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The Recycling Myth


I watched the conveyor belt whiz past and recognized the brand of toothbrush I use. And was that the same takeout sushi container I get all the time? Could those plastic items heading to the landfill have been mine?

As the founder of Sea Hugger, a nonprofit organization working to protect the marine environment from plastic pollution, I was invited to tour Recology’s San Francisco Recycling Center to see how the recycling process works. Recology is employee-owned and committed to recycling as much waste as possible. But with the average American producing 4.4 pounds of trash per day, the sheer volume of materials that pass through the facility is astounding.

According to Robert Reed, Recology’s Public Relations Manager, “Six hundred tons of material comes through the tipping floor each day, that’s equivalent to the weight of 38 Muni buses.” Recology said the most efficient way to manage our waste isn’t to rely on recycling; it is to consume fewer single-use items.

I stood on that tipping floor and saw those muni bus-sized piles of rubbish spilling out of Recology’s trucks into a massive jumble of paper, plastic, glass, and metal. The beep beep beep of the reversing trucks and the cacophony of crashes, crunches, and breaking glass assaulted my ears. As did the unpleasant odor; it was as if I had stepped into my recycling bin.

We left the tipping floor and climbed a flight of stairs to the landing of the first conveyor belt where the initial sorting is done by hand. The conveyor belt moved at high speed as five sorters stood on each side grabbing plastic bags and tossing them into a shoot marked Landfill. Now that China stopped buying our recyclables, the plastic wholesale market has dropped from $120 to just $5 a ton, and there is no market for plastic bags, which despite being banned in San Francisco in 2007, were found throughout the facility in startling numbers.

The second stage of the sorting involved an optical sorting machine that shot a blast of air when it identified a piece of plastic ejecting it into a large bin for baling. There are two issues here: first, the optics cannot identify black plastic on the black conveyor belt; and second,no small items (straws, utensils, lids, stirrers, etc.) are recognized by the optics. Off to the landfill they go.

I hear the excuse all the time, “I use single-use plastic, but I recycle it, so it’s OK.” Unfortunately, that is not the truth. Approximately 91% of all plastic waste ever created has never been recycled. I witnessed this shocking statistic while standing alongside the conveyor belt. There is no way to ensure that everything you place in your recycling bin and wheel to the curb each week is actually getting recycled.

“Low oil prices make it cheaper for companies to just make plastic from scratch,” according to Terracycle CEO Tom Szaky. There is little incentive to use recycled materials, and even if all plastic was recycled, it is made from crude oil and cannot be recycled indefinitely. At some point it is discarded, takes centuries to degrade, and current scientific research shows it is toxic to us and our environment. Are we really OK with this?

We are at the tipping point. We now know that plastic exists in one form or another forever and has caused severe damage to our oceans. An estimated 100 million aquatic animals die every year because they mistake plastic debris for food. If this does not disturb you, consider that microplastic (plastic pieces less than five millimeters long) has been found in our water supply, soil, salt, beer, seafood, bottled water, and has recently been discovered in human feces. Marine plastic is impacting our food chain and as it breaks down, releases greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Furthermore, the health of the ocean is unequivocally vital to the health of our planet.

Americans consume twice as much as those in developing nations, and our buying patterns affect what large corporations offer. If we demand change, support ecologically responsible companies, and replace our consumables with reusables, our collective voice will be heard.

As one of the wealthiest nations, Americans have a lot of power to affect change. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then the wallet is mightier than the corporate board. Let’s stop assuming we can recycle our way out of the plastic pollution epidemic and refuse, rethink, and reuse. We caused this problem. Together we can fix it.

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