Tag Archives: plastics

Prices plummeting – even for recyclables

Prices: n. amount charged to purchase or sell something.

Plummet: v. to drop sharply and abruptly

The stock market plummets. Real estate values plummet. Employment plummets. And now the price of recycled materials.

Visions of Wall-E: a planet buried in waste.

One of my small pleasures these days, since I can’t afford to acquire stuff, is getting rid of stuff. Much of that stuff is paper, which gets picked up once a week, hauled off someplace, then converted into something new and useful.  I’ve also become such a skillful recycler of plastics, cans, glass (and composter of plant materials) that I need only one garbage pickup a month.

However, according to today’s paper, the recycling pipeline has hit a major snag:

The economic downturn has decimated the market for recycled materials like cardboard, plastic, newspaper and metals. Across the country, this junk is accumulating by the ton in the yards and warehouses of recycling contractors, which are unable to find buyers or are unwilling to sell at rock-bottom prices.

Ordinarily the material would be turned into products like car parts, book covers and boxes for electronics. But with the slump in the scrap market, a trickle is starting to head for landfills instead of a second life.

Mixed paper (my specialty!) which sold for $105 a ton on the West Coast in October now goes for about $25. Prices are much much lower in other parts of the country, which leaves the collection facilities with heaps that look like this:


There are no signs yet of a nationwide abandonment of recycling programs. But industry executives say that after years of growth, the whole system is facing an abrupt slowdown.

Many large recyclers now say they are accumulating tons of material, either because they have contracts with big cities to continue to take the scrap or because they are banking on a price rebound in the next six months to a year.

China, once a big buyer of our crap, is also in an economic slump so they don’t want it any more. For quite awhile recycling was profitable for cities and businesses – a little extra income on the side.  No more – all that recycling infrastructure is expensive to maintain if the profit disappears.

We’ve got two possible paths:

  • Dramatically reduce packaging, as well as production of stuff that will need to be disposed of
  • Come up with some brilliant new uses for, and processes to convert efficiently, all the crap we’ve accumulated and no longer wish to keep

If you’ve ever been to a third world country where they lack the infrastructure to process waste, you know what a dismal mess our world could become if we don’t figure this one out. Scary shit.

Paula Poundstone: “Pitch it to us, Obama!”

Paula Poundstone: n. an American standup comedian known for her self-deprecating wit and political commentary. One of my favorite guests on the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”

Pitch: v. to throw, usually with a particular objective or toward a particular point

This morning Paula Poundstone did a sweet little guest mini-essay on NPR’s Morning Edition, telling Obama not to drop the ball, not to let us –  his newly charged up minions – off the hook when the country has so much that needs doing.

I was listening to this as I was walking my dog – leash and plastic bag for poop in one hand, and in the other hand a bigger plastic bag for the recyclable litter that collects on my route every day.  (On one residential block I always find a couple of empty pint Canadian whiskey bottles – and wonder, is this person driving on my road every day?).  Since I’ve seen first hand the horrors of our plastic addiction, I’m rabid about this daily task.

Here’s what Paula said:

My parents are a part of the “Greatest Generation.” They pulled our nation through the Depression and World War II, and when they heard the call, they collected rubber….

It’s our turn now. Just ask us. We’ve adopted freeways and been up all night with night feedings. We’ll bring an unwrapped gift. We’ll bring canned goods. We’ll collect flip-tops. Yes, we will.

What do you need us to do, President-elect Obama? We could form a bucket brigade to bail out the banks. We could collect Band-Aids, not the useless little ones, for the health care system. We could take shifts forming human pyramids to hold up our crumbling bridges….

We can carry road-mending materials in our cars and fill pot holes during traffic jams. We can put a wishing well on Wall Street.

Our leadership has told us that we have a long, hard climb before us, which I would welcome, because I love the outdoors, and I could use the weight loss, but I have a bad feeling it has nothing to do with climbing.

I’m waiting. I’m punching my glove. It’s oiled and ready. Pitch it in here, sir.

Certainly it wouldn’t be a big sacrifice to ask all of us who walk to bring along a bag for recyclables.  We could each plant a tree. We could drop our furnace settings by 1 degree. We could go meat and dairy-free one day a week.  So much to do.

On Obama’s transition website, change.gov, he’s got a page where you can share your vision for his administration. This is the place to pitch your ideas on how he can keep us engaged in this work together.

Plastics pandemic

From “The Graduate” 1967.  Mr. McGuire’s career advice to the young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman):

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.

Oh how right Mr. McGuire was.  From various websites I’ve culled a few of the dozens of terrifying facts about our love affair with plastic.

When I was in Vietnam and Cambodia this spring I saw what happens when everybody uses plastic and plastic waste management is virtually non-existent.  This photo is from the Phillippines, but I saw the same thing in Cambodia:

Plastic Bags

Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.

Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest.

Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC, one group harvests 30,000 per month.

Plastic water bottles

Americans bought 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006.

Producing PET bottles uses more than 17 million barrels of oil and produces over 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.  For each gallon of water that goes into a PET bottle, two gallons of water are used to make the plastic bottles and purify the water . 462 million gallons of oil are needed each year to transport water bottles from the factory to the point of sale.

Plastic residues

In the North Pacific, an enormous gyre (slowly circulating spiral of water) is now known as the “Eastern Garbage Patch. The currents here tend to force any floating material into the low energy central area of the gyre where it stays in the gyre, in astounding quantities estimated at six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton.  This tower of trash covers an area the size of Texas. This is only one of several gigantic gyres in the world’s oceans.

Larger plastic items are consumed by seabirds and other animals which mistake them for prey. Many seabirds and their chicks have been found dead, their stomachs filled with medium sized plastic items such as bottle tops, lighters and balloons. It has been estimated that over a million sea-birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and sea turtles are killed each year by ingestion of plastics or entanglement.

This poor albatross must have had a horrible stomach ache before he died.

Dutch scientists have counted around 110 pieces of litter for every square kilometre of the seabed, a staggering 600,000 tons in the North Sea alone. These plastics can smother the sea bottom and kill the marine life which is found there.

For more information see Green Sangha – Lots and lots of good stuff, including a Powerpoint presentation  you can use to spread the word.

Also see Reusable Bags

Best of Life magazine on the ocean gyres.

And this video on the Garbage Patch:

I’ve been using cloth bags when I shop for a long time. Now I’m washing and re-using the plastic baggies that I seem to accumulate regardless.  Your ideas welcome.