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Plastic Recycling vs. Climate Change: Part 1 – A Road Paved with Good Intentions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
November 18, 2022

I reside in Montgomery County, Maryland. For decades, the County government has promoted its residential recycling program and takes pride in having pushed household participation rates above 50 percent. Pictured above this column are my government-supplied recycling bins for mixed plastics, cans and glass (on the left) and mixed paper and cardboard (on the right). Every week I dutifully place my sorted waste into these bins and put them out on the curb for collection. These materials are delivered to a sorting facility where teams of workers divide them into separate piles before they are shipped out in bundles for recycling.

I wish the story were that simple, but it is not. As discussed in a recent report by Greenpeace, only a small percentage of the “single use” plastics I use and then discard actually are recycled. Some of my discarded plastics probably are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch right now, others molder exposed to the weather in open dumps in Southeast Asia and some have been burned for fuel (plastic waste has the same energy content kilogram-for-kilogram as coal). Some of the plastics I put out for recycling now are in the “rain” of microplastics drifting downward in the oceans of the world where they enter the food chain. Microplastics also are prevalent on land where they impact agriculture.

Following the evidence, I must conclude that my local recycling program essentially is founded on a lie and sustained by misdirected environmental sensitivities as promoted by Montgomery County and by propaganda disseminated by the petrochemical industries that manufacture plastics.

This series of columns in the PA Times will discuss how local governments across the United States should change their approach to plastics in the municipal waste stream. I will argue that the answer is two-fold: (a) demand that single-use plastics be engineered so that they cannot decay (at least over a very long time period like one thousand years); and, (b) landfill those plastics in a manner that will keep the carbon in the plastics sequestered. As part of this series, I will discuss how public officials and environmentally-oriented citizens often come to erroneous conclusions about how best to protect the environment. This gap between a desire to protect the environment on one hand and policy design on the other exposes a significant disconnect with science on par with the disconnect over the science of climate change often encountered among political conservatives in the United States. It turns out that those on the left and those on the right of policy disputes about the environment share a common inability to follow the science.

You may have noticed that I did not suggest reducing or eliminating single use plastics as part of my recommendations. I refrain from going in that direction because I believe that a benefit-cost analysis clearly shows single use plastics have large net benefits in terms of food production and transportation, food safety, medical technology and reduction of risks in health care treatment. A quick visit to your local supermarket or hospital should be sufficient to demonstrate that those advocating for eliminating single use plastics are not pursuing a pragmatic objective. We benefit greatly from single use plastics but they should not be allowed to flow into the oceans and the land as uncontrolled post-consumer waste.

At the end of the day, plastics mostly are carbon. As such, they need to be discussed in terms of a much higher priority issue than recycling: climate change. The emphasis right now must be on sequestering carbon. This means that post-consumer plastics need to be placed where the carbon they contain will stay for a very long time. This is the conflict among policy objectives that must be resolved in favor of the climate: preventing additional carbon emissions instead of pursuing misplaced attempts at recycling carbon.

My personal problem at the moment is that I cannot divert my household plastic waste into a secure landfill. This is because Montgomery County operates a trash incinerator. If I put my plastics into the regular waste collection, then the plastics will be burned and their carbon released into the atmosphere. But if current plastics are placed in a landfill, much of the conversation about that option is how best to get them to decay. That decay eventually is likely to release carbon into the atmosphere. As I will discuss later in this series, we need to push the plastics industry to make products that simply do not decay.

Here is one of the minor ironies of the current recycling regime in Montgomery County. Every day as I walk my dog around the neighborhood, I bring along a bag to pick up litter in the street. The most common plastic I regularly find in the roadway are broken off pieces of those blue recycling bins provided by Montgomery County. Those pieces are just one indicator of how far off the mark the current plastic recycling program is.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change

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