The Rise in Waste Legislation: Part 2

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When we are looking at any issue, it is incredibly important that we look at both sides of the issue. My last blog covered the background of major legislation being considered such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) and the Recycle Act. It also covered many of the positives of these legislative actions, but I want to cover the negatives that I see these legislative actions bringing forth as well. Finally, I will go over my suggestions on what I think would be the appropriate actions.

Cons of Current Waste Legislation

While these efforts might be well intentioned, that doesn’t mean they are the best changes we can make. For starters, these changes would be very expensive. One of the beautiful things about capitalism is that it drives companies to reduce waste as much as possible. Plastic manufacturers are motivated to reduce any waste throughout their process, as well as reduce the amount of material required to make their products, because it saves them money. This is part of the reason you have likely seen an increase in ultra thin water bottles and a shift to more flexible packaging. These products require less material than the alternatives and perfectly align with reduce, reuse, and recycle.

As I have said in the past, the concept of reduce, reuse, recycle is an order of operations. Reducing your material usage and consumption is the most effective way to have a positive environmental impact. This is something that happens as a direct result of our free market model. When we interfere to try and make packaging that is more “recyclable” it will lead to more robust and thicker materials, which likely means more plastic. On top of this, as an industry, we would be putting the bulk of recycling responsibility still on consumers. Consumers will still need to be the ones that make sure the products they use end up in the recycling bin.

Another direct response of thicker and more robust packaging is higher costs. Packaging makes up a varied amount of the total cost of products. This number can range anywhere from 1 to 40% of the cost, but the average is about 9% of the total cost. That means for every $11 you spend on products, $1 goes directly to packaging.

If we require more compostable and recyclable packaging, there would almost certainly be an increase in packaging costs across the board. In my experience, I would estimate this would lead to about 2X the packaging costs. Producers of packaging materials won’t be able to absorb these costs and they will be passed directly onto consumers. This means that everything you have been buying would increase by close to 9% in cost.

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Since the household income of two-thirds of America is less than 100k annually, this would be hugely detrimental to medium and low income families. They won’t be able to afford nearly as much as they can based on the current structure. This will drive more families deeper into poverty by making essential goods more expensive.

On top of all of this, the issues with using thicker materials continue. Switching to either thicker plastic or potentially glass means we will be working with additional weight. Thus, we will be expending additional energy not only to produce these products, but also to transport these goods. Trucks will require additional fuel to carry the extra weight, leading to even higher emissions. What’s more important, the efficiency of how the waste is managed, or all the energy required to produce and transport a good?

Speaking of using alternatives to plastic, would creating a bag tax on plastic really help anything? As I said in the last post, I do believe it is an effective way to drive consumers to use less. If they have to pay for every bag, then it will drive them to use and consume less. However I want to make sure that these bag bills apply to EVERY bag and not just plastic bags. The data tells us that paper bags required 4X the energy to produce as plastic bags so switching from plastic to paper isn’t a genuine solution. If we really want to drive change, these bag bills should apply to all bags in an effort to drive consumers to reuse bags and consume less. Plus this tax could be used for other important issues such as recycling education.

The Conclusion

I’m not going to lie, some of these laws scare me. My entire professional life has been built around plastic packaging and these laws are guaranteed to disrupt that industry. I’m not alone in this either. The plastic industry is the 8th largest industry in the US, estimated to include over a million jobs, and 432 million dollars in shipments. That’s a lot of people directly impacted by these changes. And that’s not even including all of the people that would be indirectly effected such as those in the food and transportation industry.

However as I’ve said before, I don’t think it makes sense to support industries just because people work in them. We instead need to try and be as objective as possible when looking at these issues and take a utilitarian approach of whatever makes the greatest good for the most people. That being said, even if we are going to leverage the power of legislative actions, I think it’s important to have a plan for both the industries themselves to pivot, as well as having plans for alternatives. Removing options (plastic) without viable replacements isn’t a genuine solution.

So what genuine solutions can we actually consider? I believe the Recycle Act hits a lot of the pros without as many of the cons. For starters, based on our current structure, regardless of if we attempt to implement EPR, we will still be putting the responsibility of recycling products correctly on consumers. They will be the ones who need to put the right items into recycling bins in the correct way (clean and dry) . This is even more important if they want their goods to be cheap, otherwise EPR will mean bad recycling habits, which equates to higher cost of goods.

If we want to get at the root of our recycling issue, we need to address education surrounding our waste and recycling. That is the only way we will be able to begin to address the challenges of recycling. One of the simplest ways to achieve this would be a standardized labeling system. This is something I deeply believe the industry is missing. While I believe that capitalism is able to drive change, this is one example where I find it lacking. The plastic and packaging industry is simply too big to get aligned in a timely manner to create a standardized labeling system across the board. If a regulating agency such as the EPA produced a standard it would not only align the industry around a standard, but it would educate consumers. It would also likely drive alignment between producers and waste processors since the labels would need to be in agreement on how they are handled at end of life.

A standardized labeling system coupled with grants to increase education across the country would almost certainly lead to greater education for all consumers. Since this would require additional funding, I believe a bag bill for ALL bags (both plastic and paper) would be an effective way to recover some additional funds from consumers that aren’t willing to change their behavior, with the alternative simply being consumers using reusable bags.

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However these recycling pushes need to be coupled with removing ineffective recycling efforts. I am specifically referring to the export of our “recyclables” to foreign countries, since those are rarely fully recycled. Removing the option to ship recyclables to other countries has to be combined with a domestic recycling infrastructure plan because recent studies have found that removing sale of waste to foreign nations leads to our recyclables simply ending up in the trash.

Lastly, I think there is value in understanding the risk factors associated with materials like plastic. Recent studies have shown that certain chemicals and plastics have risks to our reproductive system and general health. These studies need to be expanded so we can get a more precise idea of exactly which materials pose a threat to our health. Once we have that knowledge solidified, we should drive them out of our economy. I don’t however think it is worth shutting down the entire plastic industry overnight in an effort to stop materials that “might” be harmful. That would simply be too harmful to our economy.

So in summary, we should do the following: 1) Develop a standardized label system 2) Offer grants to increase consumer education 3) Implement a bag bill on ALL materials (possibly for any single use item outside of packaging) 4) Stop the shipment of waste and recyclables to foreign nations 5) Create a domestic recycling infrastructure plan (assuming there is a net benefit to this plan) and lastly 6) Fund scientific studies to understand which materials pose health risks and remove those from the market.

Yeahhh, it’s a lot. I love simple solutions as much as the next guy, but sometimes complex issues require thorough and complex solutions. But what do you think? Did I get it all wrong? How do you think we should address these issues? Let me know in the comments.

Those Electronics Don’t Belong in the Trash

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In our modern world, it’s nearly impossible to go without electronics. They’re built into every component of our lives. Whether it is the cell phone we use as our alarm clock in the morning, the computer we use to write and read content like this, or even the electric cars that are beginning to power our commutes. Electronics are inescapable, and for good reason. They power lives. They offer greater connection, allowing us to do things our grand parents couldn’t have dreamed of.

Though, there’s one important thing that we tend to forget about; what happens once these electronics have finished serving their purpose? I have seen countless drawers over the years at friends’ houses with a collection of cellphones, MP3 players, and spent batteries that we no longer knew what to do with. However, these are all items that still have value if you dispose of them properly.

You’ve probably seen symbols like this one on various electronics around the house:

WEEE: Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

This logo is put on electronics to try and communicate exactly what it looks like: Don’t put these items in the trash with everyhting else. This logo, also called WEEE, stands for Waste from Electrical and Electric Equipment. And you guessed it, the logo goes on electrical equipment.

Rolled out in the early 2000’s in Europe, the WEEE directive to put these logos on everything was started for an important reason. Not only is it incredibly wasteful for us to just throw our electronics in the trash, they can be dangerous. Many of the batteries that power the items we use daily are full of toxic chemicals that can leach into our environment and water ways.

In addition to this, many of these products have valuable resources within them that can be recycled. Those toxic and dangerous chemicals often need to be mined. When we recycle out batteries, we can harvest the valuable resources in the recycling process and reduce the amount of additonal mining we need to do. But keep in mind these items don’t belong in your curbside recycling bin.

The most important question: If not in the trash or our regular recycling, where do these items belong? Well, lucky for us, there are electronic waste facilities all over. One of the easiest places to start are the same stores that you buy your electronics from. Think of places like Best Buy or your local hardware stores. There are other great resources like Call2Recycle and Earth911, which both have a ton of additional information and a recycling location finder.

Realistically you aren’t going to run to the store every time you have a battery to get rid of. This is why it’s important to have a place to store them in the meantime in your home. Try to create a place where battery terminals won’t touch. Think of how batteries are bought, all on their side without the ends touching. Even though the batteries don’t have the power to charge your devices, they can still be dangerous when all compounded together. Having a storage space set up will make it easier every time you have another battery or old cell phone to toss.

Have any ideas on getting rid of electronics that works well for you? Share them below! New ideas are always appreciated.

Are Plastic Bags Recyclable?

If you didn’t already know, those plastic bags you get from the grocery store and the pouches a lot of your beloved grocery store items come in can’t be recycled at your house. People frequently make this mistake and toss anything plastic into the recycle bin and assume, “they’ll sort it out at the recycling facility.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Recycling facilities try their best to sort out good recyclables VS. contaminants, but it’s a hard and expensive job. Employees and machinery spend all day next to a conveyor belt looking for things that don’t belong. But if you can’t tell what’s recyclable when you can get a good look at a package, how do we expect someone to spot bad/good items when hundreds of items are coming down a conveyor?

There are a lot of things that get tossed in recycling that aren’t actually recyclable, but plastic bags are a major culprit. According to the EPA‘s most recent numbers, we create almost 37 million tons of plastic waste. Of that 37 million, only 3.1 million tons are recycled. Meaning we aren’t even recycling 10% of our plastic waste. Now some of that is due to the type of plastic being used, which you can read about here, but there are some simple ways we can change our recycling habits to make a huge impact.

One of the biggest ways we can improve our recycling habits is by putting recyclables in the right place. The easiest place to start? Keep plastic bags out of our recycling bins. Plastic bags and flexible packaging in general can cause a number of problems when they get mixed in with recycling bins.

For starters, they make it really challenging to sort other recyclables. It’s really easy for other bottles, cans, or paper to get stuck inside of bags. This not only makes it really challenging to separate the different materials, but can lead to mislabeling those items stuck in bags. This can lead to paper or aluminum contaminating the plastic recyclables. Unfortunately these bags and any items trapped inside can end up just being sent to the landfill.

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The main concern when it comes to plastic bags is that they can’t be ground up in the same equipment used with other recyclable plastic. In fact they can get tangled up in the machinery, gumming things up and damaging the machinery. This is why it’s so important to keep your bags out of recycling bin. We are talking about thousands of dollars in damage because you put the wrong thing in the recycling bin. This can make it challenging for these operations to be profitable, which in turn makes it hard to charge low prices for the outputs after being processed. It hurts the entire recycling industry. So keep those bags out of your recycling and NEVER bag your recyclables.

This isn’t all doom and gloom though. These plastic bags still have value and can be recycled in their own way. As we have talked about in other blog posts, the How2Recycle program offers a lot of great information on how to handle these bags. These programs have a system of drop-off locations. So simply collect those bags at home and bring them in to one of their locations to be recycled. They will be turned into things like Trex lumber to give them a new valuable purpose. But remember, this only applies to bags that are appropriately labeled or listed on How2Recycle’s website as acceptable. Things like cellophane, biodegradable, compostable, or frozen food bags cannot be brought to these locations. They are made from incompatible materials.

I know at my house we all collect our grocery bags and other acceptable flexible packaging in our pantry. Then every couple weeks we bring them to grocery store close by that accepts store drop offs. So next time you have a bag and you are reaching for the trash or recycling, think again and start a bag collection of your own! Let me know if you have any questions about where your flexible packaging should go. I’d be happy to help!