What Really Happens to the Plastic You Recycle?
We reduce, reuse and recycle, and still our plastic bottle caps and doodads kill fuzzy baby wildlife by the legion. What more can we do?
This video illustrates one big part of the problem in under four minutes and with few words. A multi-hanky experience, it captures the lives and deaths of albatrosses so young they are still cloaked in downy gray feathers. The footage, which is a trailer for an upcoming movie by Chris Jordan called Midway, was shot on an island 2,000 miles from the nearest continent. That is not far enough to protect the wild birds from our trash.
But we’re recycling plastic, right? New York City, home to millions of bottled water drinkers, recently started recycling all rigid plastic, and many other regions got there first. Well, that was helpful, but as of this year, it’s helping less.
U.S. companies believe that recycling plastic doesn’t pay, so the stuff we separate out from our garbage was shipped to China where it could be processed more cheaply, but there were drawbacks. Transporting the refuse across the ocean took an ecological toll in fuel consumed and sea life killed en route. The mom and pop workshops that do most of China’s plastic recycling have “no facilities to treat waste water before it flows into local rivers.” But the system did keep some discarded material out of landfills.
Until now. As of this year, plastics numbered 3-7 “are absolutely going to a landfill,” says David Kaplan, CEO of an American post-industrial recycler. China has stopped importing plastic trash under its new Green Fence Policy, for which individual Americans bear part of the blame. 20% of the items we tossed into our plastic recycling bins were not washed or were not recyclable. Chinese processors had to bury or burn that material, polluting their air and growing their landfills. In part to keep those contaminants out, their government erected the Green Fence.
The only way to keep recycling our recyclables, Kaplan says, is to find a way to process them economically in the United States. That should actually be easier to do with the Chinese market closed. American processors won’t face competition from the Asian country’s cheaper labor and lax safety standards. They now could make money while paying living wages and not polluting air and water the way Chinese processors do.
Who knows what American processors will do with contaminated material if and when they do start recycling our discarded plastic? Best not to find out: wash out containers before chucking them in the recycling can.
Even if plastic recycling programs do start to work, though, the fluffy little birds will still die. The problem is a monumental vortex of trash, including masses of plastics, swirling around near their island home. Mom and dad go fishing, pick up some plastic instead, and pass it on to Junior. With a belly full of plastic, Junior can’t digest food. Soon all that is left of him is some feathers, a beak, a spine, and a pile of bottle caps where his stomach used to be. One out of every three albatross chicks dies of plastic.
Almost half of all our plastic doesn’t find its way to a recycling plant or a landfill. Instead it joins the waterborne trash heap that is killing albatrosses and other wildlife: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. If it weren’t in the water it would be the largest landfill in the world. The things people drop on the ground get washed down sewers and through waterways into the ocean, where they are drawn into one of the garbage vortexes (the Great Pacific isn’t the only one).
In the end we are back to reduce, reuse, recycle. To save the albatrosses, prevent air and water pollution, and stop the steady growth of landfills, we need to use less plastic, reuse what we have to obviate the need for new plastic, and recycle it when we’re done so it can be remade into a new item. And one more thing: to arrest the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and similar death traps, we need to stop littering. Plastic goes in the recycling bin. If there isn’t one, it goes in the trash. Otherwise, it goes into a baby bird and ends her life.
Photo Credit: Chris Jordan