Scuttlebutt: Recycling and more
In last month's column I pointed out some of the significant structural problems challenging our efforts, such as they are, to attain a sustainable society. Most of us love to go to Cosco or Home Depot or an Amazon website and load our shopping carts with all kinds of consumer products. Just like some urban kids may think water comes from a faucet instead of from the earth, the American consumer appears to believe that all that stuff we love comes from the back of a truck. It doesn't. It also comes from the Earth. As our population increases the resources those things are made of become more and more limited. In the future if we want to continue increasing our population while loading those shopping carts, we need to take seriously how we are going to do that; but that is not happening.
After detailing some of the challenges last month, I decided to find out from our elected representatives what they plan to do to deal with the mountains of resources being dumped in landfills and the ocean.
I contacted Congressman Huffman's office as well as Assembly-member Wood and State Senator McGuire. After leaving numerous phone messages I did get a reply from Wood's office, which directed me to articles in the Sacramento Bee about bills in this legislative session concerning plastic reduction. I was also cautioned that there very well might not be enough time to get them passed this year. Apparently, not a high priority.
Senator McGuire's office responded by telling me that someone would contact me before my deadline. It didn't happen.
I heard nothing from Huffman, which is a shame since it is at the federal level that certain actions need to be taken.
What I actually learned from my efforts is that sustainability, while being a nice sounding idea to espouse, is a very low priority on the list of political topics. Housing shortage, racial and income inequality, global climate change, crumbling infrastructure, nuclear proliferation, and the other issues all take a place in line ahead of the sustainability of our society. That seems weird to me, but not surprising. I'm giving up on expecting any real action by our government for now. Hopefully, their efforts can lead us to solutions to some of these other problems instead.
It seems we are going to have to rely solely on the marketplace to guide our path to sustainability. I think this is unfortunate because while the marketplace is an amazing tool for moving society, I fear the problem is too large for the marketplace alone get us where we need to go in a timely fashion. While they do respond to customer pressure, the basic function of the marketplace is to make money, not solve the problems of the world. That is the job of government.
Before leaving the subject of government involvement I need to mention that California does have an entire agency dedicated to source reduction and recycling. It is called CalRecycles, but don't be fooled by the name. While they promulgate reams of paper and have many serious discussions, it is mostly a smoke screen. Lisa Tucker of Consumer Watchdog has written an extensive study of CalRecycles and it doesn't paint a very pretty picture. I could write a whole column's worth of criticisms about CalRecycles, but why bother? Do you really need to read about another government agency that tinkers around the edges of a problem, rather than meeting it head-on? For many of society's problems most government programs are designed to merely gesture toward a solution without taking on any of the intrenched interests or disturbing the public's everyday life. You can find the report on the Internet, but suffice to say that California has relied on China to take care of our mess for the last 25 years. That's over now, so they need to completely rethink our approach to recycling, but don't hold your breath. While state efforts to increase the percentage of plastic recycled, the plastics industry has plans to double their actual production by 2024.
We turn, then, to some efforts being made by private actors to deal with the millions of tons of plastic being land and ocean-filled each year.
Netfim is a central valley company that re-processes irrigation tubing to make new tubing. They actually are an Israeli company that has been doing this for 15 years worldwide at 18 plants, but are the only one in the U.S. currently performing this function. They recently received a grant from CalRecycles that they expect to use to increase their capacity from 6 million pounds per year to 30 million pounds. The need to increase production is due to demand from their major customers such as Walmart and Home Depot for products with more recycled content. While governments, particularly at the federal level, pay scant attention to this problem, retailers are responding to public sentiment for some action.
Another grant from CalRecycles went to Roplast Industries in Butte County. Roplast manufactures plastic-based films and bags. With a $2 million grant they are purchasing de-inking equipment that will allow better flow through their machinery. It helps get a better output and allows for a wider range of material that can put into their recycling plant. Reusable plastic bags developed by Roplast can be washed easily for better hygiene, and can be used at least 125 times.
CalRecycle has awarded more than $11 million to companies involved in recycling. These are each significant efforts, but still amount to tinkering. Other governments have taken a more activist role and have significantly better outcomes. Washington and Michigan, for example have a 10 cent deposit on beverage containers and they have much higher recycling rates as well as being able to support recycling infrastructure. The European Union, particularly Germany, has producer responsibility laws that require producers to pay a fee for creating plastic packaging materials. That fee goes to collection and recycling systems. Additionally, they are planning to double their plastic recycling rates to 63% (compare to California 15%) and 90% for metal, glass, and paper. There are heavy fines for those who ignore the law and that includes importers.
Producer responsibility laws only make sense. Why should you have to pay to landfill that styrofoam packaging you receive, but didn't order and cannot recycle? Why should you have to pay to landfill #3, #4, #6 and #7 plastics when they are recyclable?
Studies are now showing that is very likely that you have micro plastics in your blood. Could that be a reason for more drastic action?