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As Long as We Remember...

July 3, 2008

Recycling’s Flip Side – Part 3

Farrell Keough

Recycling is not the simple toss-it-in- the-blue-in-and-save-the-planet activity that we generally believed. While it has value, we have seen that it is not the panacea generally ascribed. Today we will consider a few of the existing situations which strip away the benefits attributed to recycling.


As we have discussed, only a select range of plastics and paper can be recycled. Determining that percentage is allusive. Rolan Clark has written both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and various trade and environmental agencies, (at the EPA’s direction) in an attempt to determine these figures, but to date, nothing definitive has been returned.


Considering the actual quantities of plastics and paper that can be recycled and accounting for the waste, that number might be as low as 50 percent. Of course, with most plastic recycling, applying any number would still yield a serious problem in the actual lifespan of the product.


For plastics, most is sent overseas to China or various emerging Asian nations. “Over the next five years, domestic demand for polyethylene should grow by 1.5–2% annually, [Howard] Rappaport [Chemical Market Associates Inc.] predicts. In the past, he says, the resin's growth rate has paralleled that of the global GDP, about 2–3% annually. The main reason for the slower U.S. growth is that more and more finished goods made from polyethylene are being manufactured overseas, thereby slowing domestic demand for the plastic.” *


Very similar occurrences are taking place with recycled paper goods. In short, our recycled products are traveling overseas. For instance, ships coming to our shores from China are filled with products we purchase. Upon their return, they often carry loads of recycled goods rather than having an empty hull. This means that our fuel sources are used to carry vast loads of recycled product long distances. While this may seem to be a reasonable trade-off, when one considers carbon footprint of transporting these goods, the trade off is not advantageous.


How can such a statement be made? Consider this: virtually all plastics transported overseas return in a form that is no longer recyclable. Hence, we have not achieved the aim of consistently using and re-using our plastics, but rather we have achieved the feel-good action of filling the blue bin, only to have the product return to our shores in a form no longer available to recycling.


Consider what we are seeing from this analysis: only a partial percentage of those products we put in the blue bin are actually recycled; and many of those are returned to our shores in a form that is no longer available to recycling. This is not the circle of use, recycle and re-use, ad infinitum that we so often hear touted.


Yet it does not stop there. The really ugly side of our sending our recycling overseas includes tremendous pollution of these foreign nations and horrifying treatment of adults and children.


"It is being recycled, but it's being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, the Seattle-based environmental group that tipped off Hong Kong authorities. "We're preserving our own environment, but contaminating the rest of the world." **


First hand accounts of children using pliers to disassemble computer boards for valuable parts, then tossing the remainder into fire pits are replete. Massive burning of throw away recycled products has covered the skies and grounds of many of these emerging nations. Waterways are flowing with toxic materials from these recycling plants. In short, we are making sure our own small communities rid themselves of this recyclable waste, but we do so at a tremendous expense to other nations. While it may feel good to fill the blue bin, when we recognize our effects on other people, (especially children) it is a very ugly picture indeed.


There is no reason to go into the sordid details of these horrific conditions. References are provided at the bottom of this column for more research.  We have places within the United States that handle our recyclable products, but due to the cheap labor in these foreign nations, it is becoming more and more difficult to compete. Hence, to be honest with ourselves, we must account for the full lifecycle of our recycled products and determine the best approach.


Recycling can serve a useful purpose and the aim of this series of columns was not to declare it is a waste or even unethical. But, we must account for the realities of what occurs once the blue bin is retrieved.


As we consider increasing our level of recycling locally and nationally, we must account for the markets, the affects on other nations, and are we in fact only getting a one time re-use from our recycled goods? We must face these issues with eyes open rather than through rose colored glasses.


* – Softer domestic, export demand could cap polyethylene prices - Gordon Graff, 4/10/2008

** America Ships Electronic Waste Overseas – Terence Chea (AP Writer)




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