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91% of plastic isn't recycled (2018) (nationalgeographic.com)
431 points by adrian_mrd 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 244 comments

The Plastic recycling process as a whole is an incredibly succesful cost externalization for the petro-chemical and packaging industries.

Governments and consumers need to get serious with these lobbies:

- Ban ALL single-use plastic (except for medical supplies).

- Heavily tax plastic packaging

- Tax breaks for glass and paper packaging

- Force plastic return deposit schemes at supermarkets _payed for by manufacturers_

- Define industry quotas for how much 'new' plastic is allowed to be made from crude and make companies bid for it in a "new plastic" market, this would enable buy in from petro-chemical businesses whose profit currently depends on volume.

Yes, product prices will increase but the reality is that the price is already there but is just currently hidden behind the recycling PR machine.

None of this requires ocean micro plastic cleaning tech, or plastic separating computer vision, it is purely political it is purely stopping this protectionism. It can change right now if people are outraged enough.

I’m not against these ideas but you do have to zoom out a bit to fully realize the impact of each alternative. It’s not as simple as replacing a “bad” one with a “good” one, because there are side effects.

(I haven’t added up the total impacts of every option either; this is just something to consider.)

For example, glass is much heavier than the plastic used for bottles. If you have trucks/etc. hauling millions of bottles around the world, it will take more energy to move glass bottles. Glass is also fragile so it’s possible there is more shipping material or more random losses affecting cost. So then the problem is not just how to replace plastic bottles with glass but how to offset the added environmental cost of transporting glass.

All the cost/energy benefits listed are exactly the type of short term business arguments that enabled companies like Coca-Cola to transition from glass bootles to producing 110 _billion_ PET bootles, every, single, year. [0]

There are a number of long-term costs not captured in these business decisions:

- The energy cost of recycling a PET bottle is much greater than producing a brand new one from crude oil. This creates the wrong kind of incentives for recycling

- Plastic degrades everytime it is recycled. Google plastic "downcycling". In an ideal circular economy old plastics would still have to be replaced with "new" crude oil plastic with additional energy and emissions costs.

- The cost of plastic collection and _sorting_ (which manufacturers aren't paying for)

- The environmental and disposal costs of unrecycled plastic, a PET bottle will take at least 450 years to fully decompose. [1]

- The Health costs of the calamity of micro-plastics contaminating our food supply and ground water. Simply google "plastic endocrine disruptors".

[0] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/02/coca-col...

[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/08/plast...

> Simply google "plastic endocrine disruptors"

I did, and found that the 1996 paper that helped launch the movement against endocrine disruptors, was retracted in 2001 because the data was made up.


(I'm not making any claim here about whether endocrine disruptors in our environment are a problem or not. Maybe they are. But I don't like to be told "just Google X" because that can be used to support any nonsense nowadays. Just give me a good reference and I'll try to figure out whether it's credible.)

Fair point, I assumed this to be a matter-of-fact but I add more info below.

Evidence on the health effects of Bisphenol and Pthalates (commonly used chemicals in plastics):

- Influence in hormone dependent types of cancer https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31471387/

- Influence in Cardiovascular disease https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32438096/

- Influence in Female and male fertility https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31238688/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32046352/

- Cofactor in Diabetes: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31286379/

I think I owe you an apology for my snarky comment. I shouldn't start fact checking before my first coffee in the morning...

I’m with you with your conclusions but not only you are not responding to OPs point about the complexity of cost calculations, you are adding further data that is irrelevant. “This is what Coca-Cola said” is not a valid rebuttal.

If you really want to recycle you can. In Switzerland 80% of PET bottle are collected and recycled (without deposit). This is paid by manufacturers and distributors who have to collect and pay for the recycling. Current bottles are composed of 50% of recycled PET, and some manufacturer are starting to introduce 100% bottle. Of course, to reach that result you need laws, you cannot expect the free market to do it.

Do you have a source to backup that statement? It is true that there are separate containers for PET in CH, problem the way I see it, is that people simply do not know which bottles are PET and throw in there all kinds of plastic. Sometimes, when I throw mine, I take 5 and watch what the others are throwing, essentially, if the bottle has this 3 arrows "recycle" sign, it goes in the PET basket, simple as that.

> hauling millions of bottles around the world

If it's a 1:1 transition from plastic bottle to glass bottle, it would be 35 billion bottles annually, in the US alone.

It wouldn't be. Forcing the producers to pay for their externalities will also make some products like bottled water cost-prohibitive to sell in glass bottles and reduce demand or increase packaging sizes to more is bought in reusable plastic carboys, etc. "Reduce" is more important than reuse or recycle and while there is an obvious need for cheap bottled water, probably at least 80% of plastic disposable water bottles do not need to be sold in that way.

But how much other economic activity are you limiting and what other products are affected? For example, what about plastic for prototyping and engineering use? Are you going to force products to use higher cost and higher impact materials like brass and aluminum?

The issue is I can't see any of these restrictions accurately reflecting cost. If they could these things would not be a concern.

Any of these suggestions that apply only within a national market are also ineffective, as by their very nature they are going to reduce economic activity in that nation... which will be picked up by someone else who doesn't care. The laws need to take this into account.

> Are you going to force products to use higher cost and higher impact materials like brass and aluminum?

The post above you didn't suggest using higher impact materials like brass and aluminum, they suggested making manufacturers pay for externalities which would be the case for plastics or metals.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. You could very easily end up incentivizing worse behavior by misjudging what the externalities actually are and their impact.

Do you remember how telephone fraud with blue boxes was prosecuted? The stolen time was judged at full sale value of the minutes. But this doesn't make any sense, as if the call could not be placed for free it would not have happened, and if no one else was in line to place a call there was not lost revenue.

It seems like people are trying to do this with e.g. unrecycled plastics. Recycling is expensive likely because it is not economically productive, not because people are freeloading. The bar for showing otherwise should be very high.

> For example, glass is much heavier than the plastic used for bottles. If you have trucks/etc. hauling millions of bottles around the world, it will take more energy to move glass bottles.

This is true, but it (mostly) not an externalized cost. By forcing environmental costs to be internalized by industry, the market should guide industry away from damaging the environment. Of course that would require honest, complete, and well enforced regulation.

Where I live the local government told us to stop putting glass in our recycling bin and to throw it out instead. The reason I’ve heard is that the glass is breaking and making it harder to recycle it or the things it contaminates.

This is unfortunate because I don’t think most people are taking their glass to the supermarket to be recycled and instead a highly recyclable good is ending up in a plastic garbage bag at the landfill.

Parts of lower mainland BC (Canada) are the same. For example, I can recycle glass in Vancouver, but Surrey stopped accepting it years ago because they changed recycling companies and the new one considers it a safety hazard for their works. Conversely, Surrey will recycle plastic bags, but in Vancouver you have to drop them off at the grocery store (only a few stores do this).

> hauling millions of bottles around the world

I haven't used a bottle of any sort for water for at least ten years. Not everyone has access to safe water, but billions do and billions more would if by not thinking we can fall back on bottles and therefore maintained cleaner water supplies.

We don't need alternatives for many things. Paper or plastic? Neither. I've shopped with the same bag since the 90s. Most beverages are marketing gimmicks we'd be happier, safer, and less polluting without -- same with most packaged food, children's toys, fast fashion, and so on.

Our sense of entitlement and disconnect with healthy living, nature, and how we used to live is killing us.

The folks at Tap (https://findtap.com/) are trying to make it easier to refill a water bottle while your out and about or traveling. It doesn’t solve the problem globally, but it’s great to see companies trying to reduce plastic waste and make it easy and free/cheap to access clean water.

Well, is it free or is it cheap?

The solution is called a water fountain and they should all be free.

In the end someone has to pay for it. Water fountains need maintenance and cleaning. I’ve seen quite a few public fountains I’d never drink from. Tap is interesting because it correctly aligns consumer incentives and maintenance costs.

Transport energy cost is a challenge. Luckily, that whole sector is moving towards using clean energy. So, it matters less as long as we clean that part of our economy up. Also, it perhaps incentivizes manufacturers to recycle and produce closer to consumers. That's the beauty of making this the manufacturers problem: they get to be creative finding solutions to these problems.

Germany already has deposits on things like soda cans, plastic bottles, and beer bottles. It works and isn't crippling the economy. Also the likes of Coca Cola are operating in Germany and turning a profit despite this. They face similar rules elsewhere in Europe. This is already part of their business today. A lot of the plastic bottles are ending up being recycled. Half the success is simply collecting them separately from normal waste so you get all the PET plastics sorted together. That makes that easier. Some of the bottles are actually cleaned and reused.

Simply making recycling a concern for the manufacturer is the key to getting businesses to compete on being more sustainable because it becomes their problem to solve. Single use plastics only make sense when you get to dump them for "free" without regard for cleaning up the mess.

IMHO the main challenges with plastics long term are ensuring the stuff either breaks down when dumped or does not end up in land fills and our oceans. Secondly, we are using oil for producing plastics and could long term be switching to synthesized carbohydrates produced using clean energy. This requires a lot of R&D to happen to scale this and do it more efficiently of course. But it would change things a lot. We'll need stupendous amounts of cheap energy for this. That's actually a good thing when the cheapest form of energy we make is increasingly from renewables. So, the more demand we have on that the faster the demise of dirty energy.

Is there any good reason we can't start putting damn near every liquid into huge aluminium (or tin?) cans?

It uses alot of power to smelt originally but it recycles forever with no degradation. Aluminium at least.

It's interesting that, at least in the UK, the beer industry is fine with glass bottles and metal cans.

Why is soda so special that it deserves special treatment?

The beer industry would love to use plastic bottles. But beer goes stale in plastic. Plastic is not good at keeping the oxygen out and the alcohol in. There are bottles with multiple layers in different types of plastic that work reasonably well, but they are more expensive than standard PET bottles, much harder to recycle than PET, and still not as good for storing beer as glass is.

> hauling millions of bottles around the world

How much of those bottles are single-use bottles for water? We can cut that portion entirely. 100%.

Either install filters (ideal) or use reusable 5-gal plastic bottles and water dispensers.

I'm not sure the choice is between shipping glass or plastic bottles long distances, but rather having the bottling plants closer or further from the consumption

Why keep shipping bottles around? Leave them where they are. Ship the liquid in tanker trucks and fill the bottles at the destination.

That is what happens.

The scale is just so immense.

Coca Cola, for instance, is produced and bottled in at least 68 separate plants in the US alone.

> The Plastic recycling process as a whole is an incredibly succesful cost externalization for the petro-chemical and packaging industries.

At the risk of sounding like an industry shill: why is it being characterized as an cost externalization by the petrochemical/packaging industries, rather than the consumers? I agree that any pollution generated during extraction and manufacture can be attributed as an externalize of the packaging/petrochemical industry, but why should they be on the hook after it leaves their hands? Consumers are using the said products, reaping the benefits (either in cheaper products or greater convenience), and pay for their disposal via tax dollars or fees. I guess you could argue that companies should be responsible for the entire lifecycle, but then it becomes a slippery slope. Is the automotive industry externalizing the cost of roads? Is the food industry externalizing the cost of sewer systems? Are electronics manufacturers externalizing the cost of electricity?

They lied about the recycling potential to encourage widespread adoption of plastics. I don’t think consumers are blameless, but you can’t get everyone in the world to change their purchasing behavior without regulation, which is necessary when lower prices are subsidized by huge externalities that have negative consequences for the world at large.

>huge externalities that have negative consequences for the world at large.

What are these negative consequences? The only ones I can think of are related to improper disposal (eg. littering), and would be present regardless of whether the material was recyclable or not. ie. if we replaced all the non-recyclable plastic bottles with 100% recyclable aluminum cans, the littering problem would still be there.

An idea is to get the companies to internalize these costs through a carbon tax which can be invested into climate change action (which is another story). At the moment, the consequence is that companies have zero incentive to act for the planet, so they will continue their behaviors.

Perhaps they pass some of these costs down to consumers which makes them less likely to purchase (and then litter) non-biodegradables. Or they can provide a cheaper good to avoid a carbon tax which encourages consumer to buy that alternative.

If the plastic is sequestered in a landfill, then what is the carbon externality?

Does decomposing plastic emit methane?

I think it's important to at least partially separate the issues of climate change from plastic pollution. For some reason these two have become entwined together in the public mind. We need to get a handle on plastic pollution, and yes, it's a product of the petrochemical industry so there is that, but it's not the same type or scale of problem as the emergency around tailpipe / smokestack CO2 or methane emissions.

I agree that just changing the material is not the solution. But it doesn't mean that the manufacturers get to skip their responsibility. In Finland we have to pay a considerable deposit by law (found in section 2: https://www.finlex.fi/en/laki/kaannokset/2013/en20130526.pdf) for every drink container you buy and you get the deposit back when you return them back to any store that has a returning machine (almost every single place you can buy those bottles). It seems that this is working very nicely, since the return rates are around 90% (https://www.palpa.fi/beverage-container-recycling/deposit-re...). Usually when drunk people are throwing beer cans to the streets, there's almost always someone picking up those cans for the deposit.

I'm not an expert, but I think the problem is that in the US, The industry would never allow that kind of decree to pass, since in this case "The manufacturers and importers of beverages fund return systems through different types of payments."

Forget recyclable aluminum cans, use refillable glass bottles with a meaningful deposit ($0.25 or more).

"They lied about the recycling potential to encourage widespread adoption of plastics."


Plastics are an absolutely incredible technology, to the point of revolutionary. They are used absolutely everywhere, in everything.

Nobody needed to be convinced of the utility of plastics, it's one of the most utilitarian things ever created.

So, they lied when they didn't even need to. Doesn't that make the lie that much worse?

They marketed their industry, just as every industry does.

They promoted something they understood to be a fiction because they knew it would offset reasonable concerns about their product. If you think that’s the core of marketing then we have very different ideas about what good marketing is.

Give this episode of planet money a listen: https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/912150085/waste-land

It discusses extensively the knowledge the petro chemical lobby knew about the ability to recycle plastic and how little could really be recycled.

> why should they be on the hook after it leaves their hands? Consumers are using the said products

Consumers aren't typically buying plastic packaging. They're buying whatever the plastic packaging contains.

When regular people buy plastic packaging and throw it away, then yes they are culpable (as in plastic bags and wrap for food storage, which I'll admit that I do use on occasion).

The rest of the time, it's not really the consumer's decision.

That's not correct.

I'd much rather buy a plastic bottle of water than a heavy glass one.

Water is/should be damn near free in any wealthy nation.

There shouldn’t even be a market for single-use water (not on the scale it exists in the USA anyway).

Water is essentially free. You are paying for the container.

Making the containers free will just drive up wastage.

Not free plastic bottles; free water (at fountains and suchlike).

We should be using reusable bottles and filling them on demand at public fountains, not running into the quickie mart and buying Evian 1/2 liter at a time.

Probably not if the product in a plastic bottle is much more expensive than the same thing in a glass bottle, right?

Were asbestos manufacturers externalizing the cost of asbestos? Are car, plane and ship manufacturers externalizing the cost of CO2? Are cigarette manufacturers externalizing the cost of cigarette butts?

The difference between your examples and examples like plastic and the ones above is that yours are a one time cost with little to no negative externalities - hell most of them have positive externalities. I would pay money for a sewer system and electricity (and do!) - whiles the ones like plastic, asbestos and CO2 have no positive externality to anyone, including the people consuming them and stick around for basically ever. We then need to pay to remove them sometime down the line if we want a livable world.

> Were asbestos manufacturers externalizing the cost of asbestos? Are car, plane and ship manufacturers externalizing the cost of CO2? Are cigarette manufacturers externalizing the cost of cigarette butts?

In the examples given I don't disagree there was externalites being produced, I only disagree with the characterization that it was caused by the manufacturers[1]. Taking some examples from wikipedia[2]:

* In the case of Water pollution, I would say the entity causing the externality is the chemical plant doing the polluting, not the chemical plant for the precursor chemicals

* In the case of spam, I would say the spammers are causing the externality, not the authors of SMTP clients

* In the case of noise pollution, I would say the construction workers are causing the externality, not the makers of the jackhammers

>The difference between your examples and examples like plastic and the ones above is that yours are a one time cost with little to no negative externalities - hell most of them have positive externalities.

And what about the road network that auto manufacturers depend upon? Sure, we still might need one even without cars, but would need orders of magnitude less (in terms of area). We, the tax payers and residents are paying for the road network in the form of dollars need to maintain it, and the various quality of life damages that arise from it (noise pollution, air pollution, unwalkable cities, etc.).

[1] literally the first sentence of my initial comment: "why is it being characterized as an cost externalization by the petrochemical/packaging industries, rather than the consumers"

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality#Negative

I might be in the minority, but I don't read you as being a shill. It's a reasonable framing of the problem, i.e., not as a problem of production but of disposal. We already have markets, taxes and subsidies around the waste disposal lifecycle. What if we simply left it to waste disposal firms to run?

I suspect there is criticism in two areas, one in that putting the costs on consumers is either unreasonable or impractical. I don't agree it's unreasonable, but concede that it may be politically undesirable. The other is that waste disposal firms are likely to continue to do harm in the form of dumping waste into oceans (or similar approaches), which I see as fair. I'd be in favor of pursuing disincentives to such practices.

All you have to do if you're looking for a "market" solution to this, is price in the externality somewhere. What portion of the externality the consumer and the producer end up being responsible for will ultimately be decided by the price of the product. As for why the externality should be recouped at the industry level, the accounting is just a lot less expensive there.

What externalizes? Most talk of the externalities assumes some quantity that exists somewhere, but without a good reason to believe they exist why should we?

A simple example is the current cost of recycling plastic: it's too expensive so it won't happen. Consequently putting these on the sheet as an externalities doesn't make sense Forcing it to happen is probably nonsensical, why not fund research into plastic recycling instead instead of deadening the economy through unintended consequences?

It seems you either don't know what an externality is, or you don't understand how plastic is an externality. In the second case, I literally cannot help you. Try to imagine yourself as a member of the ecosystem which is actively collapsing? The oxygen you are breathing isn't made in a lab.

The creation, purchase, and disposal of plastic has consequences for people that are not involved in that chain, and therefore have no ability to be compensated (or in the case where those consequences produce a societal benefit, compensate) in this transaction.

This is a very common market failure. Most "transactions" actually effect everybody. One of the roles of government (and I suspect there are some radical economists that would say the only role of government) is to measure these external costs of transactions, and tax or subsidize the transactions accordingly. Externalities represent an essentially infinite amount of market failure, and the heuristics that are employed for dealing with them are almost necessarily very crude.

In the case of bottles, we are saying "Hey, we estimate the environmental damage of one plastic bottle at %d, and we are charging you that amount to sell one".

What specifically, and how large (dollars / plastic item/unit) are these externalites? If you can't describe and quantify them then there isn't an argument for compensating (taxes, bans) against them.

[0] e.g. If I dump 100 PET soda bottles into the ocean how many humans would be inconvenienced, how many fish killed? My napkin math says essentially none of either.

Hol up.

Dumping those plastics in the ocean begins a cycle of creating microplastics. These plastic particles are being incorporated in food chains and the ramifications of this are not understood at this time, and may take some time to figure out.

Your napkin math says this? So it must be right then... Surely all that is required for such a decision on the scale of every human doing this every year is some napkin math.

Napkin math is better than your complete lack of anything that resembles a number.

No, it's not. Napkin math is utterly useless here, and I think you don't understand utility.

Ultimately, all utility functions (strategy space to R), when integrated over the rest of time, produce either a finite value, or an infinite value. Trying to figure out which, for a given strategy, is in general undecidable.

Numbers sort of break down at this point. Or at least numbers as linear constructs. Humanity lives in a dynamical system, and as long as that dynamical system is stable enough (eigenvalues all near 1), we know from observation that evolution (in the biological sense) is capable of maintaining the invariants required to sustain human life and civilization. I will call this the flight envelope of life on earth.

This is an extraordinary gift. If I can prove that Humanity's strategy preserves these invariants, I can count on evolution to extend our presence more or less indefinitely, at least up to the point where the sun runs out of hydrogen or we are struck by some very large celestial object.

The squandering of this gift, by failing to maintain these invariants, has a literally incalculable cost. If we voluntarily exit the flight envelope of life, it is impossible to tell what will happen as a result, but it won't be as good as whatever we can get by staying in it. So my back of the napkin math says that the correct price to place on disposal of plastic into the ocean is "don't". There is no world in which the marginal utility of 50 trillion plastic bottles is greater than staying in the flight envelope.

They don't last forever, the econonmy is not going to be in its current form for even a few hundred years, and if we're going with current methods the oil will run out too.

And you didn't even give a reason that plastic would kick us out of the flight envelope if we ignore those flaws in the argument.

So your very last line is true but you have done basically nothing to demonstrate that we have to choose between the two.

You don't understand. The invariant to be maintained is the (amount of plastic in the oceans). Failing to maintain that invariant is a bad idea SIMPLY because you are failing to maintain it. Increasing the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a bad idea even if we have no conception of global warming.

We're failing to maintain a million randomly selected invariants, though. "I can measure it" is a terrible motivating reason to keep something the same, and it would be impossible to maintain every invariant.

So instead we should look at actual harm and/or cleanup cost.

The irony of suggesting cleanup cost here, I just don't know. Cleaning up maintains the invariant. You have successfully put the intrinsic price tag on the externality. Well done.

Please don't deliberately interpret my comment to be the weakest form.

Looking at what it would cost to clean up doesn't have to mean actually cleaning. But let's remove that part, because the important part is to look at actual harm.

Especially because if you can't tell me the relationship between plastic levels and harm, and you can't tell me how much is too much, what if I decide we've already broken the invariant and there's no point in reducing any more?

I only suggested looking at cleanup cost to get a better understanding of how to handle the harm. Not because we have a magic list of which things must be cleaned up and which things don't need to be.

Because you'd need such a magic list. Otherwise how do we know that we don't need to blow up all our houses because they're violating an invariant, or something similarly crippling? What if Earth can only safely supply 10 million humans in the long term, for a fun possible invariant.

You cannot measure "actual" harm, because the system is dynamical.

You wanted a definition of externality, I gave it to you. There's a function that gives you the upper bound on the cost of an externality, which for lack of a better term, we can call the clean up function. This is the cost of returning the system to its original state.

You don't need a magic list, you need a way of demonstrating that certain actions are within the flight envelope of the environment, ie, there is some corrective force within the environment that maintains the invariant for you, and a policy of denying all actions that do not come with such a demonstration. The list can expand as scientific understanding expands, and we are allowed some leeway by the intrinsic stability of the system. If evolution could not absorb some unexpected perturbations, we wouldn't exist in the first place, but we should treat this as a finite resource, for which we do not have an amount.

Evidence that we don't do this at all is just you being in denial about the terribleness of the human strategy.

Imagine, for metaphor, that you are in some (solar powered) alien plane, and the pilot dies. You go into the cockpit, knowing that you just have to keep the plane flying. You make a mental note that all of the instruments on the panel are fixed, and the position of all of the controls. You decide that you want to fly faster so you fiddle around with the contrls until you can tell that the landscape is going underneath you faster than it was before. You note that some instrument on the panel is increasing. Do you A) ignore it, or B) return the controls to their original state?

If you can't measure it how do you know it exists? That is at least half of my point, the other half being you can't assume a specific course of action is necessary and proper without demonstrating the harm actually occurred. That you think harm might occur is not enough, you need to show it has occurred (and can probably use proof of past harm to show that inevitable harm will occur).

Your example is disingenuous because a cockpit instrument by definition monitors something you want to pay attention to. We can measure and record many things, most of which are probably irrelevant to many problems and their solutions.

Here is a recent Frontline on how the petro-chem industry fooled consumers: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/plastic-wars/. Advocates may be gearing up for a lawsuit, similar to what happened to the cigarette companies.

The industry and their advocacy groups reduced their costs by switching to packaging, proceeded to lie to consumers and government that all this new packaging was going to be easily recycled and not to worry.

I don't see where consumers are on the hook? We were told that plastic was better (e.g. the switch from paper bags to plastic).

As a comparison to electronics industry in many jurisdictions there are recycling fees paid at the time of purchase. Those fees are paid to recyclers to tear down equipment into raw materials to be re-used. The electronics industry didn't mislead anyway suggesting recycling could pay for itself nor add recycling symbols to suggest you could drop a TV in your blue recycle bin.

>I don't see where consumers are on the hook? We were told that plastic was better (e.g. the switch from paper bags to plastic).

No, that's just fraud. Externality has a very specific meaning: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality. In this case a third party isn't bearing the cost. It's still the consumer (via taxes or garbage disposal fees).

>As a comparison to electronics industry in many jurisdictions there are recycling fees paid at the time of purchase.

That's simply a different way of raising funds for waste disposal. I suspect it's not used for other forms of packaging because they don't require special handling, and therefore the cost is so marginal that it's not worth collecting.

The fraud was in denying the externality, which is on the environment in the form of massive amounts of material that can’t be recycled and which do not biodegrade.

>which is on the environment in the form of massive amounts of material that can’t be recycled

Why is that bad? It's not like we're running out of landfill space (at least in the US), and it's not like plastic in a landfill leeches chemicals into the drinking water or something.

> and which do not biodegrade

I don't think anyone was fooled into thinking that plastics were biodegradable.

>Why is that bad? It's not like we're running out of landfill space (at least in the US), and it's not like plastic in a landfill leeches chemicals into the drinking water or something.

Because it's not all going into landfills, it's ending up as litter and giant floating pallets of plastic in the middle of the ocean.

>I don't think anyone was fooled into thinking that plastics were biodegradable.

No, but metal, glass, and paper are all either recyclable or biodegradable or both.

If the goals are to cut fossil fuel consumption and/or dispersal of waste into the natural environment, it ain't that simple.

The best option by far is to not consume things. Don't buy stuff. That's working out really well for us, isn't it?

Next best in many places is single use followed by incineration for district heating and electricity.

Third, in many places, is single use with well managed collection and disposal to a well managed landfill.

When you dig into the numbers, things like reusable glass containers, cotton bags, and so on are harmful virtue signaling. Karens get to shame other people who harming the world less than the Karens are by a long way.

You surely have a source for this right?

Here's [0] a write-up from NPR, with links to several studies comparing the life cycle costs of plastic and alternative materials, and noting that from a climate change perspective, plastic comes out ahead in most analyses, but that plastic has much larger cleanup costs:

[0] https://www.npr.org/2019/07/09/735848489/plastic-has-a-big-c...

Dammit, I knew you would ask that.

I'll have to dig back through my paper notebooks going back over about 20 years. (My ex-wife was a virtue signaler, and I had started to be sceptical. I used a university library, but I don't live near a university any more.)

Probably there's a lot better research to be had now, refined! Updated! With 20% lower error bounds!

But I doubt very much the conclusions have changed, especially given the world's dependence on Chinese manufacturing and China's dependence on coal.

> - Ban ALL single-use plastic (except for medical supplies).

This is just naive and irrational.

What if I really need a single use plastic thingy because for example, it is a wire buckle, and making it multi-use would make it effectively expensive single-use wire buckle?

Banning ALL is rarely a good solution.

Just tax it and that's it. And it doesn't matter, if it's single use or multiple use, because eventually all of them end up in the garbage.

Separating worthy designs from wasteful ones is essentially impossible. I spent the first ten years of my career designing medical devices and worked with a wide range of suppliers. One of our key vendors also did a lot of work designing airtight containers for chewing tobacco.

This is true up the entire supply chain. The same machines that produce barrier plastics for first responders also produce material for plastic wrap for retail packaging.

Sure, you could hypothetically ban all the "frivolous" applications, but I don't think people fully understand how the R&D for silly things subsidizes, and cross pollinates life-saving innovations.

The real trade-off isn't plastics or landfills, it is landfills vs. modern oncology.

Banning stuff is rarely my preferred solution. My take on producer responsibility is that producers should be prepared to take their stuff BACK - meaning, if someone turns up at their headquarters (or some more reasonable location) with a dump truck full of, for example, empty coffee cups, they should be required to accept the delivery and find a way to dispose of it, paying for landfill if necessary, but hopefully something more constructive. I just want the cost of disposal to come straight back to them.

The coffee cup example is contrived, but let's say every producer of plastic zip ties was required to receive returned plastic zip ties each year, equal to the volume that they sold the previous year?

>Sure, you could hypothetically ban all the "frivolous" applications, but I don't think people fully understand how the R&D for silly things subsidizes, and cross pollinates life-saving innovations.

>The real trade-off isn't plastics or landfills, it is landfills vs. modern oncology.

That is a false dilemma. You might as well start adding uranium to baby powder because "Uranium Co spends so much money on cancer research the real trade off isn't uranium baby powder or regular baby powder, it's uranium baby powder or oncology".

I invite you to spend some time in a pediatric oncology unit, look at the mind-boggling variety of single-use plastics consumed over the course of the day, and research their manufacturers and origins. The results will be more illuminating than some dramatic hypothetical.

And? They would be using something else as packaging if not for plastics. People are resourceful like that.

Yeah, perhaps they can use catgut or something as a replacement for central lines. Waxed paper is well known to have the same antimicrobial attributes as hydrophobic plastics. All but for the greed of Exxon...

To scare and threaten people with a near collapse of the medical device industry, if packaging manufacturers aren't allowed to operate unregulated, sounds like borderline lobbyist desperation tactics.

I hope we as Humans are better than this.

> This is just naive and irrational.

Ignoring the unnecessary ad hominem, this is as irrational, as baning leaded fuel or asbestos. Plastic will be the defining geological remainder of our human epoch. We are physically destroying the planet and our own healthy for the sake of wire buckles. [0]

You claim this to be naive, yet this is the very proposal currently approved by 560 members of the EU parliament, in the new European Union Single-Use Plastics Directive 2019/904 [1] [2]

Arguably the original proposal was ridiculously watered down so that only a short list of single-use plastic products are banned (likely due to industry lobbying).

However, make no mistake, a ban is coming it is not a question of if but of when. The quicker the Coca-Cola's and Pepsico's and Nestlé's of the world wake up to this, the less they will hurt their bottom line with the overdue reckoning of consumer backlash and health related class suits.

[0] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/?term=Plastic+endocrine+disr...

[1] https://time.com/5560105/european-union-plastic-ban/

[2] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/LSU/?uri=uriserv:...

> this is as irrational, as baning leaded fuel or asbestos

It's apples to oranges. Nobody really needs leaded fuel or asbestos.

But single-use plastics has a lot of reasonable applications, like ones I gave above: multi-use things which are effectively single-use.

> You claim this to be naive, yet this is the very proposal currently approved by 560 members of the EU parliament, in the new European Union Single-Use Plastics Directive 2019/904

If MP were really smart people, we would already colonized Mars and other planets. They are just regular dudes who are pushed by voters, by industry and so on.

> However, make no mistake, a ban is coming it is not a question of if but of when

I'm certain of that. And that ban will do more harm then good. Like for example, people might start bying expensive multi-use things for single-use applications.

>- Ban ALL single-use plastic (except for medical supplies).

Direct bans for things so heavily used are going to have extreme unintended consequences. Are we willing to put that much immediate demand on things like tin and aluminum (cans, food cases, etc) that will drive up energy consumption and CO2 emissions? It's not clear that's a win for the environment.

A ban seems foolish. First you need to categorize things as "single-use" versus reusable, and people will argue about that distinction. Then, you need do deal with the inevitable unintended consequences from miscategorized items or bizarre alternatives companies choose to replace plastic.

A tax would be much more straightforward.

Tax just makes things more expensive, and is very slow to elicit change.

Taxing plastic bags while grocery shopping just makes your groceries a tiny bit more expensive. If you ban plastic shopping bags altogether they disappear overnight.

update: I agree that trying to define "single-use" is difficult, instead I think governments should just choose an item that has good alternatives and ban them.

My country banned single use supermarket bags, which they defined by the thickness of the material and whether they had cut-out handles. So a supermarket that used to charge 10c for one of those bags replaced them with 20c bags of slightly thicker plastic with attached handles. For me, the extra cost was negligible so I just bought the more expensive bags and threw them in the rubbish. They don't offer them anymore, for some reason.

Here in Australia the thin bags were free and people used to use _a lot_ of them. Now they sell bags that are thicker and re-usable, but a lot of people bring their own bags.

I read a study that suggested the total plastic usage has gone down, but not by as much as you would think.

I though they weren't banned for their amount of plastic usage, which was surely negligible compared to the packaging of the products people put in them, but for their tendency to blow away and end up in the environment. Thicker bags might not be so easily blown away so maybe it's OK if we all use them? I don't know really because nobody actually analyses this stuff - the decisions are made in response to public outrage.

You're just assuming that glass is better than plastic.

I challenge that assumption.

Glass is much heavier and bulkier (so a truck will carry less product, and burn more fuel and cause more road wear to do so), and more product will be lost to spoilage.

Glass also takes a lot of energy to produce. In many (most?) cases more fossil fuels will be consumed making a glass container than the plastic equivalent.

The same sorts of issues apply to coated paper or card containers.

Glass is also somewhat difficult to recycle. The actual recycling is easy, but different colors of glass needs to be sorted. And glass is heavy, so it’s costly to transport.

I think if you really wanted to go all in on glass recycling you'd have to ban everything except maybe 3 colors (Something like clear, a light green, and something quite dark).

This is good, because transportation costs can be easily accounted in the final price of the product. Paying higher costs make people more honest about how much they want to spend for the privilege of buying small bottles of a product.

Even this assumes that people will bother to even transport the heavier alternative. There are places in the world where goods just won't be available anymore. Doesn't affect me, but not every place on the planet gets to make choices like "just switch to glass".

> Define industry quotas for how much 'new' plastic is allowed to be made from crude and make companies bid for it in a "new plastic" market

If you implemented this one, all of your other goals would naturally fall out of the increased cost of plastic.

Where you give the free market conditions where it ends up doing the things you were thinking of 'requiring' it to do, you'll end up with a much more effective solution, because no set of laws or requirements is ever as comprehensive as the effect of millions of people in millions of roles trying to save a few bucks...

What happens if glass packaged goods are much more expensive to ship and prone to breakage thereby creating considerably CO2 exposure?

There are a zillion unforeseen externalizations in the mandates your listing - this is why centralization usually doesn't work very well.

Plastic is one of many materials that go in landfills, and we don't turn it into Co2 either so I'm not sure how we can go after that 'evil industry' and not others?

Probably a better solution would be to figure out how we can make use of that material afterwards - or - finding rational ways to dispose of it relatively cleanly.

Yes because decentralisation is working wonders here... Leave each self-interested agent to profit off externalities which they don't have to pay. We will have good quarterly reports for our shareholders all the way to extinction.

I am curious how this would work in Japan. Walking through a grocery store or a convenience store most tea and soda is in plastic. I suppose that could be glass but carrying home several litters of liquid is already heavy enough with out adding glass. (most people walk to the grocery story so they have to carry stuff home).

Most yogurt is in plastic. Putting that in ceramic or glass seems out or similar reasons.

All bread products are wrapped in plastic. There used to open bins in the "bakery" area but because of covid-19 every pastry, bagel, croissant, etc is not individually wrapped in plastic. All chips and crackers are in plastic. I'm not 100% sure they can be wrapped in paper given how humid it is. Maybe wax paper?

Milk is almost universally in cardboard though 80-90% have a plastic cap. I'm not sure that the cardboard isn't plastic coated though. It certainly feels like it is but maybe that's some kind of wax?

All meat is in styrofoam trays (plastic) wrapped in plastic. I don't know if they could wrap it in anything else as people want to see it before buying (paper is opaque) and having a butcher counter would be much slower having to wait in line for the butcher.

All cheese products are in plastic. Same as the butcher, I can imagine a cheese counter where they wrap the cheese in paper but no one wants to wait in line and plastic wrapped cheese lets me see the cheese.

Japanese pumpkin is often sold in quarters because a single pumpkin is too much for one. Those are wrapped in plastic. Not sure what else you could wrap them in and leave them on the counter for a day. I suppose you could require to people to buy whole pumpkins.

All tofu is sold in plastic.

I'm also not sure what to do for garbage. Japan, or at least my area, requires garbage to be put in vinyl bags. It arguably helps putting out a bunch of food stuffs to not just be open and lure for rats and bugs so I'm not sure what we could switch to there.

Well, there is definitely lots of room for improvement. At least in July they finally made stores require to charge for plastic bags and ask if you want one (not just auto charge you). I'm not sure how affective it is but it did manage to change my behavior. I carry a reusable bag now.

In South Australia (one of the eight states/territories in Australia), they have just banned many single use plastics [1]. The rules are a little delayed - coming in next year instead of now because of COVID - and are staged to include smaller items (straws) now and larger items (takeaway containers) later.

That state has had a ban on plastic bags since 2009, around ten years before some of the more populated eastern parts of Australia.

[1] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-09/sa-first-state-to-ban...

AGREE. Nothing worse that trash like those disposable stir-sticks that get maybe 20 seconds of use, yet will live in the ecosystem for thousands of years. Multiply that one tiny product by several orders of magnitude, daily, and we are burying ourselves in unusable cinders.

Yes yes yes. Saved for copying and pasting, and I'd like to subscribe to your newsletter.

I've been studying plastic waste for years as a member of the Surfrider Foundation, and right now I'm in a BBA program called Business and Sustainability, and my colleagues are having a really hard time getting past the idea that recycling+electric cars=sustainable.

At some point, won't it be cheaper to just bury it in a landfill away from any cities and drinking water? We can already afford to ship it to other countries, so why not ship it to the desert where there's unlimited capacity and it will never harm the environment?

> The Plastic recycling process as a whole is an incredibly succesful cost externalization for the petro-chemical and packaging industries.

Absolutely nailed it here.

The rest of your comment is not going to happen easily though...

These are ideas that could affect change but it has to be a process. We didn't get here overnight and we won't solve it overnight. It seems like slow adding and raising a plastic tax based on packaging containing any plastic would work. Consumers have to decide if they will continue to pay more and more for convenience year over year. This tax money is used to develop technology to recycle and breakdown plastics. Basically, you slowly pay the consumer to pay up for their laziness.

> we won't solve it overnight.

We are past and overdue on too many milestones in this planetary anthropogenic destruction.

The future of humanity cannot afford anything less than solving this overnight.

Some people will sit in Davos and ponder but the longer we waste time the longer we risk collapsing the world order that allows them to sit at Davos and ponder.

I think assessing and charging at the time of distribution, as best as can be estimated, the total cost of responsible disposal would be sufficient to align incentives, for both manufacturers and consumers. More waste means higher prices.

And fees so assessed should actually pay for disposal. Of everything. Discourage dumping and garbage burning by making waste collection "free" (in reality paid in advance at time of purchase).

Most glass and paper doesn't get recycled either. Recycling is broadly speaking nonexistent. Most ends up in the landfill or incinerated.

> Recycling is broadly speaking nonexistent.

Can you link to a source for that claim?



You know how they say the "cloud" is just some other guy's computer? Recycling can often be some other guy's landfill.

What about single use plastic for things like cleaning supplies? Why only medical?

I don’t shop at a grocery store, how will I return my plastic, glass or metal containers?

Is plastic so bad if it gets reused?

If we don’t make plastic what happens to that portion of the petrochemical supply chain? Are there other constructive uses or does it just get dumped into a river somewhere?

Might be interesting to see if we can get more reusable medical supplies in the future. Autoclave for sterility, replace smaller portions (like needles) to reduce waste. Plastic has its place for its characteristics, but if we can do the same and reuse at the same time, I'm all for it.

Single use plastics are a tiny fraction of our carbon footprint. They are also very convenient and make users’ lives better. It would be a strange place to start with severe regulation.

> Single use plastics are a tiny fraction of our carbon footprint

... And a Lion's share of the microplastic calamity contaminating our oceans, our ground water and our food supply.

Not everything is about CO2 emissions. With a single business decision, Humans have managed to contaminate the whole water cycle with micro-plastics all the way up to alpine glaciers. [0]

Single-use plastic is outstandingly great for seller's short-term direct costs, bad for almost everything else.

[0] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S02697...

How much of the microplastic contamination is from consumer goods packaging from western countries? The vast majority is from fishing nets and illegal dumping of household trash by developing countries.

We can never pressure other countries to do it unless we do it first.

In addition, regulating plastic means that for multi-national corporations the path of least resistance is to operate under the most restrictive standard instead of maintaining multiple packaging solutions.

You have no idea how consumer packaged goods supply chains work. And Chinese, Indian, and Nigerian policy makers are not going to care at all if we ban plastic soda bottles. And how high would this be on our list diplomatic priorities. Think about this for 4 seconds.

> You have no idea how consumer packaged goods supply chains work

I fully accept that. However I cannot accept that we leave the current status quo as is. We are very literally killing ourselves.

If you have other ideas or better approaches please share them so that they can be discussed.

I wonder, with all the material refined from extracted base material (be it oil for plastic or ore for alloys) .. how much could we live by simply reusing discarded lots (old cars in the case of metals, similar for plastics)

Are there any examples of taxing goods that solved an environmental issue? My feeling is that these taxes do nothing aside from increasing the cost of the goods.

Yeah, I wish we had a president who actually cared about this and made it a priority, instead of tweeting bullshit.


"Single-use" plastic is often used for a long time, longer than "eco" alternatives like paper bags that simply don't do the job well enough to be reused.

Glass and paper are horrible alternatives (for the environment) if not recycled properly (and they aren't, like plastic).

Glass and paper may cost more energy, but don't cause pollution. And when we have enough solar panels, energy will be free.

Removing all microplastics from nature will be a lot harder.

No, energy won't be free with "enough solar panels". There's this thing called night. And seasons. And transmission losses.

Paper grocery bags give off gas when they rot, whereas the (smaller) amount of energy in a plastic grocery bag is carbon locked in a controlled landfill. I think there’s a strong argument for plastic bags being more environmentally friendly.

I still don't get how bottled water became a thing. It wasn't a thing when I was a kid, and somehow the industry convinced us to buy huge quantities of an inferior product for more money, and it pollutes the environment to boot. Insane.

The least you can do is use a refillable container.

10+ years ago Google switched from bottle water to giving everyone a container. And that was a great move. Yet people complained, and a few years later we were back to bottled water.

What a waste.

It's really very simple to understand, even if you think it's wrong.

Soda, juice, etc. were sold in bottles which normalized it.

Then people wanted to be healthier and so putting water in a bottle at events/meetings felt like providing a healthy choice to people, directly next to the unhealthy choices. Plus the water in small bottles could be kept cold in ice more easily. Also sparkling water already needed to be in bottles, so it seems even more natural to have still water next to it in the same way too.

People in some parts of the country also realized the bottled water tasted better than their local highly chlorinated tap water. (Other parts of the country there's no difference.)

The industry didn't even have to convince anyone. It's genuinely consumer-led.

And refillable containers have their own disadvantages. It's not always easy to lug one around the office as you juggle your laptop and documents and phone, or you forget it in another conference room, etc. It's easy to keep in a backpack, but people aren't usually lugging their backpack to every meeting or to the cafeteria.

I'm not defending single-use water bottles... but sometimes I do wonder if all the materials+energy spent on refillable bottles has actually turned into a huge net loss, as so many of them go unused, lost or thrown out long before they'd achieve a net positive.

> The industry didn't even have to convince anyone. It's genuinely consumer-led.

And yet they spent millions doing just that when research showed that people had no interest in buying it:


A thought exercise: Sugary bottled drinks are even worse for the environment. They not only have the same bottles and water involved but they also have other ingredients that add even more environmental consequences. They have public health consequences too.

But of course to ban sugary drinks would cut into the realm of personal choice right? After all people may choose to want a sugary beverage. So no one argues that case.

Still it's weird to draw the line at bottled water and not further along. I used to live near a council area (Manly City Council) that banned bottled water. It meant you could only buy sugary drinks at the local corner store. Go to the beach and forget your water bottle? You better like Coca-Cola because that's all they'll sell you!

I'm not opposed to encouraging people to use a re-usable container. But i am opposed to a ban on something that's far better than the alternatives that remain unbanned.

> Go to the beach and forget your water bottle? You better like Coca-Cola because that's all they'll sell you!

Your comment reveals your age. The parent and myself are old enough to remember a time when you could go to numerous public places and drink from a water fountain.

It also showcases just how far we've fallen as a society and have settled to create profit seeking solutions at the expense of what is best for society.

Part of that "fall of society" has been the fact that people don't always trust their fellow citizens to upkeep the sanitation of public facilities. I can think of plenty of places where, even if they had a public fountain, I wouldn't touch it. It's not always some great capitalist conspiracy.


The better ban would be to ban drinks sold in single use containers.

> ban sugary drinks would cut into the realm of personal choice right?

if you're talking about environmental effects then its no longer a personal choice issue.

Soft drinks, booze, etc. are really harmful, but at least they have a value add that makes shipping them around coherent. Bottled water is a different matter.

Obviously we should be discouraging the use of soda and alcohol and such.

Drink water out of the tap like a civilized person.

I had people visiting from Greece, Poland and Spain asking me if my tap water (Berlin) was safe to drink. You don't have to go to uncivilized parts of the world to get bad tap water.

There are different levels of "safe".

For example, in London it's "safe" to drink tap water, it does not contain toxic checmicals of bacteria, but it is calcium rich, and drinking it constantly may be harmful for kidneys.

That's what water softeners are for.

Unfortunately public taps/fountains seem to be far more rare than drink vending machines in this world of ours.

It's literally convenience trumping everything. For example, for gatherings (back when we were able to have those), you could either bring a big jug of water and a bunch of solo cups, a case of bottled water, or, the eco-friendly option, a jug of water and just assume everyone else will have a reusable water bottle (e.g. Nalgene). The easiest option there is the bottled water option.

This can only be solved by shifting from the "wish upon a star that all consumers will somehow solve the problem themselves" strategy to putting the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the people profiting from putting municipal water in single-use plastic bottles.

I am fregan for environmental reasons, among others. I get much of my food out of dumpsters. I don't buy any clothes, like, ever, only hand-me-downs. I don't ride in a car unless it's already going that way.

Several years ago, I paid a couple hundred bucks to get my municipal water (large U.S. city) tested in a lab.

After seeing the results, I almost never drink tap water, and I buy a gallon of spring water (in clear plastic) on most days for my own use.

The system in (rural) Thailand works quite well. The locals don't drink the tap water but get it in large 20L or so reusable plastic containers. There's a deposit of like $70c and a refill is like $20c from the local store.

Why not use a water filter and glassware? That's what I've done at home for 15+ years.

I think many workplaces also have filtered water, including every place of worked at (although not everyone uses it).

The "water cooler" was a really good solution!

I’m not the parent comment, but many undesirable things are not caught by the common carbon water filters.

Specifically it does very little for bacteria, viruses, and other organic compounds.

Indeed, sibling comment is correct in that, unless you invest in a serious filter, it won't filter out much except sediment.

Is bottled water better? I remember a TV report long ago specifically saying it's worse in that regard.

Anyway, I've been drinking filtered tap for 15+ years all over the United States -- never had a problem and tastes great.

Not always. You have to do your research and pick and choose.

TV won't give you any useful information.

Would you care to share what the results were?

Also, many things are made with tap water, and I avoid those too.

> I still don't get how bottled water became a thing

Many reasons. Mostly distrust on how potable the water actually is (events like Flint didn't help). Some locations have water that tastes bad - even if it should be otherwise healthy.

What I don't understand is how small bottles became a thing. Sure, if you are out and about it might be convenient to carry some, as they are sealed containers. But some people buy them for normal consumption.

At least use the big bottles that are supposed to be used with watercoolers. Those are actually reused.

People are bad decision agents. Selling bottled water to Americans is like selling snow to eskimos, but we buy it in droves because advertising fuckin works and works well. They make a few dollars off of every person in the country to contribute nothing, but that's just how capitalism works. The only way to win is to start making your own water bottles and market them harder!! (btw the planet is still screwed doing this, but you'll be rich!)

Since no one comments on the precise content of the article, I'll do it.

First of all, it's mostly based on a paper "published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances". Unfortunately, there is no link to the article. The exact title is not even given. The date is unclear since the magazine published this in 2017 and updated some (undetermined) content in 2018. Most links are dead (home page of the lead author, web site of an association about statistics).

The basis is scientific, but this National Geographic article is not. For instance, the title is misleading: "91% of plastic isn't recycled" means "an estimated 91% of all the plastic ever produced has not been recycled as of today (2017)". Another dubious sentence is: "79 percent is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter." Since 12% were incinerated and 9% recycled, it assumes that the rest (100-12-9) is just garbage. I suppose the reality is that a large proportion of the plastics produced is still used.

They mention that 40% of plastics are for packaging. According to PlasticsEurope, 20% for construction, 10% for vehicles. People often focus on packaging and forget the variety of plastics and their usages.

What surprised me was that the USA were so bad at recycling (9%) while Europe and Asia were far better (30% and 25%). I had read that some American soda producers were mostly using recycled PET, so I wondered if there was a contradiction. I've just read more about it, and these companies recycle in many countries but not much in the USA because there is no large-scale infrastructure to do so. The lack of national leadership means it can only exist locally, with varying quality and lack of long term committing. Even when the recycling exists, consumers in the USA do not behave as well as they do in Netherland, so the recycled PET is more costly with a lower quality.

>What surprised me was that the USA were so bad at recycling

No, you can thank the coca cola corporation for that. They have lobbied millions, along with the groceries associations to prevent things like bottle deposits to make recycling more common. Google it, plenty of information out there on the topic.

There is an excellent Planet Money podcast about this from NPR [1]

[1] https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/912150085/waste-land

This is for glass recycling not plastic, but I recently found out that my county ships all of their glass recyclables to be dumped in a landfill of a neighboring state. In my state, waste disposal companies are legally obligated to recycle everything they can that ends up in a recycling bin. But with glass it's actually vastly cheaper to produce new glass bottles than it is to make them out of recycled material. So there isn't a market for the waste management companies to even sell the product they legally have to produce. To get around this regulation they just ship their recycled glass to a state without this regulation, and dump it all in a landfill there.

It seems like the only way to make recycling truly effective at a large scale is to make it economically viable, either through the creating of new recycling techniques that make using recycled materials the cheapest option, or through subsidies to artificially produce the same effect.

>It seems like the only way to make recycling truly effective at a large scale is to make it economically viable

I think it's easier and less corruptible to have the goal be to reduce the consumption causing the waste and attack the problem at the root. I.e. a tax increasing the cost of everything to reflect the cost of properly disposing it.

Recycling doesn't undo the environmental damage, and in many cases it takes huge amounts of energy to recycle causing even more damage.

Doesn't this hurt the poor while enabling the rich to continue being wasteful.

It solves the problem of excess consumption by humans as a whole. If this creates a new problem, such as allowing some humans consume disproportionately more than others, then that can be solved separately. The easiest and least corruptible solution that comes to mind there is wealth redistribution.

Doesn't this hurt the poor while enabling the rich to continue being wasteful.


In Massachusetts the last glass recycling plant closed a couple years ago. The main problem glass bottle demand was down and the plant making the bottles closed ( beer being more popular in cans is cited as a cause)


They've been using the ground glass as aggregate in roads..

You are 100% correct in that there needs to be economic incentive.

I remember finding out 15 years ago that the moderately progressive well-known "university town" where I lived at the time (Southeastern U.S.) didn't actually recycle anything, they just buried the plastic stuff and the clear vs colored glass in different sections of the landfill, so that it'd be easier to dig it up one day when recycling was actually economically viable. The recycling lie isn't new.

If the cost of recycling was added in as a tax on the material, that could be effective as well. Then the market could decide which materials are truly cost effective.

I believe you can also use glass in concrete and asphalt (although we just talked about how nasty asphalt is). I think I heard brown glass can use mixed color feedstock, but other uses for commingled glass should also help with the logistics of recycling it. Especially since multiple consumers should decrease shipping distances.

Glass is about the most harmless thing you could put in a landfill. Right down there with naturally occurring rocks. What environmental problem are they causing by burying it?

At least the glass is inert.

At some point in the future landfills will be on par with gold mines, and only then will we see how truly wasteful we have been.

Here, specifically about glass, are some of the reasons the US fails at this, while Europe just does it.


Basically the lack of sensible policy.

PENN & TELLER: BULLSHIT S02EP05 Recycling https://www.bitchute.com/video/j0Hd6UfA4MKo/ Yes its old but not much has changed.

And here's their equally scientifically accurate take on climate change from the same time period.


Big fan of both Penn and Teller but libertarian bullshit is still bullshit and they proved that even smart people fall for it if they hang in the wrong circles too much.

Did we watch the same video?

"Every tingly spidey sense, every sniff, every whiff, smells like global warming—which they now call climate change, in case they want to go the other way and say it's colder—but it just reeks of fuckin' bullshit to me. And yet, in good conscience, we can't really come out and say it's bullshit, because there isn't enough information to really refute it completely. And there is some information that it might be real.

So—the high-dea is not to go with your gut, the idea is to go with your head, and our heads can't say that global warming is complete and utter bullshit. So we're doing—again, this is like our third show that's kind of sort of on global warming—we're kind of picking out one area that we're sure is bullshit, and that is the carbon credits, the spending money so that your guilt goes away. Buying a forgiveness."

I see proper intellectual restraint about the science, and criticism of one particular policy proposal.

No you don't.

Just replace climate change with another established scientific fact that you actually agree with, like the earth being a globe perhaps, and you'll see what you sound like to people outside your bubble.

> "Every tingly spidey sense, every sniff, every whiff, smells like global earth—which they now call non-flat earth, in case they want to go the other way and say it's a pyramid or banana-shape—but it just reeks of fuckin' bullshit to me.

> And yet, in good conscience, we can't really come out and say it's bullshit, because there isn't enough information to really refute it completely. And there is some information that it might be real.

> So—the high-dea is not to go with your gut, the idea is to go with your head, and our heads can't say that the spherical earth is complete and utter bullshit. So we're doing—again, this is like our third show that's kind of sort of on global shape—we're kind of picking out one area that we're sure is bullshit, and that is the funding for satellites, which would only make sense if the earth was a globe. What a waste of money. Millions down the drain!

Says a lot about Libertarian ideas that the one thing they attack is using market mechanisms to address the problem. Clearly principles get trumped by fossil fuel funding.

I would actually have serious respect for someone who is in such an intellectually impoverished environment that they think the world is flat, yet they have the intellectual humility to say they're not totally sure.

The video doesn't actually say what Penn's objections to carbon credits are. Googling a bit, Wiki's episode summary for "Being Green" says: "Attacks the concept of carbon credits as a method of profiting off guilt, and compares them to indulgences"—well, is he wrong? I also see comments indicating that he says Al Gore buys carbon credits from a company he owns, which sounds at least like an "appearance of impropriety" which Gore maybe should have avoided.

> Clearly principles get trumped by fossil fuel funding.

Do you really think Penn got funding from fossil fuel companies and ... The steelman is that fossil fuel companies have paid unscrupulous individuals in think tanks that libertarians subscribe to, to write mendacious reports that libertarians believe. That's possible. I wonder if any other group has been fooled by mendacious reports.

I wonder what the best strategy is for defeating mendacious reports in general. Perhaps encouraging everyone engaged in a scientific debate to be as scrupulously honest and precise as they can be—and to recognize dishonest tactics. A failure mode in that is seeing dishonest tactics where none exist, so perhaps one can (encourage everyone to) adopt practices that make it easier for everyone to tell the difference. Things like publishing all raw data, preregistering experiments, and offering rewards for neutral parties to reproduce an experiment, seem helpful.

Admitting that they where wrong on some parts isn't exactly bad. Also doesn't affect the countless other topics they covered from which almost all are still BS today. Could they have been wrong on recycling? Yes, they could but there is no evidence that they where wrong.

They've also done a 180 on veganism and animal activism.

Threads about recycling have started to pile up just like the recycling has. A list of the major ones is below (but only with "recycl" in the title—if you find more, let me know!)

Given the current picture, perhaps most interesting in retrospect is this 1996 article (which apparently set a record for hate mail) and its follow-up from 2015:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9757853 Recycling is Garbage (1996) (55 comments) - https://archive.is/JKG7y

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10327585 The Reign of Recycling (34 comments) - https://archive.is/o8LBm


2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24454067 Oil Companies Touted Recycling to Sell More Plastic (232 comments)

2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24441979 How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled (310 comments)

2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24440516 Pringles tube tries to wake from 'recycling nightmare' (394 comments)

2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23040674 Plastics pile up as coronavirus hits Asia recyclers (19 comments)

2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22927072 'Horrible hybrids': the plastic products that give recyclers nightmares (40 comments)

2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22741635 Industry spent millions selling recycling, to sell more plastic (105 comments)

2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22467015 Coke and Pepsi are getting sued for lying about recycling (170 comments)

2020 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22318165 Is Recycling a Waste of Time? (94 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21837414 Recycling Rethink: What to Do with Trash Now China Won’t Take It (152 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21742196 The Great Recycling Con [video] (77 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21303618 How Coca-Cola Undermines Plastic Recycling Efforts (132 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21297639 All plastic waste could be recycled into new plastic: researchers (150 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21102560 We asked three companies to recycle plastic and only one did (64 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21043986 Exposing the Myth of Plastic Recycling (17 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20762789 Plastics: What's Recyclable, What Becomes Trash and Why (215 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20728911 Smart plastic incineration posited as solution to global recycling crisis (84 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20726689 'Plastic recycling is a myth': what really happens to your rubbish (63 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20549804 Americans' plastic recycling is dumped in landfills (282 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20433851 Landfill is underrated and recycling overrated (336 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20134641 I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle (15 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19889365 Why Recycling Doesn't Work (216 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19844551 Reycling Plastic from the Inside Out (46 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19799348 Bikes, bowling balls, and the balancing act that is modern recycling (2015) (35 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19728391 Just 10% of U.S. plastic gets recycled. A new kind of plastic could change that (116 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19483074 America Finally Admits Recycling Doesn’t Work (35 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19399543 The World's Recycling Is in Chaos. Here's What Has to Happen (25 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19346342 What Happens Now That China Won't Take U.S. Recycling (219 comments)

2019 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18893252 The Era of Easy Recycling May Be Coming to an End (84 comments)

2018 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17841584 Recycling in the United States is in serious trouble. How does it work? (94 comments)

2018 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17677698 Trash piles up in US as China closes door to recycling (272 comments)

2018 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17495872 Californians love to recycle, but it's no longer doing any good (14 comments)

2018 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17409152 Plastic recycling is a problem consumers can't solve (441 comments)

2018 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16856246 An enzyme that digests plastic could boost recycling (122 comments)

2018 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16174719 Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling (71 comments)

2017 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15888827 Recycling Chaos in U.S. As China Bans 'Foreign Waste' (233 comments)

2017 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15528740 China Bans Foreign Waste – What Will Happen to the World's Recycling? (63 comments)

2016 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11083898 Is it time to rethink recycling? (147 comments)

2015 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10327585 The Reign of Recycling (34 comments)

2015 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9757853 Recycling is Garbage (1996) (55 comments)

2014 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7778956 Is Recycling Worth It? (13 comments)

2010 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1186666 Recycling is Bullshit; Make Nov. 15 Zero Waste Day, not America Recycles Day (18 comments)

2009 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=937097 The Recycling Myth (36 comments)

Very useful, I'm favoriting this to use for future discussions :-) Thanks!

Method started out as a stealthily eco-friendly company, and when they first introduced refills for their products they did not make the container recyclable but did a big defense of that.

They claimed recycling of plastic loses a large fraction of the input as waste, and recyclables/recycled materials have to be bulkier. They could make a very thin nonrecyclable package that had less plastic than the unrecoverable fraction of a recyclable alternative, and reduce shipping costs/footprint in the process. So sometimes less of a bad thing is better than more of a mediocre thing.

They have since marked that packaging as recyclable, so I don’t know whether they found a workaround or are participating in the recycling mythos now.

As I have said before the solution is compostable plastic. It solves the problem with the smallest net change in behavior of the affected parties.

As we have regrettably seen with the coronavirus changing the behavior of large populations is incredibly difficult even if there are dire repercussions for failure to change.

The cost of compostable plastic is slightly higher than the usual plastic, so the governments will have to enforce its use, but it will be a small price to pay for removing the externalities of dealing with actual plastic waste.

I disagree. The solution is burning plastic for energy.

You get to use the oil from the ground twice: Once as plastic, and again for energy. It's a win/win since you reduce oil you burn and get rid of plastic waste.

5 times more CO2 is emitted during manufacture of conventional plastic than is in the plastic, whereas for compostable plastic its more like 2.

While it's better than burning oil for energy, that's still a loss for carbon emissions, though. And you still need fresh oil to produce more plastic.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, but this is not the end game. The end game is either:

~ 100 % reduction in plastic use.

~ 100 % recycled plastic

Those two goals are not mutually exclusive either. Yes, it might cost a lot of energy to recycle plastic. As long as that energy comes from a clean source, it shouldn't matter much.

Obviously, only the first goal reduces the amount of plastic in the ocean, soil, rivers, etc. I am hopeful that bacteria will develop that can ingest plastic, which would both get us rid of the waste, and limit plastic usefulness, but it can't really be counted on in the short term. And plastic waste has a mostly local, short-term effect. Carbon dioxide has a long-term, global effect. So I'd prefer it to be buried until it can be recycled.

Until we completely stop burning oil, it's always more worth it (environmentally) to burn plastic, vs recycle it.

Once there is no oil burned, and it's all used for plastic, then it makes sense to implement your plan. But not until then.

Have you ever burned ordinary plastic? The smell is horrific, there are some truly nasty poisons being released.

Furthermore, compostable plastics will solve the biggest problem of plastic pollution -- the a-hole that just tosses plastic garbage in the ground because he/she doesn't give a damn. Compostable plastics compost much faster in proper municipal/industrial composting facilities, so it is still important to throw the stuff away in compost bins and to have regular pickup service, but they will compost in the environment too. Thus, there is some defense against the morons that just litter.

In other words, compostable plastics fail better than all the other choices.

> Have you ever burned ordinary plastic? The smell is horrific, there are some truly nasty poisons being released.

Only if you don't use enough oxygen. Except for PVC plastic does not have any bad atoms in it, if fully burned the exhaust is completely safe (it's just water and CO2).

A proper, hot, incinerator will burn plastic very safely.

Why bother with compostable plastics if we can just bury the plastics in a landfill and forget about them? The volume of plastics is insignificant, the only problem is plastics that don't end up in landfills but in oceans instead.

A lot of "compostable" plastic isn't compostable, at least not under the circumstances that most people consider to be composting... e.g. you can't put it in your backyard scrap pile and expect it to be gone in a few months. It'll still be there years later. One industry rep told me that they estimate their products take 30 years to completely breakdown and that's under perfectly ideal conditions -- bury it in a landfill with no oxygen, who knows how long it'll take. I guess that's better than 1,000 years... but still, it's basically another industry lie.

Fitting, I just started looking into reusing plastic myself by collecting plastic from my own, family and friends trash and remoulding it into something useful. In my quest for this, I found Precious Plastic, an amazing community around recycling plastics yourself and for your community. https://preciousplastic.com/

While individuals plastic pollution is not the biggest emitter of plastic here in the world, we can always take small steps towards making sure we don't throw as much plastic as we currently do.

This is REALLY cool.

How can I meet people around me who have already setup a collection point, a community point, or a machine shop?

Do you have an onboarding guide for beginners who are looking for low-effort ways to explore what you are doing?

I don't want to give the impression I'm part of the Precious Plastic Community (yet at least) as I'm only playing around.

However, here are some resources for getting started locally:

- Map of all the workshops registered on PP - https://community.preciousplastic.com/map

- Events that are being organized all around the world - https://community.preciousplastic.com/events

- Onboarding guide, read from top to bottom, includes some videos as well, great for getting started - https://community.preciousplastic.com/academy/intro

- And the most helpful, PPs Discord community, tons of channels and even more people, usually very responsive and very diverse - https://discordapp.com/invite/cGZ5hKP

What kinds of things do you mold it into?

I've only run smaller experiments so far, mostly focusing around storage containers as I have a lot of electronic stuff that is currently just laying around. You can get some more inspiration here of what you could mould: https://bazar.preciousplastic.com/moulds/

But in general, anything you've seen in the real world would be possible to recreate with your own moulds, the limit is your imagination!

People are so into recycling, but I fail to see how I can make a difference by recycling. It just seems like the problem is too massive at this point.

Don't let plastic recycling get you down, recycling aluminum is a great way to help the environment. Paper and cardboard are also good. Glass is just ok. Reduce your consumption where possible, and make sure that non-recycleable materials make it to a landfill where the environmental impacts are contained. Our individual efforts have a small impact, but it's a small effort and it does matter.

While there are some uses for recycled plastics, I fear that we'll likely continue to see a lot of single-use plastics until some economic force makes plastic unprofitable. Maybe public anger drives new regulation, maybe we use up all the oil, maybe we ween off of oil and it's too expensive to pump oil just to make plastics. In any case, I think we need to embrace some short and medium term solutions to mitigate environmental damage from single-use plastic.

Maybe if there was a simple setup to convert recyclable plastic into 3D-printing filament?

What is the difference you are trying to make? If it is the depletion of resources and/or polluting to world, recycling is much, much less important than reducing consumption. One less airline trip per year, one less weekend road trip. Do you eat out? The amount of hidden waste in restaurant meals would amaze most people. Reduce the amount of meat you eat. Stay healthy so that you don't use the medical system.

Your instinct is right that recycling does not help much. It is more of a ritual to allow people to consume guilt free than an effective way toward a less polluted world.

Not buying plastic is a better solution. But is that realistic for you right now? If everyone thinks the same thing you do, and gives up without trying, then we never start solving the massive problem. Instead if everyone recycles, then we begin the process of keeping the problem from growing even larger than it already is.

I do think you raise a great point that it's a little silly to put this on the shoulders of individual consumers, and let the corporations off the hook. This is a problem that does need to be addressed with policy, and companies shouldn't be allowed to continue polluting this planet with no consequences. I don't know how what the solution should look like, but this is a specific example of where free markets can fail us - the costs of producing all this unnecessary packaging was externalized starting 60 years ago, and is now starting to catch up with us. Because the delay between market forces and outcomes can be a century, we need to be more careful about just letting things run wild.

>Instead if everyone recycles, then we begin the process of keeping the problem from growing even larger than it already is.

Or you give people an excuse to consume more because now they can feel good about their consumption. Recycling does not solve any problems, as the revelations of the past decade have shown. Reducing consumption is the only solution, and recycling was the excuse sold to the public to keep the consumption music going.

Well, this is a good point, plastic recycling isn't working well at all, and this article demonstrates what you're saying.

I would say that paper recycling has been working, it's plastic recycling that isn't currently working. I would also say that it's not that plastic recycling can't work, it's just that it hasn't been working.

I am curious why it's not working. Would mandatory recycling help? Is it the recycling services cheating, taking money to recycle but throwing it away instead? Is the issue public mistrust of municipal water? I do suspect there are ways to make a much bigger dent than we have by better understanding what's happening.

Anyway, all that said, I tend to agree with you that recycling is being used ironically as a way to continue consumption and avoid responsibility rather than start the real work of reducing plastic production.

Yeah I don't know. I'm a little torn, I don't want to give up all hope on plastic recycling, but I think you're right, we probably need amputation more than stitches.

>I am curious why it's not working

Problem number one is expecting people to put forth the time and effort into sorting all of their recyclables. The whole situation is so complicated and rules so difficult to enforce, I don't see how it can be considered a feasible solution.

The vastly easier, far more high impact solution is to reduce consumption.

Is sorting really the biggest problem? Are there studies that back this up? (Asking honestly; I'd love to read them if they exist). Some countries not named the United States are pretty good counter-examples, where the public is generally very good about sorting.

I've personally watched people ignore recycling signs on purpose, or get flustered by multiple bins because they've never seen more than one, but ultimately I just don't buy the argument that this takes extra time or effort, I'm convinced that is a mental block or resistance to change and not a real physical problem. It's like saying I can't be bothered to figure out where my dirty dishes go, and I can't understand the difference between the trash bin and dishwasher and cupboards, so I'm going to throw everything away. My neighbors are perfectly fine with putting yard waste in a separate bin, zero people screw that up.

If sorting is the biggest impediment to recycling, then I think that we have hope of fixing recycling and maybe reducing consumption at the same time. Sorting is the easiest problem to fix of all. It'll be easier to get people to understand sorting than it will be to get people to understand that municipal water is cleaner, cheaper and easier than their favorite bottled water brand.

I'm with you about reducing consumption being the best option. I'm not sure about easy, but no question it'll be the highest impact.

Here's a good op-ed from the CEO of Recology explaining the issue:


This site has some good links:


> recent Greenpeace report found that some PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastic bottles are the only types of plastic that are truly recyclable in the U.S. today; and yet only 29 percent of PET bottles are collected for recycling, and of this, only 21 percent of the bottles are actually made into recycled materials due to contamination.

>China used to accept plastics #3 through #7, which were mostly burned for fuel. Today #3 – #7 plastics may be collected in the U.S., but they are not actually recycled; they usually end up incinerated, buried in landfills or exported. In fact Greenpeace is asking companies such as Nestle, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever that label their products made with #3 -#7 plastics as "recyclable" to stop or it will file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for mislabeling.

On my street, people put out 2 bins, one for recycling, and one for non recyclable trash. We put all our recycling in one bin, paper, plastic, metal, etc, and everything else in the trash that you don't think is recyclable. And no one is checking which number plastic is placed in the bin. I assume it all goes to landfill.

> Recycling does not solve any problems, as the revelations of the past decade have shown.


> Reducing consumption is the only solution

Reducing waste is the important part, which may or may not involve reducing consumption.

Better waste management is also an alternative solution.

I don't believe the technology in waste management can exist in a reasonable timeframe to be able to address the damage done by consumption. Namely, one of the biggest problems in waste management, carbon emissions from fossil fuels, simply has no solution other than reducing consumption of fossil fuels.

And consumption of everything increases consumption of fossil fuels since basically everything requires energy to move mass from one place to another.

This is the drop in the oceans. If people start to buy low single use plastic intensity products, the producers will start to reduce and it starts the pump for changes.

Usually just buying less helps a lot.

I feel like you have it backwards here. Consumers aren't the ones deciding how much plastic is in what. For example, I didn't decide that my new pair of scissors should come in large, impossible to open blister packaging. I didn't decide that my grocery store should only sell milk in large plastic jugs. And that's just going by the packaging I can see. Who knows how much disposable packaging is used throughout the production process.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't try to reduce the amount of plastic you use. But the end consumer wasn't responsible for the huge rise of plastic products, and there's only so much they can do to fix it.

How can the problem seem too massive to you but invisible to me? Could to explain the problem and quantify why you believe it's a massive problem?

Germany has some recycling plants with modern sorting machines, almost entirely automated, it’s quite impressive to see it working.


I was checking for details a few days ago, they announce on their website 53% of their input recycled, and 47% used for “energy recovery” (which is newspeak to say they burn it for the cement and steel industry).

I was surprised by the fact that they burn so much but 47% is apparently considered very good.

Burning plastic in a modern (read: clean) incinerator is probably the best thing to do with it at this point. It's certainly better than burying it in a landfill. Of course, it would be better to just not make it in the first place.

Yes, that’s what I read. It still feels dirty and counter intuitive IMHO, but I get that by doing so they can avoid using even more fossil fuel.

Regarding the German system, they could really improve the percentage of recycled plastic trash by using more explicit bins, you currently have one single yellow bin for anything recyclable instead of one for PET, one or aluminum, etc. Because of this it is always a bit difficult to know what is supposed to go or not in the bin, and people just put everything they think is plastic.

Listen to the latest episode of Planet Money.


This. Most plastics can't be recycled; it was a PR play by the plastic industry decades ago. Using plastics for such things as medical devices and such makes complete sense to me. Using plastics for items which inherently are only used for a few minutes or an hour (see the F&B industry) makes no sense at all to me.

"Using plastics for items which inherently are only used for a few minutes or an hour"

Of course it makes sense. Plastic is cheap, light, watertight, strong, and mallable.

It's kind of a miracle material, except that it's too stable. If we had a version that decomposed in a year, it would be awesome.

A quickly decomposing plastic wouldn't be awesome either as it would add all the carbon extracted from fossil sources into the short term carbon cycle more quickly.

Compostable "plastics", e.g. PLA, which sometimes is corn-based, exist; in California I've seen compostable disposable silverware, as well as compostable decorative planters (I own two, holding up good after three years, which makes me wonder how compostable they really are). But compostable "plastics" do exist, at least in some markets.

Surely the companies that print the symbol and "Please recycle!" on non-recyclable plastic wouldn't label non-compostable silverware as compostable...

I've successfully run "compostable" plastic through the dishwasher several times and haven't seen any sign of decay. The county I live in offers composting service and begs people to please not put "compostable" plastic in it.

There are a few companies claiming progress in chemical recycling. eg.:

https://quantafuel.com/ | https://newsweb.oslobors.no/message/513575

80% (by weight) recovery into high quality liquids (eg.: nafta). They claim the majority of the energy used by the process comes from the remaining 20%.

The acceptable input is mostly PP and PE, the two most commonly used plastics (at least for packaging). A special catalysator is used to remove additives like chlorine.

I pretty much stopped using my recycling bins... except for aluminum.

Steel, unbroken glass bottles, and clean paper/cardboard are actually recycled at most municipal recycling centers as well.

but is it worth it, energy wise (or for any other reason)?

I don't get why this comment is downvoted. This is the only reasonable thing to do from the energy standpoint.

My idea is that retailers should have to pay for the collection and recycling of any waste created by the products they sell. Thus creating an insensitive to retailers to stock products with cheap collection and easy recyclability.

I knew that plastic recycling were not as big but I did not know it was 91%.

I started looking up stuff like this: https://leapsmag.com/plastic-eating-mushrooms-let-you-have-y...

I mean, if the corporate community won't do what they say, then I'm going to look for a practical way to do this locally, onsite.

Plastic shouldn't be recycled. It should be burned. It's a compact store of energy, and that energy can be recovered and used, even if plastic cannot be easily reused as a material.

Waste handling should focus on making plastics cleanly combustible and keeping problematic materials (like, toxic heavy metals) from being mixed with them in the waste stream.

I don't really understand why recycling plastic is not viable. I feel like this is more of a problem with ideology than actual process.

For example, I buy these "Green Toys" products that are supposedly made from recycled plastic and I love it. I have no idea why this recycled plastic is not used in other kid's toys, kitchenware, or random things like garden tools. This recycled plastic is tough, it doesn't decay in the sun like regular plastic. I would pay more for it!

I have actually tried looking for more items made from recycled plastic and it just doesn't exist.

My conclusion is that people don't like the way it looks, because it's very rough and the color is different, so there is no market for it. Most people probably prefer to buy the cheaper, "nicer" looking plastic.

Recycling plastic is difficult because despite being labeled as PE, PET, PP, PS, ... most plastics [0] are customized by additives that change the material properties (in the simplest case the color)[1]. Recently I saw an imprint on the tub of a washing machine that read "PP-K40". Searching for it revealed that this is polypropylene (not surprising) but 40% of the mass of the material is added calcium carbonate filler (very unexpected)!

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic#Common_plastics

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic#Fillers

>I don't really understand why recycling plastic is not viable. I feel like this is more of a problem with ideology than actual process. [...] Anyways, if someone smarter than me tells me the economics doesn't work, I will believe them, but until then I am skeptical of the idea that we can't properly recycle plastic.

This comment is baffling. In the beginning you think it's an ideological issue. Later on you acknowledge that cost might be an issue, but then you move to goal posts from "plastic is not viable" to "we can't properly recycle plastic". Cost is absolutely the main issue here, not that it's "not possible". Even if recycled plastic is substandard compared to virgin plastic, most consumers can be convinced of otherwise if it's sufficiently cheap enough.

You're probably right. My comment was confusing so I edited it to make it more coherent. I struggle with writing, so I appreciate the feedback to improve it.

However, regarding your comment

> In the beginning you think it's an ideological issue. Later on you acknowledge that cost might be an issue

I don't see these as contradictory. Ideology affects what people are willing to spend. As someone who cares about the environment I don't mind spending more on recycled plastic to reduce waste. Most of my peers would not spend a cent more if they don't have to.

>I don't see these as contradictory. Ideology affects what people are willing to spend. As someone who cares about the environment I don't mind spending more on recycled plastic to reduce waste. Most of my peers would not spend a cent more if they don't have to.

I disagree with this characterization. Photovoltaic technology in the 70s were insanely expensive and clearly not economical compared to the alternatives. There were some environmental enthusiasts who would use it despite the economic issues, but I wouldn't characterize the lack of adoption in photovoltaic technology as being an "ideological problem"

In a large part it has to do with the logistics. For simplicity: Oil is used for plastic, the specific kind of oil is siphoned off and processed in bulk for plastic.

If you want to recapture plastic and recycle. You’d need to get plastic, separate it, reprocess (more expensive in most cases), then you could mold again (often at a slight loss of input, I.e. there will be waste).

This makes recycling plastic (today) multiple times more expensive to produce the same good. No one would want to spend double the current price on a soda.

The packaging for a bottle of soda wouldn't double the cost. Soda was distributed in glass bottles which cost more to transport, yet prices weren't nuts back in the day. Most of the cost of soda is sugar. The markup on soda (whether sold in containers or from a fountain) is astronomical.

They've been trying and failing since the 1980's.

It's a lie from the plastics industry. If they increase their costs in order to cover recycling, plastic is no longer viable as a solution for many things it's used for. We're talking about a huge industry, one which is very closely connected to another one resisting change successfully for over half a century: fossil fuels.

As dang put it: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24485399 :-))

Have you noticed they’re more expensive than other plastic toys? “Recycled” plastic toys aren’t much different from other types of “green” marketing - they’re charging for a slightly premium product but the market is niche: upper middle class people who care about the environment and aren’t super price conscious.

The recently popular NPR article on the same subject[1] mentioned a few reasons why the economics doesn't work, at a high level of detail. Overall I believe it's because there are so many different kinds of plastic and they all need to be recycled differently, and mainly just that producing new plastic is just so cheap and easy by comparison.

Hopefully with better processes and technical innovations that will change soon.

[1]: https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-...

The vast majority of things people think of as recyclable are actually not.

The result is an endless stream of trash in the recycling stream which makes the actual recyclables worthless.

Honest question for the great minds who hang out here but; why don't we 'harvest' the landfills?



They should start making yoga pants from recycled plastic, if they don't already.

It is deeply ironic that many people who advocate for better plastic consumption, probably own yoga pants, which are made of plastic. Kind of off topic, but, my point is it is more than just Coca-Cola driving the plastics industry.

If someone was to Elon Musk the shi* out of this problem, what would they build or do differently?

My gut is that it would focus on plastic identification automation, but not positive.

They did. The plastics industry sinked millions in campaigns to convince the people plastics are reclyclable. The only thing missing from being a true Musk move is that they came up with it themselves, instead of buying off the idea from someone else.

You know that's not what I meant.

Let's chat again when you've executed and launched five unique revolutionary companies.

Executed is not a synonym of "bought". And arguably, none of them is revolucionary. With a cool $1bn in the bank, you bet I could do better, such as investing in tech that solves real problems instead of 3rd cathegory sci-fi adaptations.

Maybe not the most environment-friendly solution, but plastic waste can be depolymerized into crude oil. No idea about the economics though.

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