Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Reduce, reuse and recycle are the 3Rs. Cut down on your consumption, reuse what you can and recycle the rest, if you can. I love the large blue recycle container that the city of Santa Fe provides and I dutifully fill it every week with “recyclable” paper, cans, cardboard and plastics. And then it all disappears, every week. I have the illusion of doing my part as a good citizen. But what really happens to the “recyclables” I fill the blue container with?
Recycling, when it works, does reduce greenhouse gas emissions because we are using less materials and energy to make new products. Items manufactured from recycled materials require less energy to produce as we are not mining for materials or destroying forests for virgin materials.
First, recycling has rules. Did I follow the rules when I tossed everything in the recycle container? I do wash my cans and other containers and leave on the caps. But what about all that plastic? There are so many different kinds and the labels are hard to see and hard to understand. The City of Santa Fe has a website that offers some clarification. As directed, I do not put in glass, plastic bags, saran wrap or Styrofoam. But I am suspicious about all that plastic, including packing materials and the clam shells that hold fruit, vegetables, baked goods and take-out. I regularly toss them in the blue bin. What really happens to them?
Waste paper makes up about 27% of the city’s waste-stream. The effect of recycling just one ton of paper, as reported by the EPA, would save enough energy to power my house for six months, save water, reduce greenhouse gases and spare lots of trees. Most waste paper is made into cellulose insulation. Likewise, recycling metals does result in substantial energy savings. But recycling as it currently works, is not cost-effective. And plastic is the worst culprit.
According to Greenpeace and an article in the Guardian from February, most of the plastic that is put in our recycling bins is not recycled.
“While the report found there is still a strong recycling market for bottles and jugs labeled #1 or #2, such as plastic water bottles and milk containers,” the Guardian wrote, “the pipeline has bottomed out for many plastics labelled #3-7, which fall into the category dubbed mixed plastics.”
Greenpeace surveyed 367 recycling facilities and found that only 15% accepted clamshells.
Plastic producers have been lying about the recyclable nature of their products for years. It makes the consumer feel good if they think it’s all recyclable. And producers have been dumping the cost of recycling onto over-stressed local governments. Many areas, such as Taos, can no longer afford to recycle plastic or glass and these products are filling landfills everywhere. Martin Bourque, who directs a recycling center in Berkeley, explains: “Let’s get real about what is recyclable,” he said. “Now, instead of making money, we’re paying $75 a ton to subsidize these (plastic) brands and packagers who make all this stuff.”
Randall Kippenbrock is executive director of the Santa Fe Waste Management Agency. I asked him what happens to the plastic that we toss in our blue bins. He said that “80% of it is #1 and 2. There is a market for it and it is reprocessed in the U.S.”
He told me that a small portion is #3-7, and that includes clamshells and packaging. Since the China ban on importing our plastic waste, there is no market for it. It is not recyclable, even though the city website still says it is. It goes to Freedman Recycling and it ends up in the landfill. I asked Randall why the city doesn’t change its website and why it allows people, like me, to put nonrecyclable plastic in the blue bins. Turns out it was a practical decision.
“It’s easier it let people toss it in,” he said. “A decision was made to keep the program intact. There may be a market eventually.”
It is the same story in Albuquerque and Las Cruces.
“Recycling does not pay for itself,” Kippenbrock explained. “It is a service and it saves the cost of landfill.”
He told me that the market has bottomed out not only for plastic, but also for waste paper, and even metal. And echoing other recyclers, Randall said, “The recycling industry needs to work with producers. Producers need to increase the mandates of what they need to reuse.”
In the meantime, we all need to be more thoughtful consumers and more mindful of what we put in our blue bins. It does not just magically disappear.
Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and is a student of climate change. She can be reached at email@example.com