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'Plastic recycling is a myth': what really happens to your rubbish (theguardian.com)
96 points by SmkyMt 64 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments



"Lie" might be a more appropriate word than "myth".

The packaging/garbage manufacturing industry needs people to believe in recycling, otherwise they'll start asking "why the heck is the packaging industry spewing an infinite, never ending flow of garbage?". So far they have hidden behind the lie of recycling so people feel like it's not actually the problem it is.

The only true solution is a small range of standardised returnable/washable/reusable containers - this is a huge business opportunity for whoever really nails it. Reusable/returnable containers for food, for e-commerce goods shipping, and also reusable containers just for buying stuff off the supermarket shelves. Think of the size of the market for a true solution for that.

Why, for example, does Amazon not have a standard set of shipping box sizes which it not only delivers, but re-collects via the same logistics network?


>> Why, for example, does Amazon not have a standard set of shipping box sizes which it not only delivers, but re-collects via the same logistics network?

It tried this with plastic bins. Customers just kept the bins. Enforce return by fining customers who don't return bins? What if they say they were stolen off their porch?

You have a huge chain of custody problem here.


>> You have a huge chain of custody problem here.

So things will be awesome when the problem is solved.

It's usually money that solves problems.

Amazon customers want environmentally friendly shipping. So they pay the extra $5 deposit, which Amazon gives back when the container is returned.

Those who don't want to return the container have paid for it.

Then of course other companies and industries must become greener because customers demand it. And Amazon already has a solution in place for reusable/returnable shipping containers, so it becomes an even bigger win for Amazon when it sells reusable/returnable shipping container service end to end and manages all the chain of ownership stuff and absorbs the complexity and risk.

As I say, it's a HUGE problem, so a huge win for whichever company implements what I've already set out above. Just needs to happen that's all.

In the future, look for the option "Add $5 for shipping box return collection" on your favorite ecommerce site.

And look to Uber to expand to "UberEnvironment" - their container collection service where they pay people to collect containers and return them to cleaning/reuse centers.

There are so many, many, many delivery startups out there - they'll be able to expand not only to sending stuff to homes but collecting stuff (containers) from homes.


>> Amazon customers want environmentally friendly shipping.

Citation needed. They want it without the burden of...

>>> So they pay the extra $5 deposit

I highly doubt a large percentage of Amazon customers want environmentally friendly shipping that they have to pay a deposit for and mind a chain of custody.

As I noted, Amazon literally already tried this and it didn't work. So, yeah, it's a problem. And eventually someone will fix it. But you act like Amazon hasn't tried it, and you're ignoring all the chain of custody issues with a deposit system that requires shipping rather than a customer-returns method that worked decades years ago when people shopped locally only.

People on HN are pretty out of touch with the every day person, I think. These ideas sound really good to medium-high net worth individuals, but the average consumer on Amazon is not in that group and really does not care about the environment all that much if it is going to potentially hurt their pocketbook.


I don't think it really matters how big the actual market it, what matters is being known for having such solutions. Even if the majority of customers don't have the service, as long as they know it exists, they'll prefer Amazon vs competitors because they'll feel like they're supporting a company that cares.

Personally, I think it would be great if these reusable packages optionally came in a package that has a digital lock that can only be unlocked through the app (i.e. public key crypto over Bluetooth/NFC). This would make them look like the secure option as well as the green option. It can even operate at a loss and probably still be beneficial by driving more purchases their way.


That wouldn't work. Either Amazon has to ship sturdy containers for the lock to be of any use, or thieves would just break it apart with tools.

There's a reason why safes need to be bolted to the floor; a safe that's not bolted can just be taken away and opened somewhere else with appropriate tools.


So they pay the extra $5 deposit

Suppose you live in a location where you leave the materials out for return pick-up, but scavengers collect them rather than the shipper?

It's not feasible for the customer to stand guard over the packaging. It's effectively discriminatory to impose a financial penalty based on residence (a factor which cannot readily be controlled or changed).

Some alternative means of assuring returns would have to be arrived at.

Tracking, centralised or localised return depots, or other mechanisms, might be possiblities.


> Suppose you live in a location where you leave the materials out for return pick-up, but scavengers collect them rather than the shipper?

Surely Amazon, of all people, is capable of slapping a unique barcode on each one, and crediting that $5 back to the account it belonged to?


Better yet, an RFID tag or BTLE beacon can be embedded cheaply.

Some pallets already have these types of chips embedded, and it has ensured these pallets are returned in most cases (and prevented pallet resale).


The credit doesn't appear of the packaging is stolen.

The theft is beyond the control of the recipient / customer.

That's my point.


OK, so if they're not scavenging for the deposit, why are they scavenging? Plastic isn't in short supply, there's not much resale value to it.


Who knows why it happens. The point being that in poorer neighbourhoods it very likely will, and many of the "just bill for it" approaches simply compound the underlying poverty problem.

Much the same way as such neighbourhoods are already food and retail deserts either because direct risks of operation are too high, or because insurers and/or banks won't back or support ventures there.

Paul Baran, co-inventer of packet-switched networking, wrote about the underlying problem in the 1960s:

https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P3780.html (footnote, p. 7)


Stick firm with the fines.

Look to instrumentation options. The USB cable hack making rounds a week or so back was based on a SoC that measures 5mm square and sells for $1 per unit.

Adhesive-applied tracking sensors that can be put on virtually everything at a unit cost of $0.25 - $0.50 are likely possible within another year or so, if not already. These can track for shock and orientation in shipping, as well as location. Theft can be identified --- if not attributed, at least high-risk environments can be identified, and alternatives considered (in-store pickup, say).

Mind: the same tracking can also produce highly negative applications. Given falling costs, we'd better 1) start thinking about these and 2) get used to this. Though part of my #2 includes constructing legal limitations and protections against malicious use of this data.


> It tried this with plastic bins

That sounded interesting to me so I tried searching for an article about it, but I couldn’t find anything that talked about Amazon using plastic shipping containers. Do you remember where you read about it?


> It tried this with plastic bins. Customers just kept the bins.

I'm kind of shocked that you would think of this as a bad thing. If a person is given an item and they find a use for it that isn't harmful, why should that item be forcably repossessed?

I would absolutely appreciate a shipping service that takes back cardboard boxes, plastic, etc. used in the delivery of the item, and actually this used to be the case. The milkman wouldn't just deliver the bottles, he would take empty bottles and the company would reuse them. Soda companies as well, used to give out money to recoup the bottles used. It's really only when we moved to the supermarket system, and the plastic bottle, that we stopped doing this. But if you kept the bottles, they didn't outright charge you for it.

Actually, according to capitalism charging for the packaging would be a positive move but ineffective and probably negative over the long run.

This is because charging for the packaging means you can extract more of a profit from the consumer per delivery. The more packaging you can give them the harder it is to return it and the more you can charge for it (obviously this isn't linear because at some point the packaging costs more than you can easily charge, but in that instance you just do it gradually), and the more incentive for Amazon or whomever to make it difficult to return it. At the same time, it allows them to say that they're doing something, and provides a pretty good political defence for them for them to charge more per packaging.


It's not a bad thing or a good thing. It's increased costs to Amazon to ship durable, plastic bins and have customers take them / not return them. You mention you get money back if you return the containers, which implies a deposit you have to pay (increased price on first purchase), to which I noted that you have a massive chain of custody problem.

In the glass bottle example, you - the customer - take the bottles to a recycling center or to the grocery store. (I remember doing this with cans and bottles with my father as a young boy, growing up without a ton of money.)

In the Amazon example, you - the customer - take the bins... where? I live in Seattle, so it's easy enough for me to take them to an Amazon pickup location, but probably not for someone in rural Kansas.

Leave the bins out to be shipped back to UPS? Those bins are worth a considerable amount of money on deposit most likely, and are prime targets for theft or misappropriation. How is this resolved? You have created a large chain of custody problem and a large burden on their support team.

This is all doable. The price will just have to be quite a bit higher than it was in the past for what is likely fairly minimal positive impact on the environment. Take a look at industrial pollution / CO2 effects on the planet by country adjusted for GDP. The United States is not close to the prime offender today - and it'll be even worse in 30 years as China/India go through their own Industrial and Informational revolutions.


> which implies a deposit you have to pay (increased price on first purchase)

That's not actually the case though. Of course it's costly to Amazon to ship plastic containers, but you don't have to increase the price. In the case of the bottles, it was cheaper to pay people to return them than to make new glass bottles. Likewise, it's likely cheaper for Amazon to pay people to return new boxes than it is for them to send new ones.

The people are the ones helping Amazon cost-save, Amazon isn't doing anyone but themselves a favour by shipping better packaging. The only incentive from Amazon's perspective here is so that they market about how they're recycling more, and how much better protected the items are.


>> The people are the ones helping Amazon cost-save, Amazon isn't doing anyone but themselves a favour by shipping better packaging

Better how?

>> Likewise, it's likely cheaper for Amazon to pay people to return new boxes than it is for them to send new ones.

Plastic is heavier and less uniform than cardboard boxes that UPS/DHL expect, making their trucks less efficient, which increases the prices to Amazon.

It's definitely not cheaper to do what you are suggesting. They wouldn't have stopped doing it in the first place if it was. They asked for customers to return the bins and everything, just like you are laying out. It did not work.


If someone appropriates property, then have them pay for it.

Mind: if it turns out that there are high-risk environments -- high crime neighbourhoods -- where a financial penalty could prove onerous and avoidance of true theft is difficult, delivery firms would have to come up with some alternative option in which return of the materials is assured. Failure to do so effectively replicates geographic redline or discrimination zones, even if the underlying cost risk models are valid representations of activities.

The point is to manage those risks in a non-discriminatory manner.


Wouldn't the solution just be to require signatures for deliveries, or pickup if the customer isn't home? That seems to be the go-to approach for high value packages, so I don't see why the carrier can't just pick up containers when dropping off product, or even just wait a minute while the customer empties the box.

The problem seems solvable and would tremendously help Amazon's image as a green company.


>> Wouldn't the solution just be to require signatures for deliveries, or pickup if the customer isn't home?

Legitimately everyone would hate this change. People who work 9-5 M-F aren't interested in doing extra work to get their shampoo delivered via signature and/or pickup at some place 15-20 miles away in an industrial area.


It's not the delivery, it's the unboxing.

For a pick-up / package-hold service, the unboxing could be supervised. Delivery drivers aren't going to want to wait for recipients to remove packaging. And in many cases, the signer won't be the same person as the unboxer.


"Oh boy, I can't wait to be forced by a big company to unbox my sex toys and lingerie in front of a bored delivery driver"

or even worse, like you said, the signer won't necessarily be the recipient, so:

"Oh boy, I can't wait for my parents to unbox my sex toys and lingerie in front of a bored delivery driver"


Well, the way it would work is that you should get a _discount_ on future orders if you return the bin. But that would require Amazon to raise the initial rate, which they don't want to do. This is why so many states still have laws on the books requiring and setting rates for deposits for glass bottles.


You also have the container shipping problem. What if I don’t have anything to ship back, but I’ve got a whole boatload of containers for shipping?

Oops.


You just leave the container(s) outside your door and they'll pick them up with the next delivery. Amazon could even have the carrier scan the containers on pick-up so the customer isn't liable for the carrier making a mistake.


> "Lie" might be a more appropriate word than "myth"

This whole line of thinking is why stories like these get great engagement on social media and never really lead to any changes in behavior. A debate over whether omission or generalization are forms of lying gives you a fractal space of debate that's easy for non-experts to opine on. So go the articles to the top of the voting-based social media algorithms. And yet nothing gets done.

As a non-expert whose only dog in this race is living on this planet with everyone else, I'd urge you to stop speculating on solutions. Look at people or movements that it seems everyone agrees with, especially across political divides. It's not going to be this really arcane stuff you're talking about, like shipping containers or whatever.

Take electric cars for instance. Driving is this thing where everyone agrees they want to do it but they all hate other drivers. It's a unique political situation: agreeing with people that you should drive, and simultaneously hating those people! Electric cars give people what they want in a way that despite hating each other they'll agree, and if you pay attention to what environmental solutions (particularly technology) actually gets adopted, it tends to look like this.

In your example, you're basically talking about something like electric cars, which is good, but then speculating you actually know what the packaging solution would look like, which is bad. People have even speculated about electric cars for a century! But if you really thought this was what the solution is, go and do it. Go and make those standardized boxes and try to sell them to Amazon.

It's not about being right or wrong even though it feels that way. That's an illusion created by social media. Elon Musk's worst moments are when he's going into crackpot conspiracies. The reason he's beloved across political divides is all about going out and doing shit. But you ain't that guy, you don't have a billion dollars to transcend feeling good on social media.

So you don't need to speculate about "garbage manufacturing industry" conspiracies or why Amazon does this or that. Go work for Amazon and create new packaging for them, or tell them what you would pay for, or support people who actually go and do the thing. But don't just click upvote and feel good.


> This whole line of thinking is why stories like these get great engagement on social media and never really lead to any changes in behavior

Do you have evidence for the latter?


Washing all that stuff in usual ways would use tons of water and soap and energy. It's possible that the cost of washing reusable containers would exceed the cost (in energy/resources as well as money) of making disposable plastic and paper.

It's a really hard problem. A solution would have to figure out an efficient washing process as well as the form factors.


That's like saying a household on disposables would be cheaper than one on actual dishes. I haven't done the math, but I'm almost certain it isn't.


The largest recycling center in California, with almost 300 locations, actually just closed last week:

“With the continued reduction in State fees, the depressed pricing of recycled aluminum and PET plastic, and the rise in operating costs resulting from minimum wage increases and required health and workers compensation insurance, the Company has concluded that operation of these recycling centers and supporting operations is no longer sustainable,”

https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/08/05/californias-largest-r...


You never need to use another plastic bottle, single-use cup, fork, or bag again for the rest of your life.

Try this challenge: go for a week without using those things. However far you make it, I bet you'll find it easier and rewarding than you expect. The goal doesn't have to be to fix all the world's problems by yourself overnight, just a new experience. It will probably lead to institutional and government change faster than not acting and it costs nothing anyway.

Everyone I know who has tried has continued because they enjoyed the experience.

If you live in Flint or some place similarly polluted and need the bottles you can still do the experiment.


In my previous workplace, all my food, drinks, coffee, water was in disposable packaging. That is 230 food boxes, 690 coffee cups, 230 porridge bowls and lids, 460 plastic wrappers, plus plastic cutlery, etc. All up 2000 items of disposable plastic per year.

At my new office, it is 100% reusable. Even my lunchtime salads are put in the reusable plastic bowl I bring from the office to the cafe.

As you say, making the switch is surprising easy, and also satisfying.


In New Zealand it is easy to see the effects after countries stopped accepting our rubbish.

We have a few landfill, but they are slowly piling up now. And NZ has always been popular for its green landscapes.

So now the gov, councils, and local businesses started prohibiting some types of plastics.

But it is still at early stages. Supermarkets have banned single use plastic bags, but pretty much everthing you buy still has plastic that goes to the landfill.

Recycling here is also different from latin america. In latam normally you have multiple recycling bins... one for glass, one for plastic, one for paper, etc.

Here we have a single container for plastic. Some times you find multiple bins, but that's still rare.

In my company, there is one huge bin for cardboard only downstairs. One for paper (but only for confidential docs to be properly destroyed), and the bins in the kitchen areas, where you are supposed to throw only milk packages.

I looked around where I could dispose oil, and a restaurant owner told me to just dump in the sink. He said there is a company that goes around the CBD collecting used oil, but only from businesses that pay for that.

There is a place that collects electronics waste. But the collection places and dates are sparse, and I see a lot getting dumped in the normal waste.

We still have a long way to go. At least the council here reports on landfills and is doing their part trying to promote green ideas https://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/building-and-consents/ty...


Are we anywhere near running out of landfill space? Are modern landfills bad for the environment at all? It doesn’t seem like it.

I think environmentalism is misguided when it works on the principle of “everything that sounds good for the environment is equally important, we don’t need to pay attention to whether it works”. Global warming is a real danger. Running out of landfill space is not. Stop pretending like you are helping the environment when you do symbolic but unimportant things like using paper straws or reusable grocery bags. Take all the money spent on ineffective things like paper recycling and disallowing plastic bags, and put it towards the technologies that can really help, like cheaper solar power, cheaper wind power, cheaper batteries, and carbon sequestration.


> I think environmentalism is misguided when it works on the principle of “everything that sounds good for the environment is equally important, we don’t need to pay attention to whether it works”.

It's a rather good thing, then, that just about nobody advocates or implements that strategy.

Your examples happen to be of small effect (but also rather low cost) ideas that are just being amplified by detractors because they play well among a certain segment of the population.


> Take all the money spent on ineffective things like paper recycling and disallowing plastic bags, and put it towards the technologies that can really help, like cheaper solar power, cheaper wind power, cheaper batteries, and carbon sequestration.

Isn't this a false dichotomy?


> The present dumping ground of choice is Malaysia.

Use of the term "dumping" makes me seriously question the article's storyline. Plastic garbage is not "dumped" in Malaysia, it is sold to buyers in Malaysia. If you wanted to dump it it would be much cheaper to do so at source.

Ref: https://discardstudies.com/2019/05/06/adam-minter-how-things...


> Plastic garbage is not "dumped" in Malaysia, it is sold to buyers in Malaysia.

It is sold to some businesses in Malaysia who will then dump it. This is how they make quick money.


Ok, please explain why in the world businesses in Malaysia would buy garbage just to dump it? That doesn't make ecomonic sense.

In fact (prior to the ban at least) there was a huge industry in China recycling plastics. It's not pretty stuff, but let's not pretend people were buying plastics just to throw them out. Look up the story of We'nan County for example.

From what I've heard the buyers in China have just moved to other places like Malaysia to continue the same business. They are buying plastics to recycle them and make money off that. It's nasty stuff but it is economically motivated.


Because it is an opportunity for quick arbitrage - you get paid to accept trash shipment, you pretend to process it (on paper) and then you simply incinerate or dump trash.

In a country like Malaysia or Thailand with lax regulation, corruption and poor enviroment standards it is an opportunity for some and problem for all.

https://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-malaysia-plastic-20...

> Some attributed it to the periodic air pollution Malaysia suffers when farmers burn crops in neighboring Indonesia. But Pua, a chemist, knew better. Over the next several weeks, she and a few others traced the smell to a growing number of factories that had cropped up on the outskirts of the town of 30,000 and were taking in truckloads of plastic.

Some of the crude facilities were tucked into oil palm plantations or surrounded by walls of tin sheets. Others made no effort to evade notice.

> Driving home from dinner one evening in June, Pua saw smoke rising from a large plant right along the highway — and was hit with that same noxious odor.

“They were doing it every day,” she said. “We felt helpless.”

> In July, after months of ignoring her complaints, local officials shut down 34 illegal recycling plants in Kuala Langat, prompting a national outcry that resulted in a three-month pause on new plastic waste imports. About 17,000 metric tons of waste was seized, but is too contaminated to be recycled. Most of it is likely to end up in a landfill.


> you get paid to accept trash shipment

Why would anyone pay someone to accept a trash shipment? Why wouldn't you just dump it at source?

> you get paid to accept trash shipment, you pretend to process it (on paper) and then you simply incinerate or dump trash.

Nowhere in the article does it mention this, what reference do you have for this actually happening?

AFAICT the article doesn't have anything establishing that the plastic being "dumped" is being anything other than imported to be recycled. It's dirty, polluting recycling, but that's beside the point I'm trying to make. There is an economic incentive; the article even mentions how profitable plastic recycling can be.


> Why would anyone pay someone to accept a trash shipment? Why wouldn't you just dump it at source?

Because it’s either illegal or expensive to do so at the source.


Do you have any source for that claim?

Here's a quote for landfill rates: $40/ton. Do the math yourself, plastics aren't heavy. Much cheaper than sending it in a container across the world. Unless somebody is paying at the other end, of course.

http://riverbend.wm.com/landfill-rates/index.jsp


Sure. Here’s an example.

https://www.journalnow.com/news/local/starting-today-it-is-i...

> The law was passed in 2005, but it didn't take effect until today. It adds plastic bottles and two other items -- wooden pallets and oil filters -- to a long list of items that are already banned from the state's landfills. Among the items already banned are aluminum cans and tires.


This is one regulation in one state. Do you think that even impacts things like dirty diapers, one of the items that was strewn over the news? Of course not.

If you're thinking people are paying ~ $1,200/container to ship plastics to Malaysia without anyone paying on the other end, it would have to be pretty darn hard to throw stuff out in the U.S. And clearly it's not.

The stuff in the news is fraud, the same as if you ordered something from Amazon, paid for it, and you didn't get what you paid for.


It’s an example, as requested. Similar laws are common all over the country and world. I’m not going to keep playing the goalpost move game.


Then Malaysia (or some people there) is not in the business of buying plastics, but in the business of selling a cheap solution to get rid of plastics. They are not buyers, but sellers.


There is no such thing as Malaysia - there are individual citizens, politicians, enterpreneurs and government agencies. It is easy to sit in First World country and give advices and look down but people of Malaysia do not deserve living with toxic fumes of plastic garbage burning next to their homes just because some 'enterpreneurs' have grabed opportunity to make a quick (and illegal) dollar.


https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/09/indonesi...

> In May, the Malaysian government said it would return up to 100 tonnes of Australian waste because it was too contaminated to recycle. It was part of 450 tonnes of imported plastic waste it sent back to countries across the globe. Malaysia’s environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, said the rubbish was infested with maggots and declared Malaysia would “fight back” and “not be the dumping ground of the world.”


Am I the only one weirded out that this story keeps coming up and that everyone seems to ignore the whole "sending people something they didn't ask for when they paid for something else" aspect?

It's like someone coming to pick up your old furniture to donate to Goodwill, mixing it in with bags of dog poop and selling it to them as "mixed furniture".

Of course they're going to send it back. Of course they're going to be offended that you treat them with such disrespect.

But it's untrue to say "Goodwill won't take any more furniture", they just don't want the dog poop.


I don't disagree, but the issue is that picking out "the dog poop" wrecks the cost/benefit balance of recycling vs landfilling it all.


Is there some reason the articles never say that clearly? I don't really understand the angle they're taking.

I mean this specific article actually interviews someone that's added a robot machine for sorting plastic bottles. Presumably the idea is that this is economically sound, and whether it is or not, it seems like it should have been spelled out.

Feels like they wanted to leave the impression that it's uneconomic to recycle, bit didn't actually have facts to back that up.


If you're interested in this topic I highly recommend Adam Minter as better source on this stuff. He adopts a strictly economic perspective on the recycling trade which makes way more sense.

https://www.amazon.com/Junkyard-Planet-Travels-Billion-Dolla...


This is exactly what I was going to point out. Sending something that the buyer didn't ask for is fraud, and should be treated as such. That doesn't mean that all (or even most) such transactions are fraud.




I worked at a company that introduced recycling program and we had three bins: trash, recyclables and food

We were all trying to abide by the program and go “green”.

One day we stuck around late and noticed the cleaning guy come in take the three bins and empty the onto the same trash container

We asked him and he said they only had one type of trash containers we downstairs so everything went into the same one


This is how Warsaw, capital of Poland, EU member works. Recycling bins are mandatory per EU policy, garbage trucks load all three bins into the same bed and dump it into the same landfill, city pays EU fine. Everyone is happy because

- people get to pretend they care

- collecting is cheaper than using 3x the number of vehicles

- its cheaper than actually doing something sensible with segregated garbage.


Citizens are not producing kgs of plastics a day! Companies are! Lets just start a movement to start unboxing everything in plastic after the purchase counter and before exit and leave supermarkets to deal with the plastics... then they’ll take note. I’ve seen tens of inventions covering biological clear plastic alternatives, now we just need to make the companies apply them...


> Illegal shipments of Australian waste used as fuel to make tofu in Indonesia

https://youtu.be/S_rFC54Bxjc


I am not sure how much a return to glass would cost consumers. Taxing plastic might be required, unless someone can come up with a market based solution.


2 days ago, the recycling truck in my neighborhood picked up the trash bin of my neighbor in the same truck as the recycling (the neighbor put his trash bin out too late)... I'm pretty sure it all goes in the same place.




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