As we have seen in the previous section, even when we use figures from industry sources, we are still left with major questions unanswered. Ideally, someday all discards will be reused or recycled and none will be wasted. But what should be done today necessarily comes down to how scarce resources and funds can be used most effectively.
Published studies and phone conversations with discard handlers in other communities can provide valuable perspective. What we find is wide variation in programs. Major variables include the type of sorting that occurs; the degree to which plastic container manufacturers participate; and how much plastic handling is integrated into the rest of the discard management system.
St. Paul, Minnesota
The Saint Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium (NEC) studied whether to add plastic bottles to the City of Saint Paul’s existing curbside recycling program. They estimated that curbside collection of PET and HDPE (#1 and 2) could cost $334 per ton for labor and equipment. Sorting would add $110 per ton. Collecting only PET at curbside would cost between $245 and $325 per ton. These figures compare favorably with those from other midwestern and eastern cities, which ranged from $300 to $1400 per ton.
In all the cases they studied, taxpayers pay the costs of collection and sorting. While PET and HDPE plastic bottles would have made up only about 3% of the recyclables collected, they would account for 12% of the collection budget. Based on their study, the NEC concluded that it would not be in the interest of the Saint Paul taxpayers or the city’s natural environment to add plastics to the recycling program unless it were done through additional dropoff sites. They noted that the public was not asking for collection of plastics when the study was done in April 1994. Rather, a plastics industry organization had initiated the discussion. No other packaging industry had come forward to ask that their materials be added to the Saint Paul program.
The Saint Paul researchers concluded that while curbside collection of plastics might serve the interests of the plastics industry, it was not beneficial to the residents of Saint Paul and, in fact, could jeopardize the existing recycling program.
The City of Philadelphia provides curbside recycling services to 560,000 households. Budgetary limitations forced the recycling office to stop collecting plastics. Plastics were dropped instead of other materials because of their low density. Plastic took up about 45% of the collection volume but contributed only 6% of the weight.
El Cerrito, California
The City of El Cerrito picks up PET containers at curbside. The manager of the collection program estimates that 1/4 to 1/3 of all the plastics collected are incompatible or unrecyclable and must be sent to a landfill. Plastics collected at curbside are less contaminated than the plastics collected at the dropoff facility because the El Cerrito collection crews are trained to hand-sort the materials that residents set out, and they leave the unrecyclable plastics in the collection bins. The recycling program director indicated that a major problem is the confusion caused by the chasing arrows symbol, as discussed earlier. Since the symbol appears on so many things, it causes the public to think that all plastics are recyclable.
Sonoma County, California
Sonoma County cut waste at its landfills by 39% from 1989 to 1995 despite rapid population growth. Little of this change had to do with increased curbside program participation. Instead, consumers purchased less and therefore threw away less disposable packaging. Shoppers who avoided elaborately wrapped goods not only reduced waste but sent a message to retailers that overpackaged goods were not acceptable.
Germany’s Green Dot program illustrates the “polluter pays” principle. The Green Dot program requires industries to take back, reuse, or recycle packaging materials including plastics. Companies that do so are permitted to display the ecomark Green Dot on their product.
The program was implemented by national ordinance in 1993, and by early 1994 several changes had occurred. Packaging consumption had been reduced by 4%; the proportion of beverages sold in refillable containers had increased; reusable and recyclable shipping containers had been developed; and many other product packages had been eliminated or were made easier to recycle. One of the provisions in the legislation was that stores were required to provide bins for customers to use for discarded packaging. This requirement led retailers to pressure suppliers to reduce these materials.
The German program is not without its problems. Since the main drive of the program was to preserve shrinking landfill capacity, closing the materials-flow loop was not imperative. As a result, Germany exports post-consumer plastic and other materials, some of which are highly contaminated. Much of these exports go to Asia, where some is reclaimed and the rest is openly dumped. Also, the packaging industry was permitted to establish a separate, privately financed operation, called Duales System Deutschland (DSD) to collect and sort packaging materials. DSD has run out of capacity and is experiencing financial problems because of delinquent Green Dot payments from industry. Problems with the program notwithstanding, transferring responsibility to product and packaging manufacturers has yielded positive results, most visibly in the reduced volume of packaging.
Taiwan instigated mandatory recycling of PET soft drink bottles because of shrinking landfill capacity. The country’s twelve soft-drink manufacturers put out receptacles for the bottles, collect and sort them, and pay for baling. Baled plastic material is picked up and converted to reusable resin by a recycling corporation established by the country’s two largest PET bottle makers.
The industries that participate are permitted to display an ecomark on their products. An important feature of the program is governmentally arranged education in the nation’s grade schools about the environmental benefits of purchasing ecomarked products. Similar systems are being set up for other products, including soy sauce containers.
This is one program that facilitates primary, not secondary, recycling. Since the post-consumer material goes directly back to the manufacturers, there is a strong incentive to consider recyclability and source reduction as a part of product design. One problem with the program was that it initially required authoritarian government intervention to get it going, and that encountered strong resistance from businesses. Nevertheless, by late 1995 more than 65% of Taiwan’s PET bottles were being recycled.
Some common elements
These examples teach us the following :
- Collecting discarded plastics at curbside and processing them is expensive and requires subsidies, usually from taxpayers.
- Increasing the collection of high-density non-plastic materials (paper, magazines, and yard debris) can be a more cost effective way to reduce the municipal solid waste stream than collecting plastics.
- A large percentage of the target plastic material will be missed by collection programs (even Taiwan’s comprehensive PET reclamation program lets more than 30% of the targeted containers slip through to the landfill).
- Collected material includes a percentage of unusable contamination that must be landfilled.
- Recycling programs providing benefits such as closed-loop material flow and highest and best use of resources work best with full participation by the companies that make the material in the first place. Programs that make manufacturers take responsibility for the life of the materials they produce, as in Germany and Taiwan, have the best results.