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How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled (npr.org)
687 points by everybodyknows 16 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 312 comments

The whole recycling scam makes me upset. For decades the message was to recycle for the environment. But it was all just shipped to China and then dumped into the oceans. It actually would've been better if it went to landfills, at least then it's safely contained. Another lie was that we're running out of landfill space, there's so much land out there.

Like most environmental issues, the focus should've been on producers not consumers. Tax plastic usage and producers will use less of it.

Thinking about this more, wasn't there a time, maybe late 90s early 2000s when the message was that plastic is more environmental than paper? Something like at the supermarket checkout you should pick plastic over paper bags to save rain forest trees? Is my memory wrong or was this a widespread message at the time?

This is what I remember as well. I remember my mother using her own rope net grocery bags as an alternative to the paper ones.

I remember in school we switched from single-portion paper milk cartons to square bags of milk that you punctured with a plastic straw. This was sold to us along with a muppet skit explaining how to use the milk bags (the muppets rated it "one thumb up and one thumb down, to cover the straw hole when you puncture the bag"). There was a poster in the cafeteria comparing the giant pile of milk cartons relative to the small pile of plastic pouches. We paid much more attention to what adults said than they ever gave us credit for, and they had been telling us about renewable and non-renewable resources, about recycling, about landfill space, and about externality. We knew, even if the rational outcome was the same, that it was more than big pile vs small pile.

I remember when bag fees started showing up, and at the checkout grocery stores began selling... reusable plastic bags. People seem to collect these now, maybe 30-40 per household, which is fine by me I'd rather have 40 bags in someone's pantry than 4,000 floating around outside. But it seems excessive. I've accumulated about that many: I on occasion "win a prize", family members bring items over and leave the carrying bags behind, donate money to anyone and you're sure to get a tote. I actually don't have any rope bags though I wish I did, my mother still has hers and she's not parting with them. I think the rope bags are more convenient than anything else, but then what happens to the 40 odd plastic bags I've accumulated?

> what happens to the 40 odd plastic bags I've accumulated?

We always used them as garbage can liners. Now that stores no longer have plastic bags we have to buy plastic bags. So instead of reusing the plastic bags we brought our groceries home in, we are buying brand new plastic bags instead. The same number of plastic bags are entering the landfill. The only difference is that now we have to pay for them.

My wife has been hoarding them for the last 10 years. I agree with reuse, but at the rate we use them vs the rate we consume them we have enough for the next 200 years.

I think it's more efficient all around to pay for them.

You could bring them back with you to reuse at the grocery store to balance use as liners vs new consumption. That's what I did before the plastic bag bans went into effect. Now I buy liners.

> The only difference is that now we have to pay for them.

Nitpick: you always had to pay for them, the cost was built in to the purchase price.

So, now that they no longer provide bags, but prices have not gone down at all, the grocery stores are suddenly seeing their profits increase?

> We always used them as garbage can liners

I started doing this "before it was cool" back in the 1990s. I wasn't aware of other people doing it so I couldn't understand why they weren't. I learned since then and I still do it today. Why use something once when you can at least use it twice?

I don't know where you live and how garbage disposal works where you live, but in general I would urge people not to do this. Proper garbage can bags are important because they don't spill out easily. This makes the job of the garbage disposal people much easier. Imagine having someone overworked and underpaid, working on autopilot and at fast pace, and suddenly your trash spills out. You will ruin that person's day.

> I don't know where you live and how garbage disposal works where you live

a dump truck with a giant mechanical arm grabs my trash can, picks up over the top of the truck, flipping it around in the process, and then shakes it violently.

Same here. I’m very surprised to learn that these aren’t universal.

Where I live, there’s no manual handling of individual bags by waste management employees. You throw your trash bags directly into a large compactor; from there, it’s handled in bulk.

Where I lived previously, residents brought bags to a warehouse-like building maintained by the town. You dropped your trash through openings in the side of the building that resembled windows. Town employees used tractors equipped with giant claws to scoop up the trash and load it into dumpsters, which were then brought to landfills.

Generally they're used for smaller trash containers like you might find in a bathroom. We use them like this and when they're full they get tied closed (the handles make this easy) and placed in the larger main trash bag in the kitchen.

At least in Los Angeles there are mechanized arms to pick up residential bins. I now live on the East Coast and that is no longer the case and definitely can’t use shopping bags as liners without consolidating them into a standard 13 gallon bag.

Are there really still places In the US where people actually have to physically manhandle garbage into a truck?!

Yup. Many rural areas like ours have weekly garbage collection. It's an ancient truck, with the same 3 guys ever since I moved here nearly 10 years ago. They hand toss every single bag. And when the truck breaks down they collect the trash in a pickup truck and handle it twice, once loading it and once unloading it.

Boston. New York. San Francisco (inner).

Nothing is stopping you from reusing the plastic bags. My plastic bag accumulation rate is low because I always have one or two - they are very small when folded - in my backpack.

I do the same. Plastic bags are quite convenient, are often easier to clean than fancy reusable bags, can be given away without a second thought, and fit nicely in a backpack when folded. Whenever I get a new one, I fold it up and put it in a box in my coat closet. Going shopping? Grab a few, stick them in my car or backpack.

They last practically forever—certainly longer than the cheap reusable bags that have a tendency to tear and stain.

I remember cashiers asking me "would you like to kill a tree or kill a fish?"

"The tree is already dead. I'll take that one."

There were some life-cycle analyses done which created quite a stir arguing that plastic was better when the full life-cycle was considered. I can't find the original paper but here's a summary [1] of studies with sources (from a bag website)

1: http://www.allaboutbags.ca/papervplasticstudies.html.

Not sure if a site compiled by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association is a great source here. Even though it cites sources, there's probbaly some strong selection bias going on here.

I missed it was from a plastics association. But my point about the life-cycle analysis work is still valid - I studied this a little in grad-school and the paper v plastic bag trade-off was frequently discussed because of the surprising results.

(Life-cycle analysis does have huge assumptions involving usage, so it's not an exact science)

I'm not sure life-cycle analysis is that useful in this case.

If a paper bag requires more energy to produce, it could still be better for the environment as it doesn't stay around polluting the world forever.

It was in my circles, I remember some passionate eco types arguing I should use plastic bags because they were recyclable, and paper bags "killed trees".

I know paper right now doesn't have a great environmental footprint, but paper does seem like a pretty good way to trick capitalism into planting lots of trees.

Traditional forestry in Europe was keen on preserving total forest area for future harvest. And after the general shift from burning wood to burning coal, forests actually expanded.

In my country (Czechia) the contemporary forest cover is about twice as much as in the 18th century and several per cent bigger than in 1950.

The problem is species composition. Those forests are mostly monocultural and prone to devastating disease / pest outbreaks.

I don't know about forest cover, but we have the same issues in Sweden. The biological diversity in areas used for forestry is poor compared to untouched forests. The recent dry weather has been very good for a kind of beetle that has destroyed vast amounts of trees. Forests that were untouched, or just mixed kind, did a lot better.

Regulation is slowly catching up though, and some of the larger companies have actually started doing more than is required by law.

Seems like an interesting computational ecology problem.

Or to just use whatever trees are left and leave the next generation to worry about planting new ones...

That’s actively happening!

An ex-coworker of mine has been working with a team on a drone tree-planting startup that is bidding to take on government and heavy industry contracts.

IIRC there are several companies working in that space and surprisingly not more.

Though I suppose that social guilt and pressure is still required to get those heavy industrial corps to want to wear a big green badge boating about all the trees they’ve planted.

Eh, it's mostly replanting what has been destroyed previously, and with only a few fast growth species who don't make very useful wood for other purposes, while more varied forests are being destroyed to make room. It's pretty hard to "trick" capitalism into serving other interests than its own.

And yet, capitalist societies have stricter environmental regulations and the people living in capitalist societies tend to be more concerned about the environment. Look up the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea for their environmental records and compare those to the US or Western Europe. Here's the US, page 7 please: https://www.fia.fs.fed.us/library/brochures/docs/2012/Forest...

It's probably a mix of being overall rich enough that we can think about other problems (like the environment) and because spending money and consuming is actually a choice. A market driven by consumers choice will create a market for greener products. The more power the government has the less they care about anyone else but the elite. And they for sure won't care about the terrible conditions of the environment in paesants-ville.

Yeah I remember this transition from paper to plastic bags. It was the whole "save the trees" movement. Save the trees... and destroy the ocean instead.

I definitely remember this, in the 90s. And it was around the same time that fast food restaurants (well, McDonald's at least) switched from styrofoam burger clamshells to the paper type. That was driven by environmentalists who didn't like landfills accumulating. There was also some ozone layer concerns I think?

So paper was the better choice for the burger, yet plastic was the better choice for your groceries.

I also remember Vons introduced photodegradable bags.(!) They were supposed to alleviate the litter concerns, while also allowing you to save a tree I think? I'm trying to find something online to back this up, but I remember the novelty of it when they first introduced it.

Styrofoam clamshell packaging used to use CFCs as the blowing agent, I think, but that hasn't been true for decades now.

From a global warming perspective, plastic bags are generally better for the environment because they are extremely light, therefore use less gas to ship. However, plastic bags often end up in nature, where plastic particles end up in animals and plants.

I saw a bird nest once that the bird had lined with shredded bits of plastic bag to reinforce it.

Unfortunately, most people are so completely brainwashed that they feel proud of themselves for putting their plastic in the (open topped) recycling bin where it blows out, goes down the drain and ends up in the sea. They imagine that putting it in normal (closed top) rubbish will cause it to end up in a seagull's stomach, starving it to death while "recycling" allows them to sit back and gloat about how lucky they are to have the opportunity to save the planet.

Plastic does have a (significantly) lower carbon footprint per bag than paper to produce. This doesn't factor in disposability, of course, but that's probably where that message originated from.

That seems like the type of analysis where someone lumped in the coal fired power station as well. Those are always the most disingenuous ones.

Not really. Plastic is stunningly inexpensive for what it does. That's why it's so ubiquitous. A grocery bag takes a few grams of material at most, and the feedstock is dirt cheap to boot. It's almost impossible to compete with that on a per-unit cost basis if you don't take externialities in to account.

The 'good' news is that the vast majority of plastic waste in the ocean isn't diffuse from around the globe; rather, it is concentrated in a few rivers in asia. The reason for this is that the countries these rivers pass through don't have modern waste collection and landfill infrastructure. It's not exciting to talk about, but this means that helping China, India, and the SE Asian nations build waste management facilities would do more to help the world plastic pollution problem than anything else by orders of magnitude.

(We still need biodegradable plastics. But, much like shale gas being helpful because it decommissions even-worse coal, simple proper waste management will put a huge dent in the problem before the ultimate solution becomes available.)


The problem with plastic is that it doesn't rot. So if you leave it outside it's going to stay there for a long time and mess up nature. If you put it in a land fill it's not a problem. Paper is more energy intensive because plastic bags require very little plastic. Most of them weigh 5 grams.

I remember this from that same time period. I was just thinking about that the other day. I don't even recall when the message flipped back over, but it absolutely happened.

The type of trees killed for paper (and timber) here in New Zealand are utter trash, pinus radiata.

I think the argument is more about the native forests that were destroyed to farm pine trees.

Yeah I remember that too. I worked in a grocery store in the 90’s and we were told to default to plastic for the simple reason that it was less expensive.

Managers hated nothing more than the customer who requested “paper, double bagged”. I think our cost was about 3 cents per paper bag if I recall the training video correctly. Because of generally low margins it really eats into profits.

In New York, plastic grocery bags have been outlawed. You can get paper bags, but the stores charge 5 cents per. Reusable bags are now the standard, but that requires some longer term use to pay off.

Where I live they are mainly banned as well and if you don’t bring your own bags then you have to pay a small tax for paper bags. I’m mainly ok with this since we drive to the store and can plan ahead. It’s a bit annoying when you go somewhere on the way home though and don’t have them with you. If the money was being used to actually fund proper recycling I wouldn’t care but it’s probably being used to pay off interest on government bonds.

This is an argument that comes up often, e.g. gas tax should be used for roads.

The misconception is that it sees taxes only as a means of generating revenue to offset the cost or externalities of what’s being taxed.

But taxes are also important in steering behavior. In this case by forcing bags to To be non-free (and not allowing stores to compete by advertising free bags) it incentivizes folks to start bringing their own bag. The revenue is inconsequential.

Except for all the new little fees and taxes are being used to pay off pension debt, etc. I’d complain less if my local taxes were better being used to serve the community rather than pay a 50 year olds pension that moved off to a state without income tax. A pension that was agreed to by the crooked pols that got elected by the same public unions they had to “negotiate” with.

I agree about steering behavior and I think it should be used more often rather than bans on things.

Pay a tax, or actually pay for the bag? The bag is not free. If previously they were being provided free, the cost of those bags was being folded into the cost of all the goods in the store.

All store goods using plastic in packaging should be heavily taxed.

I remember that also. Save the trees, use plastic. But I think it was earlier than the late 90s.

Recall that up until extremely recently- only a few decades ago- the nation was rapidly exhausting its timber supplies. It was not managed as a renewable resource.

That must have been around 1910, according to page 7 of this document: https://www.fia.fs.fed.us/library/brochures/docs/2012/Forest...

I don't think that chart is describing actual canopy coverage or timber supply.

Since 1630, about 256 million acres of forest land have been converted to other uses—mainly agricultural. Nearly two-thirds of the net conversion to other uses...

It's a land area/land use statement. Clearcut scars in Forest Service land are, more than likely, still considered forest land.

The general fight I remember from the 80's-90's timeframe was over clearcutting old growth, mainly in the Pacific Northwest.

> But it was all just shipped to China and then dumped into the oceans.

I've heard this a lot of times, but I've never seen any source that claimed the recycled material sent to China gets dumped in the ocean. As I recall, they had paid a small amount of money for it, so it doesn't make sense why they would just throw it away.

I agree that landfills are underrated. It's much more effective to build landfills in poor countries than it is to try to sweep up plastic in the ocean, which may also hurt the environment.

I lived in Shenzhen from 2007-2011 and can confirm that large amounts of recyclables were shipped to China. Open-air facilities hired pickers to go through the material and pull out whatever they could before disposing of the remainder (by who knows what means).

This all happened within eyesight of my condo building.

Couldn't the remaining waste be efficiently used to generate energy in a waste incinerator? They are still high-energy oil products after all, and no longer mixed in with all kinds of wet biomass.

Exactly what I've been saying for years. Public perception of incinerators is pretty poor though.

There are a couple European countries that burn all their waste. Sweden has been _importing_ waste to burn for a while. Switzerland is now retrieving various kinds of metals from the ashes. Ireland has installed an incinerator at a landmark position in the focal point of all the Dublin's shoreline.

They produce a lot of toxic gases as the plastics often contain a variety of elements which when burned formed nasty compounds

Filtering that out is a solved engineering problem and you still remain energy positive.

Clean coal, clean diesel, now clean incinerated plastic: I don't doubt that it's manageable or maybe even fully solved, I just don't have much faith in it being employed. The track record of such things is not great.

The local incinerator here in Switzerland isn't merely burning the waste. IIRC it gets vapourised using a high energy plasma or something like that, broken down to constituent atoms. At any rate it belches smoke into the atmosphere in the middle of a city, has done for a while and nobody seems to suffer any ill effects, so I believe them that the "burning" is highly effective.

That sounds like plasma gasification (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_gasification). Out of curiosity, which city are you in?

> it belches smoke into the atmosphere in the middle of a city, has done for a while and nobody seems to suffer any ill effects

How long is a while, and how does that compare to the time it would take to detect meaningful increases in cancer or other illnesses in the vicinity of the incinerator?


Was built in 1995, or so it claims, with other kinds of incineration being done for >100 years.

So 25 years or so. I think that's enough time for a clear effect to show up.

Japan does this.

They have a generally good reputation here in Sweden.

In most cases it seems US municipalities paid firms in China to take their recycling, not the other way around.


I don't think that's what the article is saying. They're paying people to take trash because they no longer can sell it to China.

I saw in a recent documentary that significant amounts of this trash are now shipped to Africa and just about dumped everywhere.

Yes. They are paying for the material as well as the shipping costs of the material.

China is a major source of ocean plastic, but I doubt it is because of widespread dumping of imported plastic into the ocean.

Estimates varies between 2/3 and 90% of all plastic dumping in the Ocean coming from Asian countries.

We really don't have much hope in regulating that.

> We really don't have much hope in regulating that.

Western countries can stop sending plastic waste to Asian countries, that would be a start.

Unless that is the waste they are dumping into the oceans, why would that matter?

tl;dr: first & last sentences

Wealth originates in natural resources.

Here you've got bureaucracy, natural resources, value-added product, surplus, scrap, waste, storage, shipping, and business-as-usual being the primary elements interacting overall.

It isn't profitable to send a shipload to a place where it isn't worth more money when it gets there. Price matters.

Propylene gas is one of the fundamentally simplest hydrocarbon monomers, second only to ethylene gas in simplicity.

Used as raw material to produce polypropylene and polyethylene plastics respectively.

Very similar in volatility, flammability, and liquefication properties to propane, propylene can be handled using the same familiar tanks used by consumers for cooking and heating.

And the same traditional LPG vessels or the modern refrigerated lower-pressure types.

We're in a crisis but current prices still represent a somewhat functional market.

Lets put them on the same basis in US dollars and look at the math.

LPG can be considered a crude natural resource and it's quoted in liters across a broad spectrum of prices from 0.07 to 1.16 USD worldwide: -interestingly this data source does not include Mexico or the US, however North America is represented by Canada


Propane is refined from LPG, quoted per gallon at 0.46 USD. So that's about 0.12 USD per liter for comparison to the LPG spectrum:


Propylene is produced using propane as the raw material, quoted per metric tonne at about 870 USD, except on the US Gulf Coast where delivery without shipping is only about 20 USD per tonne. So that's about 0.53 USD per liter elsewhere for comparison to the LPG spectrum:


Quite a bit of certain value added here in the step from propane to propylene but some people are still paying more for hydrocarbons to burn than others are paying for raw monomers for polymerization into plastic.

And they all come in the same vessels when available.

Made from the propylene monomer as raw material, solid plastic bulk polypropylene pellets on the same basis at 1170 USD per tonne can be seen to provide notable multiples of value added on the US Gulf Coast. For the pellets that's a price about 0.72+ USD per liter of equivalent propylene monomer (ideally polymerized) to compare to LPG:


Note that both charts from the last data source appear to have European prices quoted in Euros on an otherwise US dollar chart, so things are even more expensive over there than it looks.

And the virgin polypropylene or polyethylene pellets might be under consideration to be shipped by the same solid-cargo vessels in competition with more diffucult-to-handle waste plastic.

Actually if an overseas factory uses a liter equivalent of cheap plastic pellets to make consumable items for return export, their value added can be a bigger multiple than any of the preceeding members of the value-added chain. Like a few dollars rather than these sub-dollar amounts.

Even within the same oil company, different degrees of environmental protection can be accomplished by different groups.

Different incentives apply to different groups of bonus-seekers, the exploration, production, refining, petrochemicals, and polymers each have their own not-fully-aligned efforts.

Sometimes bonuses can only be had by the most agressive growth operators at all costs, externalized or not.

Then there's this from 2013: HN link to: One of the largest polypropylene production facilities opens in Siberia [2013] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24458335

And since that's not enough for consumers, now there's this from Thursday: HN link to: Launch of New World Class Polypropylene Production Line in La Porte, Texas https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24458348

Remember, some businesspeople will never be satisfied unless every dollar is greedily extracted at each possible point in a chain, often preferring it to be done to someone else's extreme disadvantage if possible.

To be financially sustainable;

It takes a lot of surplus to save from destruction, distribute, deploy, repair and/or reuse.

It takes a whole lot more scrap to recover the valuable components from.

You can only imagine how much tonnage it would take once there are no more financially valuable components.

Now both the surplus & scrap have always been under pressure from virgin raw materials and manufacturing to begin with, and so surplus & scrap are still often included with and regarded as _waste_. Some people hate anything old anyway. Actually makes the waste seem to be more valuable if it's not just plain plastic too.

There's not supposed to be any level of imagination that can conceive of a scale so vast that handling plain plastic waste would be financially feasible.

So the waste doesn't have a chance, there's fundamentally not a promising financial market that can develop around a liability.

Unless maybe you promise to do something but you don't actually do it.

The only market can be among those willing to pay to discharge a liability.

A big city, company, or community can easily attach no remaining value to more dumpster loads of stuff the more wasteful and consumer-oriented the society.

It can't be economically handled, stored or shipped, and the more of these efforts that are incurred they increase the depth of the liability, so the incentive can arise to make it the sooner the discharge the better.

When the only remaining real value is as scrap for recycling or fuel for energy recovery, but both are uneconomical compared to virgin material, the final incentive falls to incidental accumulators whose economics are not quite prohibitive, but on too small a scale to make a major impact, or on a too-imaginative scale of accumulation which often fails to have a positive outcome.

Surplus, scrap, and waste operators have always had their warehouses, scrapyards, and dumps under pressure to discharge at the same average rate as accumulation. Lots of them are always _almost_ full.

Seems to me once an overseas business like this is established, there will be times when it will make economic sense for someone to discharge a low-value cargo into the ocean even if they were to continue the voyage all the way to the intended recycling port afterward. If the receiving dump was still anticipated to be full upon the vessel's ETA, the cargo could not be accepted anyway, and a procedure could be developed to handle it with creative paperwork, even routinely without any changes to established office systems. So everyone continues to make money because they're being paid to get rid of the waste, not because someone actually thinks they can add value to the waste if delivered. Maybe extract a little more value, but not add anything, and further value removal can be a costly maybe still leaving most of the bulk left over anyway, and there may be _greener_ pastures.

When there's no market to rescue a marginal asset which quickly turns into a vast liability during a voyage, there can be no rescue to hold out for.

Fundamentally a shipload of waste is worth less than a shipload of crude oil except for a few days each century wben crude goes below zero. The rest of the time crude oil is higher, sometimes fluctuating wildly while still providing a cheaper source of virgin plastic than recycled plastic can compete with. Waste plastic never rises significantly above zero, and is always on the decline.

There could be incentive to ocean dump just because the asset is so marginal, to prevent further cost of handling and storage, and eliminate risk of turning into a liability through time. Actually voyaging nowhere near an overseas port. Covering this with paperwork could be the most profitable business niche in the declining-value chain. Mountains of garbage might have more slippery slopes than you think, and people end up under the table. Returning an unburnt fraction of the vast produced resource to the earth offshore to where much of it originated, but not to the subsurface. In a value-extracted-while-declining way comparable to just spilling the oil intentionally.

Similar to the way at the other end a pipeline thief might make more money per barrel than the oil company would from the oil they are stealing as it comes from the earth.

I don't know if anyone seriously insures these waste cargoes against losses to begin with.

>Here you've got bureaucracy, natural resources, value-added product, surplus, scrap, waste, storage, shipping, and business-as-usual being the primary elements interacting overall.

Same elements as the Beirut explosion where the impact may or may not be as large on the environment as many shiploads of waste plastic, but after a period of complacency both raise their ugly head in their own way. In Beirut that was just one shipment and the human failures had an instantaneously undeniable effect after the delay.

Shipments which are of marginal value don't have a mainstream re-entry point because they compete with shipments having full value.

It wouldn't be so bad without all the dishonesty & greed.

I’d say it’s more likely that it was incinerated and used to produce electricity.

I really hope it wasn’t dumped into the ocean :(

They have some technology we don’t know about, China burning it along with biomass at a power plant is a very likely scenario.

> For decades the message was to recycle for the environment.

The message is and has been "reduce, reuse, recycle." Recycling has been sold from the very beginning as being the option of last resort.

That may have been the intent, but that wasn't the result.

Even though recycling is supposed to be the last resort, it was treated as an effective solution on its own instead. Less attention was paid to "reduce" and "reuse" and most of the attention was focused on "recycle"

Because “recycling” is easy if you just ship it to China and then they dump it in the ocean. Reducing and reusing take real effort and change in behavior.

If people had to recycle for real it would be more challenging and then reduce and reuse would be considered more often.

Post-consumer recycling also takes real effort, most of it from individuals. It just turns out to be largely wasted effort.

“Reduce, reuse” is part of the old saying but it was never heard, because it was never advertised. The entities that could afford advertising, or afford lobbying for it, have more riding on the recycle piece of that—-because reduce and reuse doesn’t pay their bills. Or their salaries and bonuses.

Nobody wants to reduce their own consumption and the disposable, single use, “it’s not clean if it doesn’t come shrink wrapped in a plastic wrapper” mindset has all but destroyed “reuse”. All that’s left is lying to the public that recycling will make up the difference.

> Recycling has been sold from the very beginning as being the option of last resort.

Maybe in the most literal reading of that slogan, but a claim like this could really use some substantiation.

That ordering is a key part of the waste hierarchy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_hierarchy

I recall the message in the catchy jingle as "recycle, reduce, reuse"

Realistically, it probably makes sense to reuse plastic waste as fuel, if it's not economical to recycle it. But burning plastic is frowned upon.

> I recall the message in the catchy jingle as "recycle, reduce, reuse"

If it's the one I remember, resolving the words of the next line was surprisingly ambiguous, with the two popular options being "...and close the loop" or "...and don't pollute"

This used to be a TV commercial during the 90s/early 00s (I think?). The jingle was definitely "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse...and close the loooooop", the loop being the little recycle triangle logo thing.

The mantra should have included "... in that order!"

The logo on every recycling bin is literally arrows that explain the order.

We also just have the ability to incinerate trash, generating electricity and avoiding having to create landfills.

I think the actions should go on both producers and consumers. Taxes, and also mentality changes, in my case, I produce almost no garbage, because I eat fruit foraged outside, and other local organic food. My only garbage in a year is: 10 rice plastic bag (5kg bags), a toothpaste tube and a toothbrush, a few soap bars plastic wrappings. That's all. That yearly volume you see, that's what most people produce in one day in developed countries

So you only buy second hand electronic devices? And you never receive packages or letters? Never have anything that wears out?

I believe I produce very little waste, and put my rubbish and recycling bins out for collection every few months, rather than every two weeks, but I find it hard to see how I could get from where I am to what you describe.

This kind of lifestyle is probably impossible in low-income food deserts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_desert

It's maybe doable, but just about every fresh food/ingredient ist wrapped in plastic.

I can get lentils, rice, bread, maybe milk etc without packaging (Unverpackt-Läden in Germany) but not butter, eggs, cheese, spices and so on.

Before the thing came along we were starting to see shops popup in the UK selling loose items. You could take your containers and fill them with milk, rice, washing up liquid, etc. Some of the supermarkets have started experimenting with it.

Aren't your eggs wrapped in a form of cardboard ?

> the focus should've been on producers not consumers

on producers AND consumers. They're not exclusive. Producers have deceived, but consumers have been all too happy to suspend skepticism when buying things once the producer puts the word "recycle" on it somewhere. Consumers overwhelmingly skip the reduce part. Everyone I talk to about it, when they drop their defenses, says somewhere inside they knew they were participating but wanted to believe recycling was more benign than they knew it was. They just wanted their latte without thinking about it too much.

I'm not removing responsibility from producers or government. Consumers have a lot of power. Single-use plastic at least isn't hard to avoid with practice, at least to drop 90 percent of it. Just avoiding packaged food, with a few years practice the last I emptied my garbage was December and I expect my next emptying in 2022.

Maybe make some videos or something. My tiny California trash can is full to the brim every week, not for lack of trying.

I’m fairly sure I’m in the top 10% of giving a f in my country. Culture has huge impact so I don’t want to discourage individual action, but this won’t change until conservation becomes the default.

There's someone with a nickname similar to yours (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:NYCJosh) that after reading the article, updated wikipedia's plastic recycling article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_recycling#Deception_of.... I would like to thank him.

Are you able to purchase, for instance, liquid dairy products without packaging? Have you had to cut out whole categories of food?

Regarding beverages, things changed a lot when I learned that for most of human existence, after weaning, our ancestors drank only water. I've come to see how I used to look at other beverages as entitled, the result of marketing. I drink some other beverages, but mostly water, and I've found my total joy from drinking higher. Sort of like how in college I drank a lot of beer. Now I sip whiskey sometimes -- less alcohol, more total appreciation.

That said, I read someone write about soy milk makers and did my usual practice of checking Craig's List until I saw someone selling one for $15. I make a batch or two a week from dried bulk soybeans.

For food, note that a few years ago I never cooked from scratch and ate out maybe five nights a week, so all that follows I learned by doing.

I buy what's in season at the farmers market, what the CSA delivers, and from the bulk section. I buy from the same farmers so we've become friendly and they give me a lot of free vegetables -- the ugly ones they take back to compost or the greens others decline when they buy beets or radishes and don't know they're edible. My impression is that my variety has gone up since I'm always buying something that hasn't been in season for ten months, but my friends probably think it's gone down since I make my famous no-packaging vegetable stews https://joshuaspodek.com/food-world-reviews so much.

I rarely eat out of season or non-local foods at home. In the winter after the last cabbages, that means a lot of beets, parsnips, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, etc. I'm fermenting more and started sprouting dried beans, which should increase my greens in the winter.

Frankly, I've never eaten more delicious, while saving money and connecting with farmers, friends, and family more. What started as trying to pollute less ended up giving a lot more than I expected.

> buy what's in season at the farmers market, what the CSA delivers, and from the bulk section. I buy from the same farmers so we've become friendly and they give me a lot of free vegetables -- the ugly ones they take back to compost or the greens others decline when they buy beets or radishes and don't know they're edible.

This is tangential but brings me to something I find hilarious.

Farmers here don’t tend to give those vegetables away to anyone. They repackage them and bring them to the farmers markets in the city and market the hell out of the whole “farm to table/rustic” thing.

I’m from the townships a lot of the stalls I see here (Toronto) come from.

My partner fell for it once and I rudely laughed at her (I’ve apologized!). She went out to one of the local markets and picked up what was a ...rustic... looking and misshapen long bell pepper. Taking one look at the thin-walled, Unripe green/ruddy thing I just sort of blurted. I explained to her why they’d bring that stuff up to the city on their weekend stall day along with their other goods.

We cut it up and tried it. It was horrible. It was bitter and somehow hard even though the fruit was only about 3mm thick.

And I still find it funny because I know those families and their produce is amazing. We go to one of their shops whenever I visit my family and load up.

Waste not want not, eh?

The opposite of my experience. A couple weeks ago I got as many heirloom tomatoes as I could carry. They were slightly bruised. Most of the time, people buy beets, cauliflower, etc and ask the vendor to keep the leaves or the vendor takes off the outermost leaves from broccoli.

Oh I didn't mean to imply it's all they bring! Like I said—those farms have amazing produce and they also bring that stuff in. But in my experience at the satellite farmers' markets here in Toronto I've noticed they will also bring their "rustic" vegetables that are scooped up by unwitting hipsters at a premium. The smug small-town guy in me has a brief laugh about it. (If you ever watch An American Pickle a few of the scenes in that are markedly close to reality)

And yet ironically beer is one of the most completely recycled products. Shipped in brown glass or steel kegs...

In my city we can buy milk in glass bottles for a $2 deposit that’s credited when the bottles are returned to the place of purchase. This program is available at virtually every mainstream supermarket here.

> Are you able to purchase, for instance, liquid dairy products without packaging?

You can purchase them with non-plastic packaging (glass particularly; cardboard cartons use plastic liners.)

I think govt subsidy on compostable biodegradable plastics would be good too. Especially if the subsidy was not just on the bags themselves, but the research and process engineering to make them more cost-competitive.

In the US at least, cities can also get creative, such as exempting compostable items from sales taxes.

I can't remember where I read it but there was the view that recycling allows people to think they're environmentally responsible when they aren't. eg the typical family has multiple cars, lives in a big suburban house, has heating/ac buys loads of stuff but recycles their cardboard/glass so thinks their environmental impact is small.

Moral self-licensing.

I think a lot of the Green movement has the trappings of a religion, with shame and guilt used as motivators, and expensive rituals like trash sorting used to evidence your membership of the group.

I want to pay someone else to sort my trash. In fact, I want the cost of sorting my trash embedded in the costs of the goods I buy, so I - and in particular, my neighbours - have no motivation to burn their trash, or worse, dump it somewhere illegally.

As it is, I pay for supplemental private trash collection due to the public UK council collection now being insufficient to deal with the quantity. "Recycling" - mostly cardboard delivery boxes - overflows into the private landfill bin because the public bins are only collected every fortnight. Which doesn't help with the smell from nappies and cat litter.

>Moral self-licensing. I think a lot of the Green movement has the trappings of a religion, with shame and guilt used as motivators, and expensive rituals like trash sorting used to evidence your membership of the group.

Guilting individuals for not recycling was a corporate PR response to getting heat for the byproducts of their businesses littering the streets. This started back when plastic packaging was first introduced (~60s, I think).

Just like guilting individuals for jaywalking was a corporate response to getting heat for too many automobile deaths in the early days of the car. This happened around the 30s I think.

The fact that the most obviously cynical and powerful groups in the world can spread deliberately self serving propaganda and then successfully blame their own disingenuousness on the largely selfless groups who mostly just want to create a better world for everybody is a portent of a very, very dark future.

Thank you for stating what should be obvious: most of the psuedo-green beliefs are the result of direct misinformation from the producers of human-harming pollution. It should make people more rabid to tear them apart, not less.

Now you are just dissing the worlds public relations departments. Think of the jobs destroyed!

...so sad!

It can be flipped around a third time. Eco-campaigners that create hate campaigns against corporations doing useful work, without even the faintest idea of a proposal for what they want those corps to do differently, will inevitably produce nonsensical virtue signalling PR responses. What else are they going to do? As the article discusses, plastic recycling is hard.

What do you mean no solution offered? Tax non-recyclables at the source and tax them enough to dispose of those materials effectively and safely. And the markets will respond by switching to truly recyclable alternatives or else pass the cost on to consumers willing to pay more for a non-recyclables option.

That won't solve any environmental problems, as in most cases there are no plausible recyclable substitutes. Or are you proposing we make iPhones out of wood?

All that'd do is act as a general consumption tax, and we already have those.

In fact there are no viable solutions, assuming rolling civilisation back to the stone age isn't considered viable. That's why eco-extremists never get specific about what they want corporations or governments to do, and in the rare case where someone is actually serious enough to consider that problem they end up leaving the environment movement: see the long history of ex-Greenpeace or now ex-Extinction Rebellion leaders leaving the movements and coming out in favour of nuclear power.

At least shaming people for littering mostly worked. Maybe it was misdirected due to corporate interests, but there is definitely a lot less trash on the ground now...

Depends on where you are. I sometimes wish for more draconion enforcement, like in Singapore for instance. Or something more funny, squads of litter spotters, following the litterers back home, kicking down the door, and dumping the litter there.

Where are you claiming has more littering than beforehand?

or is this is just yet another HN complaint about the sidewalks of SF....

Nope. In parts it depends on the weather, if for instance there were loads of people/families in a park, or on the beach/riverfront, or some larger sports/show/music event. But even without that, it seems to me there is more littering in general, compared to a timeframe of say 2004 to 2012.

Speaking from Hamburg, Germany here.

I don't think that's because the Greenies want it that way, rather industry & large interests managed to deflect regulatory changes like this:

I want the cost of sorting my trash embedded in the costs of the goods I buy

By arguing that individuals can & should do it themselves, knowing full well only a small minority ever would.

I wouldn't lump in the whole of the green movement, but corporate greenwashing and anti-materialist organizations like XR are definitely a big challenge for climate activists.

Every time I took a German course, my textbook had a section something like "was machen Sie für die Umwelt?" ('what do you do for the environment?'), and the first example answer in dialogues was always "Müll trennen" (sorting kinds of trash for recycling). It was amazing what a cultural force this habit seems to have for many Germans.

I still remember that one of the textbooks even started an answer with "natürlich trenne ich Müll" ('well, of course I sort my trash...').

(Of course, there were other things in the dialogues such as cycling and taking the train, so it's not like recycling is the only ecological measure in German society.)

"what do you do for the environment?"

This is a big part of the appeal and the problem. Recycling promised individual solutions to what is a collective problem: the misuse of resources.

The question should be, "how are you contributing to the destruction of the environment?"

Because it doesn't really matter how much trash you sort if you are flying around in a private jet and your house has the carbon footprint of a small village.

Hey, not that many people are flying private, and housing tends to be as environmentally neutral as possible here. If not inititially, then by retrofitting, with subsidies.

> I still remember that one of the textbooks even started an answer with "natürlich trenne ich Müll" ('well, of course I sort my trash...').

Here in the US many communities use "single-stream" recycling (and we applaud ourselves for the effort too). But I wonder how many communities really deliver those contents back to production, especially since China stopped importing it.

Single stream recycling is a scam. It started recently. But it is making its way everywhere because it eases collection systems on municipalities.

Few people realize that when you mix paper and beverage containers, you get non-recyclable paper and difficult to recycle beverage containers. Further shredded paper cannot be recycled in single stream systems. It wreaks havoc on the system.

AIUI, bottles and cans are sorted easily from paper. Also as the glass/steel/aluminium is going in a furnace some contamination is fine. Contamination the other way is sorted by float-beds; and paper gets shredded and washed anyway as part of the recycling process.

Could you expand on what you think the problem is here?

My understanding was that paper exposed to liquids (other than water) and oils are no longer recyclable.

At this point, "wondering" about this is willful ignorance. Municipal recycling programs in USA don't recycle much of anything. Valuable materials such as some metals don't make it into the blue bins; those are sold at actual recycling depots. Whatever is in the blue bins, is not recyclable in current economic conditions.

>Whatever is in the blue bins, is not recyclable in current economic conditions. //

Which is why you have local taxes, to cover such activities.

Personally I think we need to reverse the supply chain and require all shops to take back any packaging sold.

I'd love to see standardised reusable plastic cartons in supermarkets. And a heavy tax on transportation of mixed water - drink syrup is extremely cheap, we mix it with heavy water, wrap it in plastic and fill lorries with it; that's a massive waste. Anything with lots of water in should be mixed if at all possible at the delivery end. Baby steps, I know.

This isn't actually all that new, 25 years ago when I worked at a large Motorola facility, I was always amused when I worked late, which was often, of having the janitorial staff empty my wastebasket into the large bin they pushed around, and then dump the contents of the paper recycling basket into the same bin. It hasn't been economical to recycle paper waste streams in the US maybe ever.

When the whole Chinese banning recycling imports thing started, one of the few municipal recycling systems not affected was New York City, because they had taken the time to set up a full local supply chain for the recycling. About half of NYC's recycled paper gets turned into pizza boxes. https://citylimits.org/2019/09/17/other-cities-face-trash-cr...

"About half of NYC's recycled paper gets turned into pizza boxes."

That's not what the linked article says:

"The other 50 percent of the city’s paper waste is transferred to Pratt Industries’ paper mill on Staten Island, were much of the city’s waste paper is recycled into pizza boxes."

It doesn't say how much of the paper waste going into that mill is actually recycled, and it doesn't say how much of the portion that's recycled is recycled into pizza boxes.

Did you actually do the legwork to connect the actions of the janitor to company policy and the economics of recycling in the area?

Like, I would guess the janitor was just being lazy, and their actions provide little to no information about either the actual policy at the company or economics of recycling where it was located.

The substantial amount of recycled fiber in many products suggests that it isn't particularly uneconomic.

I worked as a janitor for a while in the midwest.

Lots of office workers had paper-only bins under their desks. Except, there was no place for janitors to put that paper, anywhere in or around the building. Just one big garbage dumpster. As someone else pointed out, we were also under massive time pressure.

Even if we had wanted to recycle the paper, there wasn't a way to do so unless we set up our whole own system, packed it into our personal vehicles every night and drove it to a recycling center miles away (all unpaid). Anyone who broached the subject was mocked.

Lazy, or rushed? The pressure on cleaning staff in many office buildings is significant, especially if they’re under contract at one of the major cleaning companies. Their itineraries are timed to the minute.

Gosh it's convenient that the environment depends on the heroism of janitors. I certainly don't want to be a hero...

Is not recycleable for free. Always say that part. Because it can always be recycled for a little bit of money if we care a tenth as much as we pretend to.

Some containers could be recycled. Not all. The time to "care a tenth" is before we purchase goods that are packaged in problematic containers.

If every product was offered both ways, sure.

Going significantly out of your way to get differently-packaged product could easily cost more than recycling it.

And if it's exceptionally difficult to recycle a certain kind of plastic into new plastic, then turn it into completely inert ash. Either way it's all hydrocarbons and you can convert any of those into a non-problem form.

> It was amazing what a cultural force this habit seems to have for many Germans.

I'm not asking maliciously, but I wonder how Germans reconcile their seemingly environmental awareness with their high CO2 emissions and big cars culture.

Speaking as someone who cares about the environment, I think that environmentalism in Germany has parallels to religious practice. I don't think that it's a coincidence that Germany is extremely areligious, and that sorting trash is taken to such an extreme.

Sorting trash is a ritual, it is slightly sacrificial in time (especially returning bottles to the store), and it can be seen as a penance for the sin of purchasing single use products.

I think we will continue to see more things like this pop up as people search for meaning in their lives, and want things that they can do daily to affirm that meaning.

At least returning bottles to the store actually works...

For glass bottles, yes. That's been done for a long time, and they're 8 cents a bottle. What's perhaps poorly remembered is that when plastic started to come into use in the 90s, the government decided that reusable plastic bottles should have a pfand of 15 cents, and single use plastic bottles should have a pfand of 25 cents.

This means that bottles that specifically cannot be reused must be held onto and carried back to the store, so that they can be crushed and recycled. The machine you must feed your bottles into to get your 25 cents back crushes them itself. Someone who tosses those bottles into the recycling bin has done nothing better for the environment than someone who returns them to the store.

This seems absurd, but it's the whole point of the 25 cent pfand for single use bottles. People who buy those are supposed to pay the penance of taking them to the store and getting their money back for the sin of buying non reusable bottles.

Maybe you don't understand the system but as you have described it is working as intended. Recycling is a meme. The point of a deposit system is that you return your bottles so that they can be disposed of properly. Maybe it is too difficult for you to understand but lots of people would litter without the deposit. There is no cultist conspiracy theory behind the deposit program.

The original intent of the glass bottle deposit system was not from the government at all. It was for the manufacturers to wash and reuse glass bottles.

If the issue is litter, why are glass bottles 8 cents, reusable plastic bottles 15 cents, and single use plastic 25 cents? There is no difference from an environmental standpoint whether you take your single use bottle back to the store or throw it in your recycling bin.

When the 25 cent pfand for single use was instituted, it was very clear that this was because the government wanted consumers to have to undergo the same hassle of returning plastic bottles as they did for glass bottles, otherwise, they would prefer to buy things in plastic bottles where they didn't have to haul the bottles back to the store.

The hassle is your penance for buying the single use product. Alternatively, you can throw them in the recycling bin and pay the 25 cents, but then you run into the other German religion of thriftiness. Throwing away 25 cents creates guilt, so even relatively well off Germans haul their plastic bottles back to the store.

Ah, I had no idea that this was also done for plastic bottles...

I suppose the truly religious environmentalists can buy indulgences in the form of carbon credits. Airlines offer them so the people guilty about travel can pay the owner of a forest to do nothing. Not perfect because you still make carbon, but at least you don’t have to pilgrimage in a sailboat like Greta Thunberg.

If carbon credits are implemented without massive fraud, I don't think it's fair to call them indulgences. If enough people bought carbon credits under a working system it would be a flood of money toward restricting carbon release and recapturing carbon.

Carbon credits most probably are a massive fraud. First it is unclear what measures each credit you buy will take to capture/reduce/limit carbon. Then, those credits are too cheap to have any plausible benefit. Even staunch fans usually introduce them with "well, its something, its a start".

I think carbon credits are a scam in the same stage recycling was 20 or 30 years ago.

Carbon credits are issued to companies in the industry based on a certain amount they are allowed to pollute. This is the cap, the credits are the trade, in "cap-and-trade". However, all that pollution still gets polluted in the end, the only thing that changes is who does it, and who pays. Other players can enter the market and claim to absorb carbon, but very often these people are just monetizing ecosystem services that were already happening before they showed up.

If the cost of the credit was of the same value as removing the pollution, sure. This doesn't happen, though. Like sin, the credit doesn't undo the pollution, it just forgives it. The world still gets more polluted either way.

> Carbon credits are issued to companies in the industry based on a certain amount they are allowed to pollute. This is the cap, the credits are the trade, in "cap-and-trade". However, all that pollution still gets polluted in the end, the only thing that changes is who does it, and who pays.

The baseline is that all the credits are being bought by industrial polluters. If you personally buy a credit, industry has to pollute less. If you buy 1.5 credits for every credit-worth of extra pollution you cause, the pollution in the world is reduced. In theory.

> The world still gets more polluted either way.

The more credits people buy and sit on, the less pollution there can be. At first this is all low hanging fruit, but eventually the price gets so high that it's cheaper for industries to pay for carbon capture than to pay for credits. If enough are bought, and the price of credits goes high enough, total regulated pollution drops to zero or even goes under zero.

That's not an indulgence if you can minimize the loopholes.

The word you are looking for is Ersatzreligion.

Compared to other developed countries they are not the worst.

    Australia: 16.8 tons/capita/year
    Canada/US: 16.1
    Germany:    9.1
    China:      8.0
    France:     5.0


Compared to other European countries, they are significantly worst.


Maybe it's just quibbling, but anyway, per-capita Germany is among the worst but not the worst.

Why does France do so much better?

Nuclear power plants, the only large-scale green energy source in existence.

Nope. This is only true for gridpower "production", which is only a small part of the total energy production (about 25%), and there are other (non energy-related) sources CO2 emissions.

See https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24374697

Probably poverty and industry. Germany has more industry and has historically had a stronger economy. So, that probably leads to lifestyles that promote more energy use.

The conflict I heard about was all the coal mining (a huge industry in Germany), although in theory they're going to stop burning coal by around the end of the Unix epoch. (I don't know if that also means that they're going to stop extracting it to sell to other countries' energy markets.)

I think German CO₂ emissions are quite low in comparison to German standards of living (like per joule of electricity, per Euro of GDP, per kcal of food eaten) but that doesn't necessarily mean they're low in an absolute sense, because German standards of living are also very high.

German here, I don't think separating trash is necessarily considered an act to help the environment. It's somehow part of the culture and brings additional benefits: easier storage (e.g. you can place an open paper bin in the living room and it won't rot) and recycling containers that are picked up by the city are cheaper than the mixed waste containers. People with gardens can even save more money by maintaining their own organic waste there.

Also in many cities there is no separate container for consumer packaging - instead one can put it in a yellow plastic bag that is put on the street for pick-up. Same for recycling of bottles, you cannot really opt-out, it's more expensive to not recycle them.

Of course there are also a lot of people that do all this for the environment though.

Sure you can, buy tetra-paks instead. Another thing one could do is to separate the packaging from the product in the store after the cashier. They ALL have the bins there, but almost nobody does that. Neither do I, because the packaging actually helps the product survive the short trip in my backpack unharmed :-)

Besides that, didn't you notice how the packaging got more and more flimsy in the last years? Take 500ml Yoghurt for example: very thin white plastic, with recycled carton around it for stability, pre-perforated for easy ripping it off. Even the clear plastic lid on top for protection of the(thin) aluminium foil is missing, intentionally. Which I dislike, because of possible mess when transported in the backpack. Same goes for single use plastic bottles. You can easily crunch them, and the thin wraparound label comes of.

Every little bit helps. There is a concern about auto emissions, but car registration tax[0] is proportional to displacement so there is an incentive to buy smaller engines. And of course, fuel is heavily taxed in Europe so there's a big incentive away from larger engines. If you compare something like a BMW 7-Series sold in the US to one sold in Germany, the German model will usually be sold with a smaller engine that costs less to register and much less to operate.

[0] https://kfz-steuer.wiki/en/car-tax-germany/

They also had a recycling scandal when it was exposed all the tidy sorting at home hit all dumped at the refuse center and either dumped or shipped off but mostly not recycled.

I remember hearing a (possibly apocryphal) story about how it was discovered in one town that all of the recycling was getting incinerated. It was then asked why they needed to sort everything, and the answer was that it was useful to help control the temperature of the incinerator.

If the flame was too cool, throw in more plastic. Too hot, more wet compostable material.

When I was in college I did some report on our local recycling program. I interviewed a manager and learned that our recyclables were actually mixed and trucked to a town several hours away because we didn't have the volume to sell the sorted quantities. I asked why we had to sort at home then and he said "well if we ever can sell individually we want people to be used to it." I never sorted my recyclables again.

Where I live now it isn't even possible, all recyclables go in one bin.

I got suspicious when Portland moved from sorted recycling (four bins, I think) to 'combined recycling'. How could it make economic sense to then sort it back out?

The theory given is that it increases recycling by reducing the cognitive load.

Whether that is true or not is left as an exercise for the reader.

The additional theory I've heard is that people stink at properly sorting recycling...

...though then you get the other issue, "aspirational recycling", where things that aren't even claimed to be recyclable end up in the bins.

Supposedly it could be cost effective when China was paying for plastic. Not that the additional recycling necessarily decreased overall costs, just that single-binning could still be profitable at the collection rates people were used to, and people obviously preferred it. Now that China won't take plastic even if you pay them, I'm sure the financials look different.

Hm. Speaking as a German, which never had a drivers license, does everything by bicycle or on food as possible, I think "Die Freude am Fahrvergnügen" is indoctrination by decades long advertisment on all channels. We could have built the so called 3-litre-car(100km per 3 liters of gas) since the 80ies. But almost nobody wants to buy that. Apart from that, looking at real traffic, you see lots of compact and economical cars too.

For some the car is the holy cow, and it is heresy to speak against it. For some others they are the plague.

It depends, k?

Germans take the conservative approach to nature in the literal sense. It’s every bit as part of their culture as cars and beer, perhaps more so. Hunting is an ancient German tradition as well and there is no hunt without woods to hunt in.

Consumerism is irreconcilable with environmentalism, capitalism is probably irreconcilable with environmentalism.

What is there to discuss? Alternatives to capitalism? Capitalism in the absence of consumerism? Is that possible in the absence of retail? Stores? Low prices?

In the end the typical western lifestyle has an enormous environmental impact you can't really compensate for, no matter how much you recycle or eat organic food. I think the only way to reduce our impact would be to have way less people world wide but there is no way to change culture that way.

Most people don't have a typical western lifestyle, and western countries have low population growth rates.

On the other hand, other countries aspiring to the western lifestyle is a big issue.

Oh, there is! Just wait and see...


I'm not convinced that it's actually a bad thing to dump plastic and paper into a landfill. You just cover it up with dirt and plants every 20 years and build a new one, pretty low impact as long as you have it properly sealed off. Even gets rid of some CO2. Probably better than putting lots of energy into recycling when it isn't actually efficient to do so.

You're not convinced... because you understand the component costs and you believe they add up favorably? Or you don't know and don't care?

The answers to your suggestion start with knowing the volume of plastic, time to degrade, degradation byproduct toxicity, and alternative 'recycling' methods and their costs.

There's also clear evidence that the 'current' model and practice for plastic disposal (that you endorse) is NOT safe and effective. Until you can suggest how to fix its demerits, it's unhelpful to blithely suggest we just keep doing it.

I'm not convinced because as the article says, it's not realistic to recycle many kinds of plastic, and because I don't see the harm in safely burying garbage. In my city there is an old landfill which has now been covered in dirt and turned into a park, with a sledding hill and a bike park. If you didn't know better, you wouldn't even be able to tell it was a landfill before, and if properly managed none of that garbage will ever leak out - the city uses well water and has had no problems with contamination from the landfill.

If it is less energy intensive to create new plastics rather than recycling (which seems to be the case), why not just safely bury the old plastics and make new ones, it should be better for the environment anyways. Of course you should try to reduce and reuse before throwing out plastics, but if you have to get rid of them landfills seem reasonable.

Are you talking about Tacoma/ Ruston Area?

I agree with you. Recycling is stupid; weirdly enough it's a major contributor(? Totally not the right word) to homelessness.

Secondly, it's allowed to be 'disposed of' internationally. Who knows what the Chinese and Indians are doing with it.

Instead of CRV at the consumer level, we should have susidies or direct payments to suppliers for reusing plastic. All the plastic that isn't 'intrinsically valuable', ends up safely in a landfill.

Degradation only matters in nature. That plastic was taken from the earth and nobody gives a damn about the toxicity of oil sitting in the ground. Nobody worries about how long it takes for it to degrade. If you bring the plastic back to where it came from you've done enough.

Paper isn’t bad because it breaks down quickly. Plastic has this bad habit of sticking around for 10,000 years (and longer).

Is that so bad? I mean, it was oil in the ground and now it is plastic in the ground. It seems like a kind of carbon sequestration, where 10,000 years is a feature, no?

Honestly curious.

As oil it was trapped under shale or in sands where it had no effect on the water table and didn't get into the water or food supply.

As plastics it is "broken down" into microplastics, and gets into things and areas it was never intended to be. It is then consumed and builds up in the systems of animals, and even eventually by us.

Even your local landfill, is part of a management system, but will it really last 3,000 years?

We can't just keep adding and adding to it, we can't cover the planet in landfills of plastic, we aren't putting the "oils" back to where they came from.

In Canada, I remember being taught "give a hoot, don't pollute", and to us, as kids, that meant "don't create trash" as much as "clean up your trash".

> As oil it was trapped under shale or in sands where it had no effect on the water table and didn't get into the water or food supply.

In many places we knew oil was there because it was leaking out.

Some of the deposits were exposed to the surface. We have ancient records of people making use of it to make adhesive or caulk boats. Those have just tended to have gotten used up by now.

Those were probably a tiny fraction of all oil... not to mention are likely to have very different chemical properties compared to plastic ?

Can microplastics escape landfills, or is that an issue for trash that didn't get into a landfill?

> We can't just keep adding and adding to it, we can't cover the planet in landfills of plastic, we aren't putting the "oils" back to where they came from.

Why does it matter if it's the same spot?

More importantly there's only so much oil and putting it all in landfills would not cover the planet.

Microplastics mostly come from fabric like nylon. Small fibers that can be easily broken off.

Your crushed 4L milk jug in a landfill isn't much of a source of microplastics, nor is it much of a threat to the water table (I mean, we use that same plastic for food).

This doesn’t sound right. Do you have a source for this?

By crushing it you weakened the structure, creating fissures where exactly that happens, and then over time eats into the rest.

i've heard this before. It was in regards to people washing their clothes.

Shells and coral also don't decompose and turn into limestone after enough time. Plastic is more toxic, but I can't imagine it being much worse than oil shale when it's compressed. Maybe humanity's legacy in a million years will be a bunch of plastic rocks.

George Carlin: "And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?”

Plastic… asshole.”

Full text: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/251836-we-re-so-self-import...

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W33HRc1A6c


Maybe a future race will dig it up to make their water bottles from.

In all seriousness landfills get a really bad reputation but aren’t the worst thing in the world.

Former environmental engineer here. Landfills are not that bad indeed but only if they’re properly constructed - i.e. concrete bed poured, geological survey done beforehand and the seepage of stuff into the ground and settling is continuously monitored. The problem is that constructing _proper_ landfills is hideously expensive so regulations are skirted all over the world. Then you have problem of the stuff decomposing and seeping into groundwater, etc. It’s not all milk jugs and bottles. It’s paint, batteries, motor oil, old non-RoHs electronics that seep mercury and lead everywhere, etc. That’s the main problem with landfills.

Except plastic breaks down into micro plastics and seeps into the ecosystem, unless you’re willing to hermetically seal hundreds of thousands of acres of land

> Smith allowed people to put two plastic items in their bins: soda bottles and milk jugs. He lost money on them, he says, but the aluminum, paper and steel from his regular business helped offset the costs.

Wait, what?! He should've just said "aluminum paper and steel only" and earned greater profits. It's not like people have a choice of recycling providers.

The plastic recycling catastrophe wasn't caused by advertising. It was caused by entities irrationally subsidizing plastic disposal, for political reasons. Like this guy at a municipal waste facility. And like China.

People get finite-sized trash bins, and they must pay if they want a larger size. Make them put the plastic in the trash bin and they will get annoyed by plastic packaging. I know I do.

I pay 1.5CHF per 35l trash bag ($1.65 per 9.2 gallons) and recycling does not accept plastic other than bottles. Still have no way to evade plastic packaging.

If the proportion of plastic-packaged goods in your life hasn't reduced then you (unlike most people) clearly don't buy stuff on amazon. Or from big-box retailers.

The other day I bought a product from Home Depot that had a glued-in-plastic window in a cardboard package (this makes the cardboard unrecycleable). It looked so alien. I hadn't seen packaging like that from a major retailer in years.

Evade? Never. Reduce? Already in progress. Adjust your focus.

Amazon does not have a shop in three out of the four European countries I lived in, including the current one.

Edit: technically, it operates in two of them, having both some warehouses and R&D offices, but does not have a storefront for them.

This is probably an aside, but due to the lockdown, I've been doing hardware development at my house. It's mostly great, but it means that I receive a lot of packages.

And the packaging, oh the packaging. I'm inundated with packing material. Let's say I order 10 different parts. Each part was made by a manufacturer and packaged in a little plastic bag. (If there are sub-parts such as attachments, screws, etc., they are in a sub-bag).

Each of those bags is placed inside another bag, often a thick zip-loc, with a sticky label indicating the part number and sales order number plus other desiderata.

A short (1 meter) USB cable was coiled up and secured with not one but two twist-ties, sub-bagged, and bagged. There were molded plastic caps on the ends.

All of those bags are in a big bag, tied at the top. That goes in a box with packing material filling half the box. I end up knee deep in trash by the time I've unpacked an order. I keep a few of the nicer boxes, but everything else goes into the recycling bin.


Yes, it’s a scam. Only aluminum actually gets recycled. It’s time to tax plastic so companies start using paper products (even if they go to landfill, they will at least sequester carbon there) or aluminum.

Also glass and steel. Rare earth materials like batteries are very productively recycled. Paper recycling isn't awful either, but more of a wash than a win.

Really, it's thermoplastic disposables that are the real problem here. Those don't recycle (except some very specific items), and frankly never really did. The straw bans are just the tip of the iceberg here. We need to be talking about banning all plastic disposables.

Paper/cardboard can be quite worthwhile. This article [0] was discussed on HN not so long ago. And some plastics too (I used to work for a firm that sold its waste PVC).

The real discrepancy is between consumers and businesses recycling. Businesses can have a clean, unadulterated stream of waste, likely trivial for them to sort at scale. Most consumer recycling is useful for awareness at best and distraction at worst, like California shaming people into fixing their leaky taps during droughts when a billion times as much water is diverted to almond farming.

[0] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51420503

All consumer waste streams should be filtered for metals and then shoveled into a plasma gasifier. You’re not going to break even on the energy input (source renewables to cover anything above what you generate from burning the syngas byproduct), but you’re going to break everything down into something that be trivially landfilled or used as aggregate for asphalt repaving (slag) and burn the syngas for power.

Aren't there some waste materials you'd prefer to bury in the ground than oxidise and release into the atmosphere near a city? I don't know much about this but I suspect you're over-simplifying.

Gasification uses a plasma arc to break down the molecular bonds of the waste (molecular dissociation) versus incineration oxidation; it can be used for industrial and hazardous waste you’d want to avoid incinerating, and release of anything toxic is greatly reduced.

The link below has examples of two such facilities that operated successfully in Japan about two decades ago; one shut down because the Japanese improved their waste stream recycling, depriving the facility of the necessary feedstock to continue operations.


You nailed it.

In the last day or two the midwestern city I live in (Cincinnati) banned single use plasic bags, and a major manufacturer here (P&G) is very slowly working towards making some products slightly more recyclable/use less plastic. So there is a little bit of hope!

> a major manufacturer here (P&G) is very slowly working towards making some products slightly more recyclable/use less plastic

After decades of shrinkflation? (reducing the amount of product per package, so you need to buy more packages per year)

Are there alternatives for these use cases that can stand up to moisture? The ones I’m seeing around California do not.

What about biodegradable plastics?

Most "biodegradable" plastics aren't naturally biodegradable like compost. They need a special facility with high temperatures and other conditions.

“Also glass and steel”? Meaning they do not get recycled either?

No, they do. The grandparent pointed out that aluminum recycles well. I pointed out that there are other consumer recyclables that already work well. But plastics don't.


That's not true at all. The more valuable something is, the more likely it'll be recycled. Take cars for example. The entire frame is recycled. The motor oil gets recycled. The lead battery gets recycled.

Heck, Tesla's ex-CTO recognized the business potential for EV car batteries and started a company for it. There are plenty of hidden arbitrage opportunities out there for recycling.

For the past 50+ years, frames have been integrated with bodies on all cars and some trucks (unibody). The exterior shell of car bodies is a mix of materials, including plastic. The interior shell of body interiors contain very little that's recyclable without an ambitious amount of disassembly that would be very costly. I don't see car recycling happening until something like another world war makes it worth the effort.

The shells are crushed and shredded after economically separable discrete parts have been removed. Magnetic and eddy current separation is used to break out ferrous and non-ferrous metals from the shredded pieces. The plastic bits are as hard to recycle as any plastic, but most of the metal can be effectively recycled.

In the United States, more than 95% of the 10-15 million scrapped vehicles annually enter a comprehensive recycling infrastructure that includes auto parts recyclers/dismantlers, remanufacturers, and material recyclers (shredders). Today, over 75% of automotive materials, primarily the metals, are profitably recycled via (1) parts reuse and parts and components remanufacturing and (2) ultimately by the scrap processing (shredding) industry. The process by which the scrap processors recover metal scrap from automobiles involves shredding the obsolete automobile hulks, along with other obsolete metal-containing products (such as white goods, industrial scrap, and demolition debris), and recovering the metals from the shredded material. The single largest source of recycled ferrous scrap for the iron and steel industry is obsolete automobiles.

From Argonne National Laboratory report "End-of-Life Vehicle Recycling: State of the Art of Resource Recovery from Shredder Residue"


Putting plastic toys and bottles into landfill also sequesters carbon, more effectively than putting paper in the landfill.

(Only trivially more effectively in practice as paper in an anaerobic environment won’tbreak down to any material degree)

The plastics are made from carbon directly harvested from the ground (oil). Burying them is carbon neutral with respect to atmospheric carbon. The carbon in the paper comes from the atmosphere and burying it is therefore a carbon sink.

Producing plastic generates 5x the co2 contained in it.

How does paper compare?

I’d like to see some figures, but my understanding is that while paper production is highly polluting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_liquor) and consumes power in heating, transport and the like, plastic production is still worse on a carbon basis. But it’s @ thought calculation: for example you can truckload of plastic bags for less than it costs to transport a truckload of paper bags (and you can fit more plastic bags in said truck).

There are other externalities, such as the dangerous properties of loose used plastic bags as well.

My comment about sequestering carbon via burying toys was a joke.

I've seen between 2-3x as being papers co2 footprint but that excludes landuse changes. Transportation is a small amount of either's footprint.

Your comment about paper not breaking down in an anaerobic environment is incorrect. Like other organic material such as food scraps it gets broken down by bacteria and if there's no oxygen anaerobic ones which will produce methane.

The figure I've seen most often is between 2-3x. However, that doesn't take into account the huge variance if you consider land use changes, which depending on the land (say clearcutting Indonesian forest), could make it be over 10x.

They mention decreasing quality when recycling, but I wonder about less-chemical recycling opportunities.

For example, composite decking (Trex et al) combines sawdust and resin. It can be used for picnic tables and such. Road surfaces use ground tires now. Someone makes large nesting blocks for low-stress construction instead of concrete. PET can be made into fleece for garments, how about using it for insulation or other applications?

We should be embracing this stuff in new ways.


That fleece is one of the major sources of microplastics. By abrasion during wearing and washing.

Planet Money goes into this in a 2-parts series:


"It didn't get recycled because the system wasn't up to par," he says. "We hadn't invested in the ability to sort it and there hadn't been market signals that companies were willing to buy it, and both of those things exist today."

Don’t trust this guy, he is supposed to sell oil, recycling is in direct conflict with selling more oil.

There’s no reason we should fall for this twice.

Only 5% of the oil we consume is used for plastic production. I don't think shifting this one or two percent will affect anyone's profit significantly.

A friend - a chemical engineer - worked on a plastics recycling project years ago (90's)

They worked on recycling plastic, but the problem was:

- it was very expensive to clean the plastic

- even when the plastic was cleaned, it could only be mixed with virgin plastic at a very small ratio - single digit percentages

- even the small ratio would weaken the plastic considerably. Think laundry baskets which are flexible but break easily.

in the end I think they made giant logs for playgrounds out of the plastic.

He told me really the best idea was probably to burn the plastic cleanly.

It seems like it ought to be possible to 'refine' used plastics into a clean product. It just won't be as cheap as creating virgin plastic. But at a public policy level, who cares that recycling adds cost? So does NOT recycling, of course.

Burning the plastic will release CO2. Just bury it.

Wouldn't that just be the same, just a different timescale? And then there's the energy expenditure of burying it.

maybe there's a way to have your cake and eat it too. reuse it for fuel:


I wonder if sorting could be made feasible by mandating color-coding of different types of plastic? Like PET has to be clear, HDPE white, PP green, etc.? Marketers and package designers may not like it, but whatever.

The tiny little recycling symbols seem pretty useless, unless you force consumers to hand-sort their recyclables according to them.

> The tiny little recycling symbols seem pretty useless, unless you force consumers to hand-sort their recyclables according to them.

It gets worse: in King County, WA (Seattle metro area) where WM has most of the contracts we received leaflets from WM telling us to ignore the plastic recycling symbols entirely and to use only WM's "what we can / can't recycle" picture chart - which includes things I didn't think were recyclable (stained pizza boxes) and excludes things that I'd think were recyclable (plastic films).

...and the list varies within the county too: some cities' leaflets say not to put any pizza boxes in recycling (even completely clean ones). Aieeee.

Where I am, pizza boxes are put in the green bins (eg along with garden clippings) since they end up being composted and used in council landscaping tasks/sold etc. You can also put used tissues, paper towels, and so on in the green bin.

It's possible they just do this with all paper products in some areas.

If demand for recycled paper isn't high, it's easier to have some cities sort carefully for high-value recycling, and other cities mix in greasy paper/towels/tissue since it's all getting shredded into compost anyway.

I've been composting paper this year. It makes a good sub for peat moss (which is not very renewable!).

Plastic films can be recycled in theory, they just can't be put into sorting machines, as they tend to gum up the works.

If you had a big box of just PLA films, you could recycle it just like any other hunk of PLA, but getting to the big box of PLA films is not feasible.

Another issue with film is that its too lightweight to be worth the hassle.

The economics of recycling is that objects are paid per pound. 1lb of steel is pretty easy to collect. In contrast: 1lb of plastic film, even if its theoretically recyclable, is infeasible to sort and recycle with an economic profit.

Aluminum foil is another one: my local recycling does NOT accept Aluminum foil. Aluminum is one of the "best recycling" materials too, but foil is just too small and lightweight to be worth the hassle.

You can work around that somewhat by crumpling aluminum foil up and shoving it inside aluminum cans, although that might not be worth the hassle either.

Sardonic idea. Put the prison population to use. Let them sort it. No sorting? No food! kthxbaiii

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