no plastic should end up in the wild when accountability is enforced through all waste management transactions.

So I'm still not shure, how this whole garbage patch topic connects to consumer policies in countries with working closed disposal systems, is this just activism to distract from inability to control the systemic issues here?


The alternative to total recycling could be to rough recycling what can be easily extracted and used (ie metals) and the rest could go through a cycle of thermolysis/pyrolysis, powered by solar or other sustainable sources...


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