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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Is there a polite way to say "Too much plastic"?

Uploaded: Sep 20, 2020
I probably should have held my tongue. It was a nice event, organized and executed by volunteers. But I was already aggravated because the outdoor lunch was being held on one of the worst air quality days in Bay Area history. And then I saw the table full of plastic cups with plastic lids and plastic straws…


These are not recyclable.

As many of you know by now, we are generating more plastic than we are recycling. Way more. The Economist shared this graph a few years ago, showing that globally we recycle very little plastic.


Little plastic is recycled globally. Source: The Economist

Maybe you think that the United States is doing a good job? Well, the EPA reports that in 2017 we recycled just 8% of the plastic we generated.


Little plastic is recycled in the United States. Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Greenpeace published a report earlier this year analyzing our recycling capability. They concluded that while there is a market for #1 and #2 bottles and jugs (1), much else should not even be labeled “recyclable” because of the lack of sufficient verifiable demand. As a result, few facilities accept these common plastic items.


Many everyday plastic items are not recyclable. Source: Last Beach Cleanup

Julia Au of RethinkWaste, which handles recycling for much of San Mateo County from Menlo Park to Burlingame, agrees that demand for these materials is insufficient. “The contractor who markets our materials ... has told us that right now, PET #1 and HDPE #2 have good markets. For #3-7 plastics there are no markets and for us, these materials are actually landfilled.” Lori Topley, Mountain View’s solid waste program manager, says that “In Mountain View, if the plastic item is on our ‘accepted’ list, it is getting successfully delivered to market,” while pointing out that their accepted list is pretty limited. Just like Menlo Park and others, Mountain View sends plastic clamshells, cups, plates, utensils, and more to landfill because there is no market. A California-based expert I contacted pointed to the Long Beach program as an exemplar of modern-day recycling. It focuses on item types rather than numbers: “Plastic bottles, jugs, and tubs” go in the recycling bin, and nothing else. In general, he said that #1 and #2 are fine (e.g., bottles and jugs) and, as a stretch, #5 if it is “bigger than your fist” (e.g., tubs). Palo Alto’s program is more liberal than these, but I did not hear back from them in time for this post. (2)

The lack of demand for many kinds of used plastic is why agencies like Recology are working to eliminate unrecyclable plastics at the state level. But despite their efforts and a groundswell of public support, California’s legislature failed a few weeks ago to pass a bill that required manufacturers to significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste from their products going to landfill. (3) The bill was fought by the packaging industry, the oil industry, and also by an agency representing big retailers like Target. (4) Their preferred solution continues to be to fix recycling.

All of this means that we have many more years to deal with piles of plastic in the products that we buy. The next step to pushing back on manufacturers is a ballot proposition directly to the people of California, bypassing a legislature that is heavily influenced by lobbyists. The proposition is similar to the bill but also adds a one-cent tax on single-use plastics. It won’t be on the ballot until 2022 because coronavirus impeded signature gathering. (5) What can we do to reduce plastic use in the meantime?

With all of this in my mind at the outdoor event, gazing at the table full of drinks, I turned to the volunteer who had done the ordering and said something like “Hmm, I wonder if we could get paper cups instead?” She responded “Well, these are recyclable”, and I didn’t have the heart to go on. She had mentioned earlier that she often uses a certain restaurant for these events as they offer a good price and she likes working with them.

So, I spoke up but not very successfully, and probably annoyed the person who had gotten the food together. Should I have said anything? If so, what might have been more effective? If you were doing the ordering, would you have said something to the vendor? Would you have requested paper cups for the drinks, even though they wouldn’t look as nice?

Here’s a related incident that came up in the past few days. A neighbor posted this on Nextdoor, trying to find a home for plastic items collected over time:



I love that he/she is trying to find a good home for the plastics, but it also reinforces the need to push back on getting them in the first place. For example, when ordering takeout, we can make a request: “No utensils please”. Have any readers been doing this successfully? The more we speak up, the more vendors will understand that we care, and consider changing their behavior to reduce waste.

I’d love to hear what’s worked for you (or not) in trying to reduce our use of single-use plastics. My next blog post will go into more depth on the difficulties of recycling plastic and the pitfalls of “aspirational recycling”.

Notes and References

1. The Greenpeace report makes a point that bottles and jugs with “full-body shrink sleeves” (see picture below) are not recyclable unless the sleeve is removed.



2. Update: I did hear back from Palo Alto, who says "We do have markets for the plastics we accept, however, many are marginal materials. That is why we are working on expanding old and creating new policies, programs, and outreach campaigns to encourage people to use reusables." Palo Alto takes many plastic items, including plastic cups. But at what cost? Palo Altans should understand that these markets are not stable and likely costly, and recycling virtually anywhere else is the “Bottles, jugs, and tubs” approach.


Palo Alto accepts more plastics, but at what cost?

3. Specifically, the bill would have required manufacturers to ensure, by 2032, that all single-use plastic packaging and specific common items (e.g., utensils and containers) are truly recyclable or compostable, and that 75% of landfill-bound waste from those items is eliminated.

4. This CalChamber writeup enumerates their argument, which includes that the bill doesn’t cover enough of the costs to recycle their plastic, that it is inadequately specified, that it gives too much power to CalRecycle, and more generally that the regulation adds bureaucracy and cost.

5. CalMatters and Politico have some more information on why the bill failed and the upcoming proposition.

Current Climate Data (July/August 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)


Arctic sea ice is far below normal, at its second-lowest minimum in the 42-year record. “In the first week of September, sea ice extent took a sharp downward turn, exceeding the pace of decline for any previous year during that period, and placing the 2020 sea ice minimum firmly as second lowest—after 2012—in the 42-year continuous satellite record.” Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

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Comments

 +   38 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 20, 2020 at 8:42 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

As emphasized in the blog, it is the DISPOSABLE and difficult to recycle plastics creating an environmental problem and ongoing dilemma.

That said...the only partial solution at present is to either refuse and/or reuse plastic containers/utensils if and whenever possible rather than simply chucking them in the trash can.

For example...we wash & reuse plastic 'take-out' containers & lids. While it's kind of like resorting to a poor man's version of Tupperware, who cares?

And as far as disposable plastic utensils, if one is bringing the food home to eat, why even bother with these cheap/flimsy throwaways?

The plastic grocery bags at supermarkets also contribute to the eco-problem as they are practically indestructible & I would imagine, very difficult to recycle as reusable plastic material. Possible alternatives...use them as crumpled-up packing material (and pass along the problem of disposing them to someone else), bring/reuse them at the grocery store (and save 10¢ per bag in lieu of being charged for new ones), and since they are somewhat sturdy bags, one can either utilize them to store small household items OR to collect debris...including dog poop. In other words, try to get a 2nd use out of them prior to eventual & justifiable disposal.

Personally speaking, I despise plastic items in general but they do have their practical applications.

The key is to find subsequent uses for them prior to the dump yard or trash container as further reduction in demand/usage is the only current and realistic solution/alternative measures.






 +   34 people like this
Posted by TimR, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 20, 2020 at 12:27 pm

TimR is a registered user.

I agree with Lee. It's pretty easy to recycle many plastic items yourself, and it would help a lot if more people did it more often. From zip lock bags to plastic bottles of water, even recycling and using each item twice would be a start. And I didn't come to start doing this based on global data on plastic, etc. I started doing it due to peer pressure from friends (one in particular). It took me time though, and I did start with the goal of one reuse. But before the pandemic and the ban on bringing your own cups into Peets, I was up to about 100 reuses of a plastic cup (still have it, for when we're allowed to reuse again). Every journey starts with the first step...


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Sep 20, 2020 at 2:15 pm

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

The article takes it as a given that recycling plastic is a good thing. I would like to know why that is.

Plastics are cheap, indicating that they are an efficient use of resources for packaging (unless the government has interfered with things by subsidizing them, in which case it should stop.) I have driven through the American West and observed enormous empty spaces that could hold any imaginable amount of waste our society could produce for the next hundred thousand years.

Recycling is costly because large organizations are required to collect and process the recycled goods. Also, the recycling process itself can be energy intensive. As mentioned in the article, people do not have uses for many of the commodities that result.

What exactly is the benefit of all this effort to recycle plastic, as opposed to throwing it away? Why would it be good for society to make products more expensive by banning or taxing plastic packaging or other uses of plastic?


 +   32 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 20, 2020 at 2:34 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "I have driven through the American West and observed enormous empty spaces that could hold any imaginable amount of waste our society could produce for the next hundred thousand years."

^ So turn 'open space' into a massive plastic wasteland...seriously?

> "What exactly is the benefit of all this effort to recycle plastic, as opposed to throwing it away?"

^ On a smaller scale, fleece active wear is made from recycled plastics (i.e. discarded plastic bottles & containers).

On a larger scale, could discarded plastic be recycled into building materials?


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 21, 2020 at 10:26 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Great comments! I am impressed with your 100 uses of a plastic cup, TimR! The point about reusing is critical, and something we should all think more about and work to build new habits. I love the idea of just trying to reuse something twice, and going from there.

@Joseph, that's a long question, but one basic thing is that we do a terrible job of pricing externalities. Here is some background: https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/basics/external.htm

When you do consider them, recycling may be a bargain and re-use even more so.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Sep 21, 2020 at 10:47 am

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

> When you do consider them, recycling may be a bargain and re-use even more so.

It may be, but it very well may not be. We can't tell unless the externalities are properly priced. If it is not, this is a tremendous waste of time, energy, and other scarce resources.


 +   20 people like this
Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Sep 21, 2020 at 11:25 am

Alan is a registered user.

Because of the low rate of actual recycling of plastics - compostible products are appealing.

We re-use some plastic we get - but we quickly reach a point where we have way more containers than we can possibly use.


 +   19 people like this
Posted by Carla, a resident of Palo Alto Hills,
on Sep 21, 2020 at 12:36 pm

Carla is a registered user.

Sherry,

When you have an event, you need to call out 'no plastics'. The plastics will show up anyway, but you have sent a strong message to those listening. This is important.

If you have a business, you need to do the same. It is almost impossible to eliminate disposable plastics in our society at this point, but we need to start exercising social pressure.

Remember that a lot of other non-eating products are also made with plastics that end up in the oceans. Clothing made with plastic is yet another issue:

Web Link


 +   16 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 21, 2020 at 5:09 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Carla, those are great suggestions and an interesting link. (I didn't know that clothes washing is yet another problem...) One question I have is how to be sure we are raising awareness in a positive way, rather than just annoying people. I guess it's all in the context. Certainly when you are doing the organizing, it's an important thing to set an example, and I've found that often people rally around. This particular event was at a school, which made me sadder about it. Schools and teachers have to lead the way, along with parents. If the next generation doesn't get this, it's a problem.

@Alan, boy I agree, plastics just accumulate. How else to buy sour cream or shampoo? One thing I saw recently is https://zerogrocery.com/. Haven't tried it, though.

@Joseph: I was just watching a film with video of the open spaces in the Arctic, and I believe that many make a similar argument there about oil vs "unused" space. "Isn't drilling a more valuable use of that land?", they ask. How do we value our convenience (drinking from a plastic water bottle) vs the life of a tortoise (consuming pieces of said bottle) or other aquatic life dealing with the microplastics? Are we good at that? What if the Earth and its residents have no representation in our legislature or our courts as we warm up, excavate, and trash the planet? I'm not sure that pricing is the savior we would like it to be for these many decisions. I heard an economist at MIT once say that we could make the "social cost of carbon" pretty much anything we want it to be, depending on our values. Maybe it's better to have a discussion about our values and some bedrock principles. I tend to like one where manufacturers own the lifecycle of their products. That seems to be a part of the European economic culture more than it is ours, and I hope that changes. Your comment is a really important one, and deserves at least a whole blog post... Thanks for raising it.


 +   18 people like this
Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Sep 21, 2020 at 6:01 pm

eileen is a registered user.

The mention of sour cream made me chuckle. In the dark ages when I was young, sour cream came in a glass jar. Fifty years later we are still using it to hold sweetener. Sadly reusing plastic bags at the grocery store is not allowed these days. There are a lot of Web sites advertising plastic free cleaning products and I bought several. For example, I tried a product for the laundry that is actually a small piece of paper about the size of a playing card. It works very well. Many of the products are small paper packs, the contents of which are dissolved in water in the glass spray bottles provided. There is even a small pack that makes terrific foaming hand soap. I am weaning myself from plastic bit by bit. It's a challenge.


 +   23 people like this
Posted by Trofim Lysenko, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Sep 21, 2020 at 6:39 pm

Trofim Lysenko is a registered user.

One of the few great things about the early days of the pandemic we had last spring was that many grocery stores banned customers from using the reusable bags they had previously mandated. Something about E. coli or some such.


 +   17 people like this
Posted by akaMaiNguyen, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Sep 22, 2020 at 10:35 am

akaMaiNguyen is a registered user.

Thank you, Sherry, for another excellent, well-researched article. The Last Beach's chart is particularly "graphic" in showing how very little plastic is recycled.

In the vein of a long journey starts with one small step, just want to report that I have finally managed to NOT get plastic utensils in the take-out orders from our favourite restaurant. First time, I requested over the phone "no utensils", but they were included anyway. Second time, I requested over the phone "no utensils", and then opened the take-out bag to check during the pick-up, and asked the nice owner to take out the plastic utensils. Third time, made the same "no utensils" phone request, checked the take-out order, and YES, this time, indeed there are no utensils!


 +   22 people like this
Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Sep 22, 2020 at 11:12 am

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

Sherry,
"And I didn't come to start doing this based on global data on plastic, etc. I started doing it due to peer pressure from friends (one in particular). It took me time though, " You might think about your -no comment- stand. Especially to your friends and not-so-close friendlies. If you, as a clear community-based-expert, cannot open a conversation, or steer a conversation on this topic, in person on-the-ground where it happens, then what hope?

If someone starts talking in veled white privilege speak, should we just stand and let them continue? As a white guy, I don't think so. So maybe you can become less 'fragile' about this topic.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Ms Walker, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Sep 22, 2020 at 11:50 am

Ms Walker is a registered user.

There have been plenty of reports about how plastics disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces and never disappear. Instead, microplastics disperse through the air and water, and we humans and critters all over the world breathe and ingest them. Now, we are learning that the petroleum industry that produces the plastic always knew that plastics are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. Web Link


 +   22 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 22, 2020 at 3:12 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "You might think about your -no comment- stand. Especially to your friends and not-so-close friendlies. If you, as a clear community-based-expert, cannot open a conversation, or steer a conversation on this topic, in person on-the-ground where it happens, then what hope?"

^ A good point but some folks tend to shy away from alienating others at social gatherings...either through courtesy or fear of offending them.

Personally speaking, I tend to 'shoot my mouth off' at gatherings where I am the HOST and if others take issue, they can go eat/drink elsewhere on someone else's dime.

Back to topic...we don't use plastic cups (too cheap-looking if serving GOOD wine) or plastic forks/spoons/knives (too easily breakable) when entertaining outdoors.

And to use either for indoor dining is just plain TACKY.


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 22, 2020 at 4:32 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@akaMaiNguyen: I love that!! If enough people do it, the message will get through. That is just great.

@eileen/@trofim: Many stores are allowing reusable bags these days, you just have to pack them yourself. I've been taking mine for at least a month. A post I did on this before they were banned is here. I am glad the ban is no longer in place.

@Steven: I would ask that you spell out your concern, or even better feel free to respond directly to the post yourself. These comments should be a conversation between everyone, not just with me.


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 23, 2020 at 2:26 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

@Steven I'm not sure I totally understand your jab at at Ms. Listgarten. She did take the time to question her own values/use of plastics and ask us to simply consider how we and others use "sometimes recyclable" materials.

I would be eager to read whatever constructive comments you have on ANY topic when you write your "Guest Opinion" for Palo Alto Online or post a link to your blog. Share anything: popular, unpopular, far-fetched, or realistic. Be part of creating discourse!

So, instead of casting dispersions on this author (or anyone sharing carefully crafted thought), how about putting pen to paper (so to speak) and share some ideas of your own?

Here's a thoughtful piece from last week as an example:
Web Link


 +   10 people like this
Posted by i14girlcrew, a resident of Blossom Valley,
on Sep 23, 2020 at 2:58 pm

i14girlcrew is a registered user.

I recently made a mosaic using only plastic lids because we can't recycle them. When I showed my friends I was surprised to hear that they didn't know you can't recycle the lids.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 23, 2020 at 4:38 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@i14: I'm so glad that you brought up lids. FWIW, I think you can recycle lids in Mountain View, where you live.



Source

Where did you learn otherwise? FWIW, I would guess they want you to keep the lids on the tubs or bottles so that they are not too small for the machinery to sort.

Mountain View publishes an interesting "dirty dozen" of things that people recycle and shouldn't. It's here if you are interested...


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 23, 2020 at 5:06 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

@Sherry Are you saying there's someplace nearby that accepts and actually recycles TetraPak containers? I'd be thrilled to find out this is true.

AND, as an aside, how is GreenWaste's change to only accept household batteries at the Household Hazardous Waste collection on Saturday mornings going to help divert batteries from the landfill? How many people will take the time to do that? Hey, it's only a 3-4 mile drive (each way). Sure, I could bike, but I'll have all those batteries to carry!


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 23, 2020 at 6:12 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@SYTK: Eagle eyes! Yes, Mountain View takes TetraPaks. OMG it's a wonder that anyone can ever figure out what to put in the blue bin. (Well, in fact, they don't, they just guess.) Next week's post is sort of about this. I'll see what I can find out about how they do this.

Batteries, yeah, a bummer. I save them up for the twice-a-year Cleanup Day, which does take them and doesn't require leaving your house :)


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Trofim Lysenko, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Sep 23, 2020 at 7:59 pm

Trofim Lysenko is a registered user.

Post removed, off-topic


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 25, 2020 at 11:25 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

The numbers are working against a viable approach to this problem/issue.

Nevertheless, we as a household are trying to reduce & recycle plastic wastes.

A losing battle given the harsh realities?

Of note...

"Since recycling programs began, decades ago, less than 10% of consumer plastic has been recycled. Internal plastic-industry documents reveal that industry leaders promoted recycling to assuage public concerns about plastic refuse, even though they knew that recycling plastic was too expensive to be adopted on a large scale."

Source: NPR.org
page 18 of 'The Week' September 25, 2020


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Trofim Lysenko, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Sep 25, 2020 at 11:50 am

Trofim Lysenko is a registered user.

Post removed, off topic.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 25, 2020 at 9:05 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Lee, I will touch on some of that in my next post. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you are trying to reduce your use of plastic as opposed to recycling it.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 26, 2020 at 11:44 am

David Coale is a registered user.

Hi Sherry,

When you have a large event, you can borrow a Party Pack: Web Link from a neighborhood zero waste block leader. I have used this several times and it is great and sends a good messages to your guests. I am hoping we get back to the days when we can have larger gathering again.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 26, 2020 at 12:23 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "I'd love to hear what you are trying to reduce your use of plastic as opposed to recycling it."

^ In addition to using wood, ceramic and stainless steel utensils in the kitchen and for dining, we also try to reduce our purchases of clothing manufactured from synthetic materials (i.e. nylon, gore-tex, polyester etc.) while opting for natural fibers (i.e. cotton & wool) as they wear well and are more comfortable in a variety of outdoor temperatures.

The environmental-unfriendly obstacles we are currently trying to address at home is in the area of consumer electronics (i.e. televisions, laptop computers, various smartphones et al) as many are manufactured from polycarbonate materials...all exceedingly difficult to dispose of/recycle adequately (not to mention the toxic innards).


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 26, 2020 at 2:13 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

Thinking about plastics in our laundry runoff. What do wastewater facilities do to remediate this water-borne plastic? What does our facility do? What about all those microbeads?


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 26, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "Thinking about plastics in our laundry runoff...What about all those microbeads?"

^ Plastic microbeads from laundry detergent runoff AND microfiber breakdown from clothing, towels & bedding manufactured from synthetic (aka plastic-based) fabrics also wind up going down the drain.

On a footnote...plastic has a way of making just about anything look CHEAP compared to other natural materials.



 +   3 people like this
Posted by Trofim Lysenko, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Sep 26, 2020 at 8:05 pm

Trofim Lysenko is a registered user.

Post removed, off-topic


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 26, 2020 at 8:57 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Lee, re environmental impact of different types of fabric, I'm not so sure about cotton being a good bet. I need to read (and write!) about clothing, but my sense is that wool, hemp, and recycled fabrics (even synthetics) are going to be a better choice.

@SYTK, I'm so impressed with Patagonia in this regard. They do a lot of work with recycled materials, making jackets from recycled bottles and stuff, so they care about microfibers. Here is one writeup they did that lists a whole bunch of ideas for reducing microfibers from the laundry.


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