Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Recycling was a lie to sell more plastic, recycling industry veteran says (cbc.ca)
1008 points by vivekd 14 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 415 comments

Something I watched and read about last year was that injection molding of plastic can be done only when one third or less of the pellets are recycled. If there is too much recycled material in the mix it doesn't flow into the mold correctly and one third is the most you could possibly use and then that product can not be recycled again. The polymers that make up the plastic simply aren't capable of reforming over and over.

Given that plastic at best gets 1.3 uses, the initial one and then a third of that material can go into a recycled container. That is it. When you compare that to the thousands of reuses of glass bottles we used to do for milk it is really apparent how awful the plastic process is, its barely better than just throw away. This also ignores the fact that huge amounts of the plastic used isn't actually recyclable at all.

The triple whammy to all this is that all over the planet people have been cleaning their plastics with hot water, drying and then separating it into different rubbish bags with separate collections and additional bins etc. All for a giant lie about recycling that was never true. We have wasted substantial energy and time on something that never worked and helped destroy the environment even more because of it.

Paper recycling is much in the same vein.

It requires a lot of harsh chemicals to remove the inks. The output paper is substandard. The whole process is energy intensive.

And, the messed up part about the whole thing is that throwing away paper is one of the best things you can do for the environment. It is natural carbon sequestration.

We are far better off tree farming for paper.

My understanding is that, at least in NYC, the paper is pretty much all turned into pizza boxes.

Which are brown. You don't have to worry about the inks or "substandard" or whatever". And then the pizza boxes aren't re-recycled because of grease.

You suggest we stick to trees instead of recycle, "for paper". But the whole point of recycling is to turn paper into pizza boxes (and presumably also our Amazon shipping boxes, etc.).

It sounds like you're trying to argue against recycling paper... when the reality is it's a huge success, when you realize paper is recycled into cardboard.

The OP is alluding to the fact that growing forests, cutting them down, and then burying the resulting paper should use less energy then recycling and produce less toxic waste products due to fewer chemicals. Such activity has a strong possibility of being a carbon negative process.

It may be better for the environment to sustainably harvest trees to produce cardboard then to recycle other paper products.

This works conceptually if you are sustainably replanting forests to feed your paper mill. In reality, your mileage may very and here in Canada, plenty of paper mills are still running off of irreplaceable primary forest.

Please learn how to use the words than/then correctly...

Pizza boxes?

A lot of paper is coated in clays, waxes, or plastics, and many inks might make paper unsuitable for use in food grade products like pizza boxes, without heavy processing.

Shipping boxes, maybe. If the structural properties of the resulting board are OK.

But most post-consumer paper is unusable for one reason or another. Recycling of industrial packaging is a slightly different story.

Are New York pizza boxes food grade? Most New York pizza isn't even food grade.

Maybe not that .99c-a-slice garbage but there are some damn good pies to be had here in NYC for sure! Lucali, Totonno's, Joe's... some of the best you will ever have.

Some books and newspapers are printed on 100% recycled paper. If recycled paper is only used for pizza boxes in the US, that's a US thing.

Newspapers are almost entirely waste, by volume of paper. Creating waste to receive low quality recycling is accounting nonsense.

And lest this sound myopic! At least in Portland, the pizza boxes can be put into composting bins, including the plant-waste bins that we put out next to garbage bins.

So the paper does, eventually, go to the landfill and become sequestered in the typical fashion.

How much carbon does feeding the pizza boxes to the composting process release into the air, as a percentage of total carbon present in the pizza boxes at rest (ignoring construction costs)?

I’ve only just started doing this - but my understanding is that the lids go into compost. The bottoms shouldn’t because the grease turns to a yuck sludge in compost bins.

Do you mean compost collection bins, or home composting bins?

If you live in an area that collects material for industrial composting you should 100% put the grease coated parts of the cardboard in your compost collection bin.

Yes sorry I’m talking about home composting.

It varies by area. Here's the guidelines for Portland [0]; it seems that "Home" "FOOD SCRAPS" bins may have pizza boxes in them, as long as wax paper and other inserts are removed. Incidentally, mentally traversing the pizzerias I go to, I think that the only inserts that any of them add are pizza savers [1].

[0] https://www.portland.gov/bps/garbage-recycling/compost-what-...

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

I think the point is that, by recycling, one has to use energy to transport used paper, process paper using machinery, store it, use chemicals which are pollutants themselves, etc. All this instead of just throwing out the paper.

Garbage isn't "just" thrown out, it also has to be transported and stored. We'd still want to sort efficiently recyclable aluminum out of the garbage before it's sent to landfill, so ideally there would be some processing as well.

If you're replacing your paper with paper from trees, you have to do all that anyway (transport, processing, storage, chemicals), and on top of that you have all the energy of getting the raw materials in the first place.

I'm not too sure on the details of how that is done, but I imagine it involves driving huge trucks into forests, cutting trees with machines, stripping and cutting the trees, and transporting wood to industrial areas.

It has to be more CO2 efficient to recycle.

It's not like production of paper from pulp wood involves butterflies and popsicles:


(the first ingredient is hot lye!)

In general, paper recycling is productive enough that paper mills buy recycled paper as an input. Cardboard even more so.

There is more than one form of pollution. This is like complaining about aicd from an Uranium mine. True but hardly the biggest issue.

Yes, that was my point "It requires a lot of harsh chemicals to remove the inks."

Virgin inputs also requires harsh chemicals, there's no advantage.

We’d be better off burning our trash at peaker power plants when the sun isn’t shining, the wind isn’t blowing...etc.

It’s not quite that simple. A garbage incinerator is not something you can turn on and off according to when you need the energy. It has to be kept going continuously, since it takes a long time for it to get up to the temperature required for efficient and clean combustion. There are similar problems with shutting down.

I dont think its enough to matter, but if it was, some places incinerate trash so its still released as carbon dioxide. Wouldn't it rot in a landfill and end up as methane or something?

Good question, I believe it depends on the landfill?

Bacteria probably need the right conditions to efficiently break down materials, cellulose is quite tough.

Some landfills capture the released methane and burn it (to avoid atmospheric pollution), which seems like a decent solution (even more with power generation). Some of the material will remain undecomposed (or take a really long time) so it is a net carbon sink. I think this depends on properly sealing landfills and arranging extraction infrastructure.

Seems like a good resource:


Another idea would be to curb methane generation or decomposition somehow. Apparently aerobic decomposition reduces or prevents the release of methane:


Burning trash directly is also an alternative I guess, though one I'm not very comfortable with due to trace elements contained in everyday items -- surely some mercury and heavy metals will sneak into residues? (and then into the atmosphere and our lungs)

Another reason compact fluorescent bulbs were a mistake.

There's more mercury released into the environment from incandescent bulbs than CFLs -- or there was, when incandescents were still common and so were coal-fired power plants, and the Obama-era regulation of mercury emissions from power plants hadn't come into force.

Now, of course, we have LEDs in place of CFLs, and coal burning power generation is on the way out, so it's all moot.

Is that comparison true on a socket for socket basis? Low adoption of CFL shouldn't excuse any poor pollution characteristics.

The idea was to get an efficiency law passed and now we have a huge move to LED bulbs as a result. So, no, it wasn't a mistake, the CFLs were a stepping stone.

Exactly. My favorite environmental slogan is “bury the trees”.

I was always a fan of "Nuke the whales" myself.

Bury the trees is good. Carbon sequestration and all that, as long as you replant them.

Talking about paper recycling, we must distinguish papers. Like office prints and newspapers are easier to recycle but like pizza box and random food wrapping is difficult (uses more resources) so firing is better.

All human actions have resource costs, trees and paper need absurd amounts of water, specially given that companies use pines and eucalyptus as base material for paper pulp production both species are always starving for water

The reality is that the system requires pigovian taxation to internalize their natural externalized costs, capitalism and specifically our modern version of neoclassical neoliberalism loves to socialize loses and privatize profits, we need public action against that

If you wanna hear my angle, I'd go for making Senates and congresses across the world secret, secret ballots, secret voting and secret deliverations and debates

If you wanna know as to why read on James DAngelo's Toxic Transparency Paradox, his congressional investigations on the systemic benefits of secrecy can be found on http://www.congressionalresearch.org/

Trees (grown for wood fiber) pretty much aren't irrigated. I'm sure there's exceptions, but not on a significant amount of land used for fiber production.

My experience with this comes mainly from Uruguay, Argentinian and specifically Chilean pine and eucalyptus forests used to make wood pulp, which are causing quite serious issues with water management, less so in Uruguay as it is a wetter country, but south of Chile has seen quite the protests over this issue as some of these specific type of trees (Eucalyptus) simply drain the land too much as they evolved for a different environment

Even without addressing the majority of the substance that the parent comment is trying to portray, there should be one major takeaway:

Unregulated markets don't work, except in the way that cancer works to propagate itself before its host dies. They're not self-balancing ecosystems. After all, they're comprised of people.

Completely managed and controlled markets similarly don't work, and for largely the same reasons. After all, they're comprised of people.

Humanity has a unique knack for at least these two things: 1) constructing games, 2) cheating those games it has created for itself to play.

It's no longer enough to hedge against the risks of idealized perfectly spherical and rational actors bouncing about. We have to begin to take into account our own complexity and how we subvert the rules we lay out for ourselves.

Can I interest you in incentive-compatible mechanism design and implementation theory? They are well-established economy fields and do work that you proposed.

The idea we can regulate bad systems into being good is just dumb

We knew asbestos was bad since the 1890s and it wasnt regulated until 1967, lead was known to be bad since the mid 1800s while lead paint wasnt banned until 1978 and leaded gas wasnt banned until 2000, lead paint and pipes are still plentiful across the US. Cigarettes were known to be harmful since the 1890s, and the government didnt do anything about it until 1964.

Regulation can be successful, but at best its slow and incremental, and in the long term corporations will weaken and subvert them. Just having a system which incentivizes good behavior in the first place would be better than trying to regulate bad systems

Regulations are inherently a system that incentivizes good behavior. That's their entire purpose!

Regulations are an attempt to correct for bad incentives.

The idea that you cant is precisely the defeatist attitude some of your industrial overlords were hoping for.

what they really dont want is for us to consider alternative systems

Yea its easy to say that and then you end up with Love Canal and quack doctors injecting people with bleach to cure their cancer. People do things. Laws and morals stop them from doing bad things. Pray your country doesnt have many people no morals.

> relegate the lobbyists to the lobby – giving them no access to markup sessions and no access to committee votes

These are some hot takes, but somewhat surprisingly they check out. Will read more.

Yeah, yeah

D'Angelo goes further and interviews law professors on this issue, and they all not only seem perplexed at first, but agree with him later, and the caveat, is that US Law as it is taught from an orthodox angle, is only really taught after the 1970's or so, and don't really cover how legislation used to be done before it, so law students would naturally assume that "things always were the same way" when it came to how transparency was handled!

Here are some of the talks he has had with Law professors


And some other snippets in general


By now I am convinced that this is the missing piece, that accounts for not only the split between worker-productivity and wages, but everything else since the 1970's, this transparency revolution, with the Toxic Transparency Paradox aftermath is what set the course to where we are today with legislative gridlock, polarization, increases in wealth inequality, oligarchic corporatism etc

I am curious why can't you make single use plastic manufacturers an illegal business. Nobody would use plastic bags if there weren't any one willing to make them

Reusing syringes probably isn’t the best idea, but for most uses, sure.

The main problem to me is that disposing of plastic is always an externality to the companies who produce and market it. Make them pay the recycling or disposal costs up front, and I’d be happy.

>I am curious why can't you make single use plastic manufacturers an illegal business

For a bunch of the same reasons you can't "just" make alcohol illegal or outlaw internal combustion engines.

Virgin plastic is objectively better for some applications. recycled plastic can be good enough for some uses, but you can't do a blanket ban without even more harm

> In recent years, it has been possible to make PET bottles from 100% recycled plastic which are qualitatively just as good as bottles made from so-called virgin plastic. [1]

Check your facts [2]:

> Greenpeace says plastic bottle recycling rates are ‘stalled’ at around just 59% in the UK.

> Danone brand evian is introducing 100% rPET bottles to the UK this week; the latest in a series of recycled plastic commitments from PepsiCo’s Naked Smoothies, Nestlé’s Buxton bottled water, and Coca-Cola GB.

> This week Coca-Cola Great Britain announced that all plastic bottles in its core brand portfolio – including Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite and Oasis – are made with 50% recycled plastic. This equates to removing more than 21,000 tonnes of virgin plastic, according to Coca-Cola.

> “One of the key challenges the industry currently faces is that there isn’t enough food-grade recycled plastic locally available in the UK to switch to 100% rPET across our entire range,”

I have at least one product

> Frosch packaging is 100% recycled plastic [3]

[1] https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/2018/02/pet-bottles...

[2] https://www.beveragedaily.com/Article/2020/09/24/The-journey...

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frosch

PET being a 100% recyclable outlier and much of plastics use being inherently unrecyclable aren't necessarily contradictory.

Open questions would be: how much use can be replaced with recyclable variants on the application side? (perhaps some use cases are not doable with PET?) How much use can be replaced on the supply side? (can only a fraction of the crude extracted from the ground enter that PET cycle or does a percentage of the extracted mass have to become other kinds of plastics that are inherently unrecyclable?)

And as long as any of those questions stay answered "not all" and we are still burning some of the extracted crude for energy: how much efficiency does that energy conversion lose when the crude takes a detour as un-recyclable plastics application between getting extracted from the ground and ending up in the atmosphere after burning? If that efficiency loss is small, un-recyclable plastics use can be environmentally cheap if it happens within the envelope of unavoidable energy use and vice versa.

(edit: mis-posted before)

I've responded to food grade plastics. As I'm trying to stick to Reduce Reuse Recycle, I choose PET and stay away from PP. And we need good HDPE recycling.

There are also ABS, PVC and many others — construction, textiles, shoes, asphalt, consumer goods. But they are not sold as recyclable.

EDIT: can we incinerate trash instead of burning oil? It is a controversial topic.

Would it produce less CO2 than glass? Assuming green energy no, but in such case we could sequence carbon from air. Would it require less energy than recycling? I don't think so.

Many plastics used in construction tend to have much longer lifespans (years to decades) so their recycleability, whilst it shouldn't be dismissed, is a less immediate concern.

E.g., I'm adding PVC cable and pipe ducting in various areas of my house, and am using polycarbonate discs as spacers for shelf uprights on an uneven wall. Both will stay in situ at least until I move (which I have no plans to do at present).

When I get 35 kg bags of sand and gravel, I keep the bags and reuse them for years now. They are almost worth the price of their contents.

This is called Waste Valorization and is common in Europe. The idea is to run efficicent incinerators (with good filters on emissions to catch various nasty things we don't want in the air/soil/water and use the energy for heating purposes.

I was just wondering if it is possible to just vaporize the matter and absorb/recycle the pollutants and toxic part and release the rest to the atmosphere. And I saw your post :)

> EDIT: can we incinerate trash instead of burning oil? It is a controversial topic.

In many parts of the world even the question of incinerating trash instead of coal is still meaningful and that one should be far less controversial.

Looks like incinerator may leak toxins [1]. It is possible to construct modern incinerator that should not leak [2]. So Europe can afford it, can "many parts of the world"?

Still questions remain

* Should we mark it as clean energy?

* Should we subsidy it? Or should we subsidy recycling?

[1] https://www.no-burn.org/europewasteburning/

[2] https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/03/copenhagen-trash-...

I really wonder whether this is a US thing. Don't they separate waste? Don't they recycle their trash? To me, some of the other comments (that were posted a few hours earlier) read as if they were from the 1990s.

The US had a big push toward single-stream recycling, where everything is thrown in one bin, and the recycling facility sorts it out.

It's been something of a disaster, because of the way it's changed how individuals "recycle". The bins are frequently full of contaminated and non-recyclable materials that the facility's equipment is incapable of sorting back out. Since it's all commingled in the collection truck, one person who's sloppy about how they recycle can spoil not only their own recycling efforts, but those of their neighbors as well. In my own neighborhood, the recycle bins are frequently full of things like greasy pizza boxes, single-use paper cups, EPS, even yard waste and broken (particleboard) furniture.

Chicago's current program is an illustrative example. After the city introduced it, the percentage of waste Chicagoans placed in the recycle bins roughly doubled, while the percentage of Chicago's waste that actually gets recycled was halved.

Another issue is the bins themselves. They give 0 indication what is acceptable or not. That varies widely on who picks up your garbage. The second part is china stopped importing a lot of it. Turns out many were just bundling it up and shipping it to china. That ended a couple of years ago. That imploded the whole recycling market. The money in it dried up except for very particular items (usually metals). Everything else, no one really wanted it.

To make people want to recycle you need to positively enforce it. If you goto a negative (such as a tax or fine) the incentive to do it falls off quickly. America used to recycle/reuse tons of stuff. Pepsi and Coke figured out a decent cost to their system was the reuse of their bottles. So they funded groups that worked against that. People would put a deposit on the bottles and containers. If you returned it you got the deposit back. If you tossed it someone else usually would find it and return it and get the deposit. It was a positive incentive. Instead now we have this weird thing where companies produce garbage and blame the customers for not 'taking care of it'. We have no real reason to do so other than feeling good about yourself. In some cases the ability and economic reality is not really there.

Most single stream systems are basically 2 trucks. One picks up the garbage. The other picks up the recycling. Garbage goes straight to the dump. The recycling goes to a sort center. They dump it all out on large conveyor belts with a bunch of people standing next to it picking out what they can and slicing open any bags/boxes they see. Pulling anything that is obviously not for the stream (pizza boxes, magazines etc). The magnets pull out anything metal. The plastics and glass are sorted out usually by weight color and symbol if they have the machinery for it. Otherwise it is manual. This all takes time and money. If you are making 50cents for a 2ton bail of plastic the economics is not there. But if you say make 500 dollars for a bail then maybe it is there.

In a neighborhood I once lived in the recycling guy decided he was not going to pick up anything except pop cans and newspaper. Everyone was mostly recycling correctly. Suddenly my neighbors and I had 2x the garbage to deal with. They all dumped it into the other bin and never recycled again for years. It took only one small negative thing to change from 'happy to help' to 'meh not doing it'. The boxes they had it in were obvious. One week everyone was doing it, then almost none. I would drive around the neighborhoods near mine and he had done it there too. They had to change the way they pickup garbage to undo what 1 guy did in 1 day.

Yea, this is a big one. Every time I move, it's different recycling rules to learn. Do we put paper in the blue bin or the green bin? Can we recycle cardboard in this city? What kinds of plastics are OK here and what kind aren't? It changes from city to city.

At one place I lived, I watched the truck come along and they just dump both bins in the same section of the truck. So you've got me agonizing over which bin to sort things into and then the waste management people just re-combine them. I guess I'm the sucker here!

As usual, the USA's un-coordinated "let the states and local governments figure it out" strategy fails again.

It can get even worse than that.

In the town where my parents live, waste collection services , including recycling, are contracted out among several private companies. So the rules can vary among neighborhoods.

In Chicago, the city supplies recycling services for single family homes and apartment buildings with up to (if I recall correctly) 4 units, and anything larger than that must privately contract its own waste management. So the rules have the potential to vary from building to building.

A deposit/tax system on plastic containers would likely end most plastic packaging. Consumers tend to prefer the metallic/glass/paper packages when given the choice. to enforce reasonable economics on the recycling side the deposit would likely need to be an order of magnitude higher than the cost of the plastic.

This may provide incentive for either biodegradable or clean burning plastics in the market which could have lower taxes/deposits.

Deposit systems are usually better when the object is reused in some way. Just to put a deposit on something that will be immediately thrown away/recycled I think creates a negative tax issue.

The side issue is plastic is wildly cheap to use and make. You can try to create tax systems that break that. But you just create resentment. A better way is to figure out how to make the other more sturdy reusable and recyclable materials better and cheaper than plastic. Reuse has the issue of re-collection/cleaning and that costs money. If you can crack that the whole market will skip plastic. Anything else tries to bend the market. It usually does not react well to that and creates undesirable side effects. The same thing happened in the coal markets with relation to nat gas. Natural gas became cheaper than coal and easier to use. Huge swaths of the energy market basically ran towards it. If something like that could happen in the plastics markets it would change the world.

Covid shows how difficult it is to implement any effective policy in America above grade school intelligence, and that probably insults grade school children.

The populace is simply too poorly educated, lazy, and propagandized to resist government policy.

I'm keeping "don't you know?" mood

> Coca-Cola to switch to 100% rPET

> December 2019 - in Sweden

> October 2020 - in the Netherlands

> first half of 2021 - in Norway [1]


> Coca-Cola currently has an average of 20% rPET in bottles sold in California.


> California will make it mandatory for plastic bottles to contain 50% recycled content by 2030. [2]

[1] https://www.cocacolaep.com/media/news/2020/coca-cola-in-west...

[2] https://www.beveragedaily.com/Article/2020/10/02/California-...

When I was living in Japan and shared a homestay with an American fellow from Missouri, it shocked me that he would throw all his recyclables in the general rubbish. As an Australian, despite how my country isn't the best in that field, I've always taken recycling seriously (even with the more challenging rules in Japan). It took him a while before the Japanese host and I could train him to recycle properly. It's not like he wasn't a decent guy, he just wasn't used to it. It made me wonder if recycling just wasn't a big thing in the US, and to hear that California, as a more liberal state, is still on 20% seems to confirm that.

Maybe you haven’t seen those trash bins with two holes, one for recyclables and one for general rubbish, and they both empty into the same bag?

I've seen those in other countries too, actually. My random optimistic theory is that the designer of such bins is trying to "train" people into recycling before the local government entity offers proper recycling infrastructure. But the reality is probably just that they want to look "green" without doing the hard part.

Part of the problem is that recycling is a state-by-state thing, and some states will simply never care about recycling.

When I was growing up in NYC recycling was even part of the curriculum, but there were definitely contexts in which recycling was difficult (for example, sidewalks usually had street garbage cans, but not street recycling cans)

Missouri has shockingly bad recycling service, so it doesn't surprise me. Before I lived there I meticulously separated recylables but soon adopted the local habit.

(St Louis. Kansas City has pretty decent service in this respect)

It definitely isn’t a big thing here. It’s made worse by the fact that our recycling infrastructure is generally inadequate.

Actually some plastics are not worth for recycling so some local gov finally firing it. (plastics work for fuel)

The habits run deeper than the recycling.

I am a tea and coffee drinker with a preferred mug and a travel mug which has a lid on it. If I go out for a stroll I fill the travel mug with coffee and take that.

Never do I wake up in the morning and think I need some drink in an aluminium can or plastic bottle. Nor do I wake up and wish my beverages were laced with corn syrup. Or advertised on TV.

If they stopped selling fizzy drinks tomorrow then I would not notice for a long time.

I am also out of the habit of drinking alcohol, however, when I do drink beer I prefer it to be in a pub where the glass is not just recycled but is re-used.

My additions to the recycling bins are small compared to those of a normal person that drinks beer, wine or other alcoholic beverages every day. I am also quite partial to citrus fruits so I have no aspiration to buy 'orange juice'.

For whatever reason I have not adopted the habits of buying these tin cans and plastic bottles in the first place. I am set in my ways and no amount of TV advertising will suddenly make me start the day with an energy drink or have a moment with Coca Cola mid afternoon. I just am not interested.

In the USA there is this culture of drinking fizzy drinks that the advertisers have been working on for decades. The default drink comes in a can or other single use container, not a preferred mug.

Separating waste might be a habit that needs to be worked on by some people, however, there is this deeper habit of using single use containers all the time.

Fizzy drinks are perfectly functional in fountains. And dirt cheap for the restaurants, to the degree that the soda companies restrict their availability to consumers.

The single use drinks are sold at massive profit.

I joke that restaurants are almost universally places that break even on food, if they are lucky, and make all their profit on hard/soft drinks.

Depends on where you live, most cities have recycling programs where recycling is picked up, but as you get more rural you either have to take recycling in yourself or there’s just no good options

When COVID-19 hit, the only local rural recycling option stopped accepting anything except corrugated cardboard.

Of course, who knows what happened to the recycling before that -- but right now, almost all of my recyclables go into the trash.

Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees. The whole environmental problem with plastic in well managed landfills is filling up city landfills where land is expensive. Rural landfills will never run out of space. It's a non-problem as long as it does actually make it to the landfill and not washed down a river or something.

Out in rural areas there's also zero composting. I know, because I own a homes in both a major US city and a rural location.

Also, most of the plastic the city takes, the rural location services won't.

Homes in rural areas have lots of land where you can compost yourself. Plastic recycling can be expanded by increasing the bottle fee and expanding some form of it to all plastic.

Hm, mine and my neighbors don't. There are communities with small lots like ours that simply don't look or sound like giant farms with acres of land to burn your own trash or create your own composting. In fact we look darn near suburban. We have neighborhoods and small towns. It's not all prairie and farm land when one describes rural life.

This is absurd. Yes rural lacks a government run composting program because it would have a negative benefit but plenty of people do there own composting and use it for gardens or such.

In rural areas many people feed their table scraps to chickens.

I'm not sure it's entirely correct to say you can't use recycled plastic for injection molding - sure, if you just melt all the dirty & UV damaged plastic with who knows what additives and color pigments, it will not work as well as carefully managed single sourced regular feedstock.

Still, the stuff is still basically hydrocarbons either way - you should be able to break it down to it's constituents and refine it to something indistinguishable from the normal feed stock. Woukd it be horrendously energy intensive ? Most likely! But definitely doable.

BTW, this is why I'm skeptical to efforts to fix the environment just by saving energy. Sure, it should not be wasted but if we want to fix all damage that has veen done while still providing adequate standards of living for everyone, we beed to produce much much moore energy than we do now & do it in a clean way - most likely mega massive solar on enything, lots of nuclear fission and possibly massed off shore wind as well. Ideally backed by storage if/where possible.

Together with megaproject scale waste processing it should be possible to cleanup (and reuse!) all the old stuff while also handling all the new stuff comming in.

And the end result would be a nice clean plabet yet again, but this time with very robust energy and industrial infrastructure ready to face future challenges - or disasters!

Sounds like something one can aspire for rather than all the doom and gloom one sees some days.

Buddy of mine works for a company that takes mixed plastic waste and converts it into fuel & feedstock for further plastic reuse. Their goal is to set up small plants throughout the country near plastic production sites, he works at what is effectively their prototype facility in NC. Best news article I found about them: https://www.farmvilleherald.com/2020/06/braven-to-give-plast...

And their about page, they use a form of pyrolysis: https://bravenenvironmental.com/braven-advantage/#advantage

I agree, we need to learn to transmute materials and specifically clean up the waste we've already created. Our technology still has far to evolve to manage it but it's the only truly realistic way forward for our race.

> you should be able to break it down to it's constituents and refine it to something indistinguishable from the normal feed stock. Woukd it be horrendously energy intensive ? Most likely!

Or ... just burn it for energy, and thereby pump less oil.

Sure you'll need more oil for more plastic, but you come out ahead because by burning the plastic you save some oil.

This whole plastic recycling stuff makes zero sense.

AFAIK Japan does this and it works out OK for them. But I'd love to read more about it if there are decent English sources.

Greenwich council in the London, UK does this. They have the worst recycling of any area in the UK and part of the reason is they burn almost all the plastic they gather from recycling, just 5% by volume gets recycled and the rest is burnt.

This article(ja) looks good to read via translate.


It's not that clear cut. Creating that glass bottle is far more costly environmentally, lugging its heavy weight around is also much more expensive, cleaning used bottles has a considerable cost, and "thousands" of reuses also sounds optimistic since glass is so easily breakable.

We use a milk/eggs/etc delivery service operated by a local farm, we’ve returned 100s of washed glass bottles without breaking any. They’re thick bottles designed for reuse, they’re not fragile. Despite that, the empties are a tiny fraction of the weight of a full plastic bottle. It seems like a pretty a clear, unmitigated win vs plastic with a local service.

> It seems like a pretty a clear, unmitigated win vs plastic

Did you use hot water to wash them?

Probably yes. Last time I did the math making them out of plastic saved energy vs heating water to wash glass (it was a close call, it depended on if you used a dishwasher vs sink washing).

So it might seem environmental friendly, but if you run the numbers it's not necessarily so.

Energy usage for creation is only one axis of "environmentally friendly", though. It's starting to seem like small bits of plastic permeating everything might not be ideal.

Did your calculations include things like the extraction and distillation of the petroleum?

Beyond the environmental impact, there's also just the stupid, wasted effort that goes into pointlessly recreating the same thing over and over when you don't have to. In this case, the bottle goes back on the return trip from delivering new milk, which had to happen anyway. The milk ends up being the only thing delivered, on net. It's just strikingly elegant in its lack of wasted effort and material. It's not clear if it's a net win, though, given the delivery part, unless there are others on the same street signed up for the same day.

If anyone's in the Bay Area and is interested in delivery sort of like this, which also tries to set up regular delivery routes to minimize the marginal impact of a customer, I recommend checking out Farmstead (https://www.farmsteadapp.com/). They provide a similar milk delivery service by picking up Straus milk bottles and refunding the deposit. They also solved my biggest issue with most of the delivery services by picking up their reusable bags and having minimal packaging inside, but COVID put a stop to the bag pickup, at least temporarily.

That’s honestly one of the most interesting parts of nuclear for me, along with large scale renewables (eg hydro): when you can break the energy = CO2 connection by using energy sources that don’t release extra CO2 per kWh, a lot of the math starts to change. Things that didn’t help before (washing glass bottles with water heated by natural gas) actually become a net benefit. Likewise making the glass in the first place.

People are cleaning the plastic with hot water to put it into the recycling. The only difference being that the glass actually gets used again and isn't dangerous to the environment and us as it breaks down. Plastic has turned into an unmitigated man made nature disaster.

Commercial glass washers can use very little energy; the rinse is done with a small amount of near boiling water which goes into the wash tank, where it's then used for washing.

Doesn't that depend on where the electricity for the hot water comes from?

I'm inclined to say "no", unless you're using a renewable energy source that would otherwise go unused. So excess locally produced power that can't be sold to the grid, essentially.

Power markets are very liquid, so I tend to favour calculating your personal footprint based on the average co2 output of the grid, not the particular energy production method you've chosen. This makes it clear that even if you're paying for wind power, it's still better not to waste electricity.

Some of that energy may become greener over time. There's also the final output of unrecyclable, possibly toxic (if heated in the sun) plastic vs glass which naturally degrades to ... sand?

Reusing washed glass bottles for perishables like milk can be a public health risk. It's hard to get the cleaning process to the point where when the stars align for that 1 out of 100,000 bottles it still gets sterilized.

Until I see statistics proving the opposite I don't believe that. Washing bottles hot enough to kill germs really is not hard and we used to reuse lots of glass bottles.

Getting glass hot enough to kill microbes isn't hard, but it does take a lot of energy. Microbes will attach to the glass and use that as a heat sink, so just hot water isn't enough, you have to use enough to heat the glass.

It's actually tremendously hard to do that on an industrial scale. We still get listeria outbreaks even with pasteurized milk and new bottles. Adding in a source of contaimination is going to make it that much harder.

The issue isn't getting bottles hot enough to kill germs. It's doing so in a way that doesn't aerosolize the bacteria and preventing all the other ways cross contaimination can occur.

If you pour a glass of milk at home, do you throw the glass away afterwards?

That's not the risk. The risk is introducing harmful bacteria into a bottle and then having it reproduce for some days before someone drinks it. Since you're not storing milk in the glass it's not an issue if it isn't completely sanitized.

All of that could be done sustainably if the energy we generated and used was sustainable. Electric trucks and trains, clean energy to run the cleaning facility, even the glass furnaces themselves can be run off electricity which is great if it is clean energy. And when it does break? You can throw it away without worry because it is completely inert and breaks down into sand. Throw all your glass into a specific area on a coast line and the waves will turn it into sand for free. Throw it in a hole as fill material and nobody will ever care because it doesn't pollute.

Contemporary glass bottles break easily. But historically bottles were much thicker and could be re-used dozens of times.

In Germany you can buy milk in glass bottles in some super markets and they don't brake easily.

And not only can they be reused, broken glass bottles can still be recycled.

Beer too IIRC - you can buy it by the crate and return the empties to get a meaningful deposit back.

Though most of the deposit for returning a beer crate is on the crate. The deposit for a regular beer bottle is 8cents - it used to be 15Pfennig, cut in half when the EUR was introduced. The problem is that you cannot easily raise the deposit value of a bottle and inflation has taken most of the value away.

Ah, I was there pre-Euro.

Glass is 100% recyclable infinite times with zero loss. If you shatter it, you can just melt it and reform it again.

Glass is also 100% pointless to recycle. The planet's crust is made of glass, it's not exactly a scarce resource, and old glass is environmentally harmless.

And in the real world it's virtually never recycled, instead its crushed and used as landfill cover (they cover the trash each night to keep down vermin).

It's easier, cheaper and less energy intensive than producing new glass. Literally billions of tons of glass are recycled each year.

I can't read the article, but in my understanding, sand for concrete is what might be scarce. Because it has to have particles with the right degree of sharp corners. (IIRC, the Saudis import this from Australia or something, because their wind-blown sand is too round.) But glass is much easier.

"they cover the trash each night to keep down vermin"


Do you think that energy is free? Do you think that heat comes from magic?

Don't we have an oversupply of renewable energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and nowhere to store it?

I'm not too knowledgeable on the process of glass manufacturing, but I know glass takes a pretty high temperature to melt. Mega operations needed for mass manufacture might be different, but smaller scale ones usually heat things up in furnaces burning at thousands of degrees.

Not too hard to get that heat by burning fuel, but through wind power? Not sure how it'll be done.

Not dismissing it. I just really don't know.

Wind to heat is easy: just run an electric [arc] furnace. This is how most commercial steel foundries heat iron. this is how Aluminum ore is smelted (the point is the electron exchange, molten metal is a welcome side effect).

The above is why aluminum is smelted in low energy cost areas. the above is why my company runs the foundry only for the night shift - the power company gives us a discount for using power at night when they need to keep the base load power plants running even though nobody is using power, which more than makes up for the extra pay we give to for working the night shift. (Now that wind is >50% of the electric mix in my state I wonder if the shifts are changing)

In fact most high temperature is generated from electric not fuel. If you burn something to get high temperatures the process is inefficient, turning the fuel into electricity and then the electricity into heat is more efficient (look up carnot efficiency)

Frickin' lasers, perhaps?

Sometimes and someplaces. Australia regularly has negative power prices due to rooftop solar.

Recycling glass takes a bit less energy than producing new glass (and a lot less CO2 is emitted during the process).

Wait till you learn how glass is made in the first place.

Any problem with steel bottles?

In India, they do use them often for delivering milk and it's very sturdy.

The problem in the US is that the seller has to use the method that results in them having the least liability in case something goes wrong.

If they choose to use steel or glass, and it doesn't get cleaned properly, and it ends up causing damage, then they might be liable for damages. Their liability insurance will deny coverage for damages because they knowingly used a method that had a higher probability of harm than using new plastic.

I'm sure there might be some way to ensure cleanliness of steel and glass, but it's probably cost prohibitive versus just using plastic, so it might cause the cost of the product to be too high to compete in the market.

sounds like just the case for government regulation allowing the free market to get out of a local optimum.

Any reason you can't just autoclave the glass for a bit?

Possibly? I guess I assumed there's some cost based reason that plastic is preferred over glass, even excluding for transportation costs due to lower weight and less cleanup costs in case of accidents and glass breaking.

It's probably a combination of all of these things, but the fact that no glass alternatives exist in the market in a similar price range as plastic options indicates there's an overall cost advantage for plastic.

That is more expensive due to energy requirements over simple washes, but if the energy used to do that is renewable then that isn't a big deal. I think the big problem with autoclaving the glass is the time required for heating up and cooling off as thermal shock will break glass. That said, breaking more glass isn't a big deal because it is an inert material. And the sorting and cleaning of glass should be easier and cheaper than ever thanks to better automation and robotics.

That will kill anything, but if I put a bit a poison in the bottle...

You can also recycle broken glass, creating new glass from melting glass prices costs less energie then creating glass from scratch.

Through there are limits for white glass this is much less the case for brown and green glass.

That 1.3 number is generally accurate, it varies a bit by type of plastic and end-item requirements.

BUT, that 30%, it’s not post-consumer recycled plastic.

It’s the manufacture grinding up the runners, sprues, and bad parts. In the industry it’s called “regrind”. [0]

So if they were trying to tell you it was post-consumer, that was probably misleading.

(Products that use post-consumer recycled plastic will almost always say so, as it is a marketing angle)

[0] https://knowledge.ulprospector.com/1468/pe-regrinding-plasti...

Correct it is about the process and a lot of post consumer plastic isn't in practice recycleable at all. Its the absolute best case number and in practice its more like 10% or 1.1 uses as a result as far as I can tell from the various articles on it this year.

Like a lot of things, "it depends". Type of plastic, use case, source of the recycled plastic, and type of injection molding machine all come into play. In practice, it's probably less than 1/3 of post-consumer plastic by a decent margin just because processing god knows what plastic people put in the bin into something you can injection mold requires massively expensive sorting, cleaning, treating, and re-pelletizing.

An interesting point to consider here is that if oil production ever goes down for whatever reason and virgin plastic prices go up as a result, post-consumer plastic recycling becomes a more attractive business prospect.

I've been lied to again?

Hopefully people can find good stuff to do with the heaps of shite we've already created.

Theres a guy in the UK that got started making skateboards out of this plastic, and showing people how to do it. Looks like they branched out. https://preciousplastic.com/

Some other companies jumping on the wagon train too. https://wasteboards.com/about/

This could just be more greenwashing, but it's inspiring.

The energy and effort required to collect, clean and re-use glass is much higher than for plastic. Glass doesn't decompose in a landfill and has limits on how often it can be re-used as well.

The detergents, water and heat needed for cleaning alone have a higher environmental impact than the few drops of oil needed to make a plastic bottle.

Plastic waste is a big problem for sure, but switching to glass is not the solution.

> Glass doesn't decompose in a landfill

Why would you want it to? Being inert is a good thing if you put it underground: no water contamination, no gas being released. But why put it in a landfill when you could reuse or recycle it?

> and has limits on how often it can be re-used as well.

What are these limits?

Yes. If we used plastic once and then burnt it it's probably better for CO2 than reusing glass.

Separating plastic has also the effect of better burning waste. That is because they can control the burning / heat with controlled injection of isolating plastic waste which hast a specified / stable thermal energy in contrast to mixed waste.

>The triple whammy to all this is that all over the planet people have been cleaning their plastics with hot water, drying and then separating it into different rubbish bags with separate collections and additional bins etc. All for a giant lie about recycling that was never true. We have wasted substantial energy and time on something that never worked and helped destroy the environment even more because of it.

I wonder if there is a country where the laws are so structured that you could class action sue for the value of the time lost.

Not even just the time, there is a clear energy cost that every household has been paying electricity and gas costs for heating of water. Extra cleaning materials in brushes and washing up liquid and additional dishwasher tablets etc etc. I doubt most households have good enough accounting to attribute the cost of recycling directly other than perhaps the cost of recycling bags (ours requires all recycling in clear bags) but it goes well beyond just time, we have literally burnt CO2 to recycle something that actually can't be recycled.

What I don't understand is why governments and councils continued to go along with this, to collect it all separately and then just send most of it to be burnt or landfill, the cost surely wasn't worth it. My Freedom of information act request to my council about plastic recycling was eye opening, just 3.2% of the plastic put into recycling correctly was actually recycled. They know full well this is pointless and yet it continues.

A friend of mine was involved in a recycling project for a major chemical company (decades ago).

Just a small fraction - way less that 1/3 - can be used in recycling and it makes the resulting plastic a lot weaker and limited in uses.

I would imagine for something like plastic for food or water bottles might need to be new.

and then there are prions:


Most of the restaurants by me already seem to use a few standard size food containers. Why do these containers need to be broken down into raw material and then reconstituted? If they were high quality enough, could they not just be sanitized and then repurchased by restaurants directly from the recycler? Seems like there'd be much less waste of material. The big question would be if the sanitation process would be not be more expensive than just remanufacturing the containers.

Plastic isn't very robust. I personally utilise a standard container size and wash and reuse it for my own purposes to avoid kitchen bags and such. But the lids crack as they get brittle after repeated washing and the plastic itself scuffs and looses its transparency and surface. It may actually be problematic to have scratched surfaces for bacteria and cleaning and the containers wouldn't look the same in the store even after one wash and refill.

Plastic just isn't good for reuse, it is not robust.

Yes good points, which is why I think the type of plastic matters. Rubbermaid, for example, makes a variety of high quality reusable plastic food containers.

The Just Salad restaurant chain in NYC will sell you a reusable plastic salad container that you can wash and bring to them to prepare your meal in and there doesn't seem to be any issue with food safety regarding those bowls. It's heavier duty than the clear disposable ones they give you otherwise.

There's certainly a usable life to anything, plastic will degrade over multiple washes and being battered with utensils. I'd expect well used ones would need to be retired but it should still be better than the current situation where they are primarily single use.

What about the waxed cardboard containers my Chinese place uses? Plastic must not be THAT much cheaper if this waxed cardboard is in use.

I am often suspicious that green initiatives exacerbate rather than ameliorate the environmental damage we cause. Green products cost more, and are generally more complicated than traditional ones.

I doubt that many people sit down and weigh the pros and cons dispassionately. Most of the time it is politicians making political capital and shrill activists wanting us to "think of the children"; basically, ill-conceived and costly theatre.

This might be a naive question, but given that plastic is made of oil, and that it doesn’t decompose, isn’t it a great way to perform carbon sequestration?

In other words, isn’t the use of plastics replaces potential carbon emission via burning of oil?

This is backwards. First, plastic is something like 1% of all oil production. Secondly, oil is the the best way to do sequestration by keeping it in the ground.

Unless you mean turning co2 into oil to make plastic or something? Which is itself weird for the energy requirement.

Slightly higher, about 4% worldwide, though some of that is NG.


But you assume that the oil saved by a reduction in plastic use will be kept in the ground. Isn't a fairer assumption that it would be repurposed and burnt?

I think he just generally meant stop using oil for all uses for maximum carbon sequestration

Plastic does break down, it is just really slow. But since the oil was extracted from thousands of feet down and was already sequestered before we decided to manufacture stuff with it, it can only at best be carbon neutral, assuming the plastic lasts as long as the original oil would have.

You could make it carbon negative if you converted CO2 gas into plastic, but the energy requirements to do so are enormous. It is the same problem with fertilizer production. We could make synthetic fertilizer from the air, but it requires so much more energy to the already immensely energy intensive production process that you don't actually gain anything.

If the energy needed was all clean energy, and we had enough of it, we could make carbon negative plastics. But that is like ridiculously cheap electricity to the point where residential power costs would be measured in like 50 cents per year, minus power line upkeep.

Its already sequestered as oil just leave it in the ground. Given how little of the plastic can be recycled and it doesn't really decompose and pollutes the water and our food we tends to burn it for energy to get rid of it.

Great way to sequester it right into a whale's stomach.

minor nitpick that doesn't change the substance of your point. 1.5 uses actually, the initial use is already 1/3 recycled. the correct calculation is 1/(1-r) where r=1/3. For example if you had to use 10% new material each time it is seems logical that you would get more than two uses out of the material. 1 use then .9 then .81 ect,

Alas no, you can' recycle something that was made with recycled material. It gets at most one reuse if it was made out of 100% virgin plastic, everything else is throwaway, the recycled material poisons the rest.

Paper gets recycled twice: First grade paper→Third grade paper→Newspaper, or Cardboard→Cardboard→Cardboard.

This was a popular conspiracy theory in the 90's. Another one for the "yup that conspiracy actually happened" book. Ive been called a monster many times for trying to explain this, usually by liberal women. They just hear a bunch of numbers and then their heads explode once they realize I was saying to just put the bottle in the normal trash instead of the special one for virtue signaling.

One word: Transubstantiation.

I was dragged to a recycling plant with a bunch of curious engineers from Google a long time ago. The takeaway was that is was a giant scam- we can't recycle glass, paper is iffy, msot of the stuff is meh, but aluminum is ok. Trash trucks literally pulled up to the plant and removed the "unrecycleable" waste.

We were all so pissed we went into software, when one could literally just put trash into a different container with a green/blue color, and thus purify and bless it, and then send it to a dump.

The part we missed was the ships just taking all this trash to China and Bangladesh.

Wait, how is the glass unrecyclable? Glass should be one of the most recyclable bits, along with metals.

Just because plastic is a scam doesn't necessarily mean everything else recycled is. Scrap metal is big business. Old rubber tires get shredded and vulcanized into new products.

Glass is totally recyclable, the problem is you can’t get clear glass out of anything that has color in it, which a lot of stuff does.

It’s also not really saving any energy or valuable resources, and glass is heavy and fragile.

Glass doesn't have to be clear for most disposable uses; it's mostly useful in things such as windows, where you probably want to keep them around. For bottles, it doesn't really matter much.

Glass is more on the reusable side, which used to work great for soda and milk bottles until the companies decided plastic was cheaper.

Recycled glass can be mixed with virgin stone chip to make asphaltic concrete.

(Which of course uses fossil fuels for the bitumen; possibly even more than the equivalent mass of Portland cement concrete.)

I'm not aware of any other significant uses for recycled glass.

Nearly all glassmaking involves adding all the glass bits you cut off or broke back into the kiln. Almost no glass is actually 100% virgin glass. So glass is absolutely recyclable.

The only caveat is colored glass can only really be used to make the same color glass (at least economically).

I should have said, post-consumer glass.

It's not un-recyclable, it's hard to move around and doesn't save a lot of energy compared to new raw materials.

Correct, glass needs hardened containers and slower acceleration.

I mean the goal with glass isn't to recycle it anyways, it is to reuse it. And when glass does eventually get thrown away, it is completely inert. It is just sand but in large solid pieces instead of grains. Hell if we cleaned it first, we could literally throw the glass in large piles in designated areas of the coast and just let the waves smash it all back into sand with zero ill effects.

Only partially agree, but reminded me of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_Beach_(Fort_Bragg,_Calif...

I guess it is just a US thing. I read a lot of HN so naturally had the same very skeptical disposition, until we went to see one of those plants in town. Started recycling at home the same week.

Metals, Glass and paper are profitable to be recycled, plastic a bit less so, but still doable.

But in EU there are a lot of programs to cut taxes or subsidize recycling so maybe that’s actually working?

Its like seeing how sausage is made, or learning how your favorite politician is a crook. You still want to believe but know too much.

It drove me nuts when BPA hit the radar and I switched to mostly glass while everyone around me just... bought different plastic.

If this one was 'safe' until it wasn't, why do you think a newer kind of plastic is going to be safe? Plus now you have bought twice as many containers.

Yup glass and metal only. Water tastes terrible out of anything else. Beer too.

Your metal beer cans have a plastic liner in them. Every single one.

Saw a video of someone dissolving the aluminium and it was left with a soft drink in a plastic bag.

Correct, however it is significantly less plastic that would be used in a plastic bottle, since it doesn't have to hold any pressure by itself. The aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials we have.

Klean Kanteen had some drama because they weren't clear on what their liners were made of before they started telling people their products were safe.

Narrator: they weren't

They had to do a big mea culpa and then scramble to change their product line later in the game than they could have.

And then there was an organic food company (Muir) that dragged their feet on switching the liners for their canned tomatoes and sauces (you may recall that acids make the leaching worse) and pissed a lot of people right off.

Silicon as well. If it’s safe enough to have in your body, it’s safe enough to drink from. Also it’s extremely heat resistant (I use it for sous-vide cooking).

Silicone, BTW. (As opposed to the stuff Intel etches.)

This may be a dumb question, but is there really a "yup that conspiracy actually happened" book? Not literally a book with that title, but is there some resource that has a list of these?


Whitney Webb is arguably the premier investigative journalists of our age. Any publication that doesn't source her work is simply not credible.


The funny thing is, if everyone "virtue signaled" like the "liberal women" do by cleaning plastic and putting it in the right bin, recycling might be somewhat less money-losing by virtue of being better-sorted. But yeah, fuck 'em for "virtue signaling" while they sip their lattes and go to yoga, right? It's better to see the lie and do what they don't want you to do. /s

I get it, plastic can't be recycled profitably and we should be using way less. But one of the reasons its so terrible to recycle is because of how poorly it's sorted.

Did you even read the article? It isn't profitable and it will never be. The only reason why it could go on for as long as it did is because China was subsidizing us with slave labor.

I'm not sure you read my comment. I never said "profitable". I said "somewhat less money-losing". I also said "plastic can't be recycled profitably".

Putting effort into sorting better is throwing good money after bad. Even if you sort perfectly it's still virtue signalling; far better to spend that time on something productive and donate the earnings to something effective.

> Putting effort into sorting better is throwing good money after bad

How much time or money does it cost to not put plastic bottles in the paper bin? How much are you going to earn in that time to donate?

Probably a couple of seconds. Maybe 5 cents for a typical HN reader. Which is significantly more than recycling that bottle is worth (I'm pretty sure GGP was talking about putting the bottle in the landfill bin rather than the paper bin).

I believe OP is affirming the actual costs of recycling, as discussed in the article. In a world where every consumer perfectly sorts there recyclables, it still doesn't make sense for the producers.

I disagree. I think money losing operations can make it up in volume. /s

Unpopular opinion: there's nothing wrong with not recycling plastic and sending it right to the landfill. It sequesters carbon, isn't too terrible for the environment (it just sits there in the ground), and it's not like we're going to run out of landfill space any time soon[1]. I'm all for recycling if it's a net positive in terms of resource consumption, but I don't see the appeal of recycling for the sake of recycling.

[1] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/739893511 "Thomas says we probably have thousands of years of landfill space left in the U.S. And even hardcore environmentalists reluctantly agree that, yeah, we have a lot of space left. But people thought we were running out of space, and that was what mattered."

It is going to break down into small microplastics and potentially leak out into the water supply and then the wider food chain. What happened in the oceans is mostly about dumped fishing gear and all the "ask no questions recycling" sent to asia to be processed finding its way into the oceans rather than the landfilled material but it is still breaking down in a similar way and needs to be dealt with properly

> direct release of microplastics from road runoff during rain and storm events equates to 44% of global release of microplastics into our oceans [1].

> Car tires and synthetic clothing are major sources of plastic pollution [2].

Check out nice infographics [3]

[1] https://www.celticwater.co.uk/bloghow-does-plastic-get-into-...

[2] https://resourcelab.dk/plastics/pollution/oceans/2018/10/11/...

[3] https://www.google.com/search?q=microplastics+source&tbm=isc...

There are ways to re-sequester plastic in landfills that won't lead to that - Generally even poorly managed landfull will be a better option than the same amount of plastic sitting around in the general environment breaking down rapidly in the presence of UV and heat, not to mention the damage it does to wildlife.

Landfill isn't a perfect solution for plastic waste, especially if it isn't well managed. But it is, on the balance of factors, one of the better options available to us currently.

I believe that modern landfills are not permitted to have run-offs (i think the term is 'leachate') into the environment. There is a water-tight lining between the ground and the actual landfill.

So I suspect that in practice plastics sent to landfills are effectively sealed from the environment, at least in most Western countries.

If a landfill is leaking into the water supply, micro plastic particles are the very least of your concerns.

I think there is a misconception that landfill is bad because it used to actually be bad many decades ago. Now there is a lot of regulation around what is required to build a landfill site, and a lot more technical knowledge on how to do it safely. This is a pattern I see occasionally where folks learn something when they are young, and repeat it long past when it ceases to be true, never noticing that it has become a falsehood.

It’s a different issue in countries with less land (Japan being the most extreme one) where landfill is just too expensive because land is expensive. But the US has lots of unused and cheap land that nobody would notice if you added a well-run landfill to.

It depends where in the world you live. I live in Vietnam and a couple of weeks ago they burnt the entire local landfill site because it was too full (for a city of about 200,000 people, took about 4 days to burn). Now, I'm pretty sure that's not government policy here and probably illegal... But that doesn't change the fact that for a lot of the world, that's still how landfill works.

In March 2019 storm water released 135 tonnes of rubbish from a landfill on the west coast of NZ, spreading it across a 64km area of otherwise natural beauty. It was touch-and-go on declaring it a national disaster but in the end it wasn't, and it fell to volunteers to clean up the surface evidence of the spill, at least what hadn't made it down the fox river and out to sea.

Quite a bit more of that kind of thing expected with the increase in extreme weather events from climate change. In Westland alone there are another 12 at-risk old landfill sites. It's estimated that the cost of preventing further spills from the one already-open landfill alone is ~2.3M. In an economically depressed region like Westland it won't be funded, and they're far from the only region in NZ that's facing this problem. Just the first to have experienced a spill event.

I think cleaning up old sites should be prioritized; this is kind of the same commons maintenance as decommissioning old nuclear reactors.

Unfortunately the purely-for-profit structure of these long-term ventures can mean that there is no money to cover the cleanup if things go really wrong, depending on who owns the site. I think you need to look at some sort of cleanup fund in escrow as a precondition for building sites like this, which should incentivize improvements in safety measures too.

For sure, I’ve argued for an equivalent of the superfund for NZ previously, and to bring it to bear on site remediations such as this. It’s not a perfect model, but heck it’s better than doing things ad-hoc and asking for point funding, turning things that should have been foreseen and managed over the long term into unpleasant sudden surprises.

Absolutely. This is one of the big problems with recycling as currently implemented in the US; it’s based on shipping our waste to countries with much worse waste-handling practices.

Not just recycling but rubbish too, often disguised as recycling.

I agree and my views have been influenced by this post I found on HN bit more than a year ago https://medium.com/@robertwiblin/what-you-think-about-landfi...

For reference this was the discussion that happened around it on HN then https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20433851

> It sequesters carbon, isn't too terrible for the environment (it just sits there in the ground), and it's not like we're going to run out of landfill space any time soon[1].

I could care less about the space personally, I think that’s a non-issue, but let’s not romanticize plastic as being harmless or somehow good for us. The danger of this argument is that, like recycling, it encourages more plastic use and more plastic waste, rather than committing to doing what we most need, which is to stop using so much of it, especially for single-serving, single-use convenience, where viable alternatives don’t just exist but have been widely used.

We can sequester carbon best by not pulling it out of the ground, plastic production and distribution uses a lot, and putting it in the landfill doesn’t exactly make up for it.

Plastic production has toxic byproducts, and leeches toxic waste into the ground & water. By “isn’t too terrible for the environment”, what are we comparing to? It’s pretty bad compared to a lot of the actionable alternatives we have.

I'm not sure the parent poster was calling for continued or increased use of plastics alongside landfilling. We need to do ALL of what you said and ALSO what the parent poster said.

Not digging up more sequestered carbon, and utilizing long-term-stable methods of re-sequestering that which has already been released is needed. Landfilling (after, if necessary for the type of plastic being handled, appropriate treatment/encapsulation) is an appropriate tool to bring to bear.

In terms of plastic in circulation, what alternative handling do you have in mind?

That's fine but...

* right now way to much seems to just end up in the ocean or blowing around. Good luck getting 7bn people to properly dispose of their trash...

* I don't think you can call it sequestering carbon if the carbon was never in the air to start with. And that's assuming no one starts burning their trash

* you still need to extract a lot of oil to make that plastic. That means emissions and pollution and sending money to shitty regimes. Then you have to process the oil into plastic with more emissions and pollution etc.

I don't think anyone serious thinks all plastic should be banned. It just needs to be used more responsibly. I bought some ham today. Each slice had a plastic sheet separating it from the others (why?). Then 6 slices were in a plastic packet. I got a twin pack so that was 2 packs wrapped in more plastic. Then the cashier looked at me like I was crazy when I declined a plastic bag to carry it in. Do we really need 4 layers of non-reusable protection from cooked ham? Could paper or reusable plastic not have done at least some of those jobs? I think we're still stuck with conspicuous consumption models from the 80s where people wanted that. I don't want that.


More generally, I agree about landfill.

Thanks for reading

On the other hand, it's worth noticing that the plastic packets + sheets you bought (wasteful and pointless as they are) probably amounted to...5 grams of material?

If we're talking pollution and climate change, imo these debates around plastic are all pointless distractions from the cold brutal fact that our westernised high-energy lifestyles are not sustainable, and certainly not scalable to a world with 10 billion consumers.

We can either get used to living at a standard closer to 1920s Europe in energy use (re flight, transportation), get comfortable with the idea that the wealthier billion or so of us will be much better off than the bottom 9, or wait for most of mankind to die climate-related deaths.

It's reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order. You are arguing that we have no problem, and we don't need to do any of the three! No wonder it's an unpopular opinion. Reducing consumption means reducing production. It doesn't matter how effective litter prevention and recycling programs are, it doesn't matter how seemingly bullet-proof landfills are, some percentage of produced plastic ends up as waste in the environment (estimates range from 5 to 11%). Production goes up, litter goes up. Simple equation.

We need to massively reduce single-use plastics.

Even in advanced landfill-having countries, single-use plastics end up as litter in the environment, but the millions of tons per year. I've personally picked up 500 bags of garbage on 4 different continents. Landfills or not, it's everywhere.

We need to massively reduce single-use plastics.

We need to massively reduce single-use plastics.

The problem is the plastic that doesn't make it landfill and is instead in the ocean/rest of the environment

Isn't it more likely that "recycled" plastic being shipped to Asia will end up in the ocean than if you just pitch it in a landfill?

So tossing plastic in the recycle bin is plausibly an environmental net negative.

Right, if the consumer put it in the ocean instead of the trash, that plastic wasn’t going to get recycled either.

If you put it in landfill in the US, it’s definitely in landfill. If you “recycle” it, it may get shipped to China (or now Cambodia) and then dumped somewhere.

How does plastic end up in the ocean? I would have assumed it was through littering or the fishing industry[0], but perhaps some of it is debris that blows from landfill to waterways?

[0] https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3298/7/10/73/htm indicates that a lot of the coastal debris is plastic bags, while a lot of the offshore debris is fishing nets

It gets there lots of ways. A number of places around the world still use the local river as a city dump.


Portions of that garbage will eventually make it to an ocean. Especially plastics due to the simple fact that it floats.

That’s plastic to-be recycled, not thrown away. We don’t put our trash on shipping containers, we have closed trucks bring it to landfills. We do put recycling on shipping containers and it often blows off into the ocean or ends up in their world countries that get paid to accept it for “recycling” when they don’t have the means to do so and it just ends up in low quality landfills that leak into rivers/oceans.

So that’s more of a reason to just discard plastic.

There's an interesting follow up investigation [1] npr did a month ago concerning plastic recycling. Essentially they confirm what OPs article claims.

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

I mostly agree that landfills aren't too terrible for the environment but I think the issue specifically with plastic is that it can stay around for thousands of years.

Almost all plastic is just garbage. Full stop.

Cardboard and paper products recycle pretty well. So does aluminum and some glass bottles.

We need to use more glass bottles and other reusable containers when we go shopping.

The Canadian government is planning to ban single use plastics like bags and containers in 2021 and I’m on board. Even if it costs more it’s just the right thing to do.

The problem is that it's so cheap to make new things that recycling is almost never cost effective. I think I lost faith in the concept (at least in the current economic climate) right about the time I found out that old glass isn't re-melted for use as new glass items, it's just smashed up and used as aggregate for road beds.

> old glass isn't re-melted for use as new glass items

Are you sure this is true? Searching now, I seem to find claims that the majority of recycled glass is often made into new containers as one would expect. Here, for example, is a source that says "Up to 90% of glass collected via multi-stream recycling programs becomes new glass products": https://ourhappyplanet.org/glass-recycling/.

Obviously, "up to" is weasel-speak, but I found some other sites making similar although slightly lower claims. Also, there is a distinction between "single stream" and "multi stream" recycling, with this source claiming that the percentage for "single stream" is only 45%. Do you know of better numbers? Or economic arguments for why clean glass would not be recycled?

Yes, see EPA numbers [1] and an ACS article [2]. It's probably between the two (26% and 33%) depending on your definition of "recycling", the particular state/city, and year.

[1] https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-...

[2] https://cen.acs.org/materials/inorganic-chemistry/glass-recy...

I don't think those percentages pertain to the right question. What I think we are looking for is the amount [melted down for reuse] divided by the amount [properly put into a recycling container]. The first link (EPA) is dividing the [tons of glass recycled] (presumably entering the recycling stream) by the [tons of glass generated] (manufactured). The second (ACS) says 33% is recycled (as opposed to put into general trash), but also repeats the claim that "90% of glass put into multistream collections gets recycled" (presumably meaning actually remelted).

"Recycled" doesn't mean only "remelted" - it includes things like using it as aggregate in concrete. I don't think you're going to find the numbers you're looking for short of going to a recycling facility and a bottling plant.

> The problem is that it's so cheap to make new things that recycling is almost never cost effective.

The only solution to this is to enact taxes on the sale of fossil fuels so high that it forces people to consume less, and/or makes reuse economical.

Focusing on fossil fuels would handle the plastic aspect, but if we're rewriting tax code I think we're better off trying to cast a wider net.

I'd propose that we tax the hell out of manufacturers' that won't accept delivery of things they manufactured (be it packaging or the products themselves--in whatever state). To avoid this tax they must also meet transparency guidelines for how inbound waste of this sort is disposed of.

This way the "how do we deal with the waste?" problem is handled by the same people who decide what materials to use in the first place.

We use the tax money to set up municipal recycling facilities that use the bar codes on the waste to sort it based on who made it, and instead of shipping it to third world countries they ship it there instead.

Yes, that's an interesting idea too as fossil fuels aren't the only problem.

Exactly, the new stuff is too cheap compared to the recycling option only because we don't properly account for the long term costs of the new goods.

I'd like to see the cost of waste and re-use placed entirely on producers. If you sell something you have to accept it's waste back. I think we would see a big shift to reusable durable containers.

> The problem is that it's so cheap to make new things that recycling is almost never cost effective. I think I lost faith in the concept (at least in the current economic climate) right about the time I found out that old glass isn't re-melted for use as new glass items, it's just smashed up and used as aggregate for road beds.

Yes, this is correct, although, it is also important to note that the reason why plastic is so "cheap" is because the externalities of it are not captured in the price. To put this in a different perspective, it is best to think of plastic as having a price that is below its costs. Plastic today has a low price. At the same time, the world is becoming filled with it. This accumulation is developing severe and systemic long term consequences. Reverting the damage is extremely difficult, expensive, and some damage may be irreversible, such as the loss of life and ecosystems. The externalities produced by plastics can be seen as a form of long term debt. In this way, it makes it clear that plastic is not all that cheap. In fact, it's quite expensive.

So how can we alter this behavior? I'll venture on my own here by suggesting a similar proposal by Professor Nordhaus and his book The Climate Casino, which is to capture the cost of the externalities into the price through the use of taxation. Carbon taxes is the most supported form of reducing carbon emissions by economists. I wouldn't be surprised if the same support exists for reducing our plastic production. If the production of plastic is taxed at the bottom of the supply chain, thus making it more costly compared to alternative materials, then we should expect an automatic market restructure that will naturally phase it out.

I like the idea of carbon taxes in principle, however I'm afraid of public revolt against such taxes if it were introduced in practice. Hopefully I'm wrong but I don't think you can convince large swaths of the population and the immense private companies that control every aspect of daily life will willingly accept these as an added cost, but chaos instead and worse realities beyond that.

Maybe we do trial runs of these taxes or something? Has that been done before? A/B testing on public tax money?

This is a good point you are bringing up. There will naturally be push back. It is in our natural self-interest, and especially the self-interest of corporations, to not have to pay more. I did not mention this in my comment, but I will have you know that Professor Nordhaus is equally supportive of cap-and-trade. They are both equally effective in his eyes if executed to their potential. Which one is best is dependent on the country and its culture. For instance, Americans are particularly sensitive to rising taxation proposals than their European counterparts. Given this, it may be challenging to pass a carbon tax in the United States. It may be easier to have a cap-and-trade policy passed instead. It's nice to know we have this swift alternative, especially in this time of urgency. But something to consider is that the institutions needed to implement and support cap-and-trade are either non-existent or immature within the United States. Execution may be poor as a result. A carbon tax, however, will likely have greater success given tax institutions are well established here. Although American Conservatives are more resistant to the idea of rising taxation than their Liberal counterparts, know though that a portion of them do believe global warming is an issue that should be addressed. Given this, I believe a carbon tax or cap-and-trade is a winning strategy to win them over versus the popular proposals on the left, which is to reduce emissions through the means of overt regulation or government-owned projects.

Interesting. Cap and trade sounds similar to a carbon credit system but I think it could work in the US

If you don't account for the externalities of climate change, this is true. The true cost likely makes recycling economically productive.

How does poorly discarded plastic waste contribute to climate change? In fact, plastic is anti-climate change because the weight of it is much less than producing and transporting glass.

The reverse actually!

If you account for all the externalities recycling (except for metal) is terrible for the environment.

People only do it because it "feels good".

If you actually cared about the environment, metal should be recycled, and everything else burned for energy.

citation needed

That's why banning single use plastics is a solution.

A solution to what?

It's supposedly possible to produce load-bearing bricks out of glass, no idea if it is easy to do at scale though

California is pursuing similiar bans on single use plastics, and some are already banned in certain metro areas. Unfortunately, it seems like various restaurants and stores have simply started to distribute "non-single use" versions of the takeout containers and plastic bags which are more robust (ie. use more material), however, its likely these simply get discarded anyways which makes the problem worse. Other than the round "deli" containers which are great and I actually re-use. Only a few restaurants have switched to glass canning jars which can be reused easily, given away or recycled.

I have thought about this a bit and I wonder why can't you just have a return fee for the "non-single use" (probably glass) container. This would not be unheard of, if you've ever bought the expensive milks that come in a glass bottle you will get money if you bring the container back to the store (at least where I live). Also things like kegs and propane containers operate this way.

The problem is that this system at scale would require a widely accepted standard of "container", otherwise people would just accumulate an endless number of different containers for different restaurants so nothing ends up being reused.

In Canada that's referred to as a deposit and retailers will often price it on shelves without the deposit invluded, because technically it's like borrowing a shopping cart. Very related to this discussing, this week I found a $0.25 deposit on a 1.5L $2 plastic water bottle. That's enough for me to consider some kind of alternative.

That's what happens with most beers sold in bottles in Poland, there's a standardized bottle shape, you pay a little extra when buying such a beer. Even so, there's still a lot of beer bottles being trashed. Maybe the price is too low for most of people. In turn, this is what a lot of homeless people do, they collect such bottles for reimbursement.

In addition to replacing single use plastic bags with heavy weight reusable bags. We can't reuse bags any more due to covid19. So now we are single using heavy weight reusable plastic bags.

That’s weird. In Ontario we just temporarily shut off the fee for single use bags and used them while things were bad.

This is one proposed ban in California endorsed by Recology: https://plasticsfreeca.org

That is because it is an absurd waste of resources to use glass canning jars for takeout.

It might depend. Around my office in Paris there were a bunch of takeout salad bars that seemed fairly popular. Each would serve the salad in a dingy plastic bowl.

At some point last year, one of the places started selling glass bowls and inciting people to reuse them. They were pretty nice too, I actually went and bought one for my own use.

Most of those places' customers are people working in the local offices. So it's doable for them to wash the bowls and bring them back for another salad another day. I know at least one of the other salad bars would put your salad in your own bowl, so you wouldn't even be stuck going to the same place over and over.

It didn't really catch on with most people.

Having your own bowl won't give you any kind of discount at all. So I expect that aside from some people who actually want to do something for the environment, pretty much no one bothers to wash the bowl and drag it back to the salad place "for no reason". I think this also contributes to people's impression that plastic really is cheap (they're giving it away for free !) and that it's not really a problem for them to solve.

The most depressing thing is almost everything we do sucks for the environment at this scale. The only effective action I see is mass population decline. Just not having kids easily out weighs several lifetimes of being frugal.

I suppose it depends what your values are. Do you prioritize preserving the environment or maximizing the happiness and joy of human life? Those might not always, or even usually, be aligned.

It costs more for now. As it becomes the norm, I think we'll see many innovations and new strategies come to fruition.

I specifically like the idea of zero waste stores where you bring your own containers to fill. Not only do you eliminate waste, reusable and sealable containers are so much nicer than what most products come in.

I am very confident this is the case. When we have a well-oiled culture of reuse it will be easy and cheap to just show up with your various containers and do your shopping.

Labor is the biggest expense for businesses, and anything that increases number of man hours means higher costs.

Plastic wrapped items make it very easy for customers to shop themselves with minimal interaction from staff and for the store to still guarantee cleanliness standards. I can only imagine that people coming in with their own containers will require more staff to follow proper protocols in dispensing items and whatnot, resulting in higher costs.

the nut dispenser aisle in many grocery stores is unmanned and not a loss leader by any means. one need only bring their own vessel.

"only bring their own vessel" is easier task only for who comes by car.

Maybe even take it a step further and have standardized containers that you can drop off when you go shopping in exchange for clean ones and use those. The ones you dropped off can be sent off to a facility to deep clean them, similar to how beer bottles work.

A grocery store I used to live near had a hookup like this with a local dairy farm for their glass bottle milk. iirc returning the bottle also got you like $.25 off the next gallon at checkout.

> I specifically like the idea of zero waste stores where you bring your own containers to fill. Not only do you eliminate waste, reusable and sealable containers are so much nicer than what most products come in.

How would the food arrive at the store?

I used to buy food from a store with bulk bins. The store has a program where you can order the bags that they fill the bins from and pick those up directly--strong paper bags, usually around 25lbs. Lately I've found a mill and some other businesses nearby sell these bags of locally grown staple foods. By switching to the "upstream" bags, I've been able to choose local farms I want to support, nearly eliminate going to the supermarket (for produce I have a small, nearly-wild garden and do some foraging), and pay less for fresher food. Would it be possible to eliminate the 25lb bags from the loop? Probably, but they definitely reduce the friction of buying their contents, and they're made from a small amount (square-cube law) of material that makes a good sheet mulch.

>How would the food arrive at the store?

Large, also reusable containers.

I love glass. It would be nice to have a standardized glass container reusal system. Like what the milkman would do but on steroids. I would be happy to fund that with taxes.

If they went as far as to sanitize the containers with super hot water or something like that so as to not use chemicals, I would be so happy.

Aluminum is by far the most recyclable. It takes ENORMOUSLY less energy to produce an aluminum can by melting one down than from ore.

Paper and glass also make economic sense to recycle. However, paper recycling is limited to making egg cartons, paper shopping bags, pizza boxes, and other low quality items. A lot of glass that gets recycled is actually crushed and used for fill, though most is actually recycled.

Plastic recycling largely meant putting it in container ships with other garbage and sending it off to Asia where it gets buried or burned. Once Asian countries said STOP DOING THIS a year or two ago, plastic "recycling" no longer made any sense.

I like glass and far prefer it to plastic in every use case. That said, I don't look forward to a glass future unless it's unbreakable. Trashy people are trashy, and litter whatever they have. I remember vividly as a kid streets spotted with broken soda bottles, and an occasional beer bottle. I'd much prefer not to return to those times.

Glass bottles never went away though, did they? Or is it mostly plastic and aluminium in the US now?

Mostly plastic and aluminum. You can still find some more niche items in glass, sometimes. But if you're in a convenient store buying a soda, you'll certainly getting plastic, at least since the 90s.

True soda is plastic in Europe too. But I'd say beer is mostly glass still, though that greatly depends on the country.

Such a ban on single-use plastics came into effect last year in India. As they say "devil is in the details" , there were a bunch of criteria defined for the ban. Eg material for carrybags, thickness for some items & so on. Immediately, everywhere the polythene bags are replaced by poly-something-else bags . (Polystyrene?) . And the items which were banned based on micron thickness, were replaced by items which are one micron thicker than that limit . The one-time-use factor did not change a bit. Instead of that older material, we're now throwing newer / different / thicker material.

It is still plastic, non-biodegradable, single-use, garbage.


Watch out how Canada does.

* That's polythene bags replaced by polypropylene bags

I see people trying to recycle pizza boxes all the damn time. I just shake my head.

Most people don't know how to properly separate their garbage.

We would be better off if everyone just produced less trash full stop.

Why is everything in the super market wrapped in plastic 2-3 times?

You can’t recycle pizza boxes where you are? It’s corrugated cardboard right? That stuff recycles well I thought. They just slurry it down to a mash and reconstitute paper or whatever.

Any food / grease contaminates the recycling process heavily. If your pizza box is empty and never touched food, sure, but more likely than not, trash it.

Oils from the cheese make cardboard non-recyclable.

Even worse, it can ruin an entire processing batch because the grease ruins the quality of the resulting cardboard stock.

Lol Thanks for making my point for me..

When Chicago banned single use bags, the side effect was very durable disposable bags. They were a vew mils thick and great for heavy stuff, but overkill for dog poop and kitchen trash.

You have to also take into count the weight and the resource cost of shipping. Or alternatively the time cost of repackaging/reusing.

If used plastic can be safely stored for just a cent but glass takes someone 5 minutes to reuse, your probably making things worse however you measure it.

All plastic should be considered single use because even when recyclable it only gets to do that once and only for about 1/3 of the material.

> Even if it costs more it’s just the right thing to do.

Why not use plastic once and then put it into a landfill?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact