[GRRN] Manufacturing a Myth: The Plastics Recycling Ploy

Bill Sheehan (zerowaste@grrn.org)
Sun, 7 Nov 1999 23:14:52 -0500

[Below is the intro to a new article in Terrain Magaizine.
For the full text, see the GRRN website:
http://www.grrn.org/res-plastics.html ]

Manufacturing a Myth:
The Plastics Recycling Ploy

By Dan Rademacher

Terrain Magazine, Winter 1999

When I moved to Berkeley from a not-very-progressive
Boston suburb, I was dismayed to find that this famously
daring city accepted only a fraction of the plastic containers
that I was used to throwing in my recycling bin. How could a
depressed former industrial town in the Northeast collect
more mixed plastics from its residents than Berkeley,
California, bastion of the environmental movement?

It turns out I wasn't asking the right question: Of course, the
goal should be to recycle everything we can, but what
happens to the plastic after it is collected? Does it actually
get "recycled," returning to where it came from, staying out
of the garbage dump? Not according to environmentalists,
industry experts, recycling managers, and plastics brokers.
Despite collection efforts, only a handful of manufacturers
actually take back what they make, and less than two
percent of collected plastic gets made into new food
containers, like soda bottles. The rest ends up in products
like fleece jackets, non-food containers, commercial-grade
carpet, plastic lumber, and park benches - or gets thrown

Unlike glass, recycled plastic degrades over time so it
cannot be indefinitely remanufactured. A bottle can become
a jacket, but a jacket can't become a bottle. This
phenomenon, known in the industry as "cascading" or
"downcycling," has a troubling consequence. It means that
all plastic - including the tiny proportion that finds its way into
another bottle - "will eventually end up in the landfill," said
Jerry Powell, editor of Plastics Recycling Update.

And that's a problem.

What little plastic recycling there is today is absolutely
dwarfed by the manufacture of new plastic. In this decade,
plastics production has skyrocketed. From 1995 to 1996
alone, production of all plastic packaging increased by 1
billion pounds. Over the same period, the estimated amount
of plastic collected - minus 15 percent for rejects - rose by
only 69 million pounds, according to a 1997 report by the
Environmental Defense Fund. So, for every one-ton
increase in plastics recycling, there was a 14-ton increase
in new plastic production. The plastics industry then began
limiting its figures to report only the most commonly collected
items - bottles and wide-mouth containers like yogurt tubs.
Even so, from 1996 to 1997, the trend continued. For every
one-ton increase in collection, the industry churned out an
11-ton increase in sales of virgin rigid bottles and
containers. And this doesn't even include the plethora of
non-container plastic items, from PVC pipe to computer