May 21, 2012
BOSTON — The plastic water bottle has become a symbol of waste. In April, Concord, Mass., banned the sale of single-serving bottles altogether. But the recycling industry can't get enough of those bottles — and all the other plastic detritus of modern life — to turn into new products. WGBH News examined recent developments in recycling and learned that the conventional wisdom about water bottles might be wrong.
Let’s begin where we see plastic the most: the supermarket. Up and down the aisles of Trucchi’s in Taunton, there are all kinds of plastic packaging — bread, butter, tortilla chips, those clear boxes from the bakery, juice, soda, laundry detergent. Plastic is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how often we come into contact with it. But there’s one man who really knows his plastics.
“English muffins, OK? You got English muffins. This bag is imminently recyclable,” says Steve Alexander, who heads the Association of Post-Consumer Plastic Recyclers. We see English muffins. He sees the polypropylene resin they’re wrapped in.
“Most people tend to take the carton and recycle it, the bag they don’t necessarily know what to do with,” he says.
Adding to the confusion, different towns have different recycling rules. Maybe you have curbside pickup or perhaps you have to deliver your recyclables somewhere. Either way, what you see as a random bottle or a bag, others are lining up to cash in on.
Bottles in bales
Your plastic garbage throwaways could end up at the Casella Waste Materials Recovery Facility in Charlestown. A stale, sour air hangs in the air as the dust swirls each time the bulldozer pushes another pile into the towering peaks of paper, plastic, glass and aluminum.
“We see 100 tons of plastic come through the facility a day,” says Bob Cappadona.
He's in charge of all the recycled stuff Casella manages in New England. And when he sees plastic — soda bottles, yogurt cups, anything — he sees a commodity he can profit from.
“They’re separated into various commodities," says Cappadona, leading a tour of the facility. "Each plastic. A milk jug will go to one mill, then detergent bottles will go to a separate mill."
At the Casella facility, a freeway of conveyor belts zips around as water and soda bottles go out one chute, and milk jugs go out another. Blue detergent bottles go down their own tunnel while red bottles go through another portal. They all get compacted into large squares, like bales of hay, and in the back of the warehouse, 1,800-pound bales are stacked so high into the smelly air that they dwarf people.
Now, long out of your mind, these compacted, stacks of former plastic bottles, jugs and containers are ready for sale. But who buys them?
“Recyclers are actually the end user for what they’re made into. It will go down to Georgia at Mohawk industries. This rug right here was made by Mohawk,” says Cappadona.
That’s right, your plastic recyclables are turned into carpets,home siding and lawn chairs. Much of your garbage stays here at home — but you might be surprised where some of it goes.
The slow boat to China
At Massport’s Conley Terminal in South Boston, I watch as crane operators load containers onto a cargo ship that’s heading back to China. Cargo ships make a weekly round to the Boston port, and we are regular exporters of recycled plastic scrap.
“The idea that we’re shipping 50 percent of the soda bottles to China is just mind-boggling and makes us bang our heads against the wall,” Alexander says.
Another reason for U.S. businesses to bang their heads against the wall has nothing to do with exports to China. It has to do with us.
“The recycling rate is not as high as it could be," says Patty Moore, CEO of Moore Recycling Associates, based in California.
She says part of the problem is that the U.S. doesn’t have the infrastructure needed to collect all of our plastic. Consider this: When you’re on a road trip and you stop at a gas station to clear your car out, chances are — unless you’re planning on taking it home with you — you will throw your plastic bottles in the trash because there’s no recycle bin.
“It’s either not being put in the right bins or lost in the infrastructure through collection. We don’t have a high enough collection rate for these materials,” says Moore.
And as a result, too much plastic ends up in landfills and the ocean, which is bad for the planet and bad for recyclers. Is there anything … maybe an innovation ... that can solve this?
Legal and business solutions
“We’d like to see a system where by law companies like us would add a little bit to the price of the product and pay for the recycling of the package after the consumer uses it,” says Michael Washburn.
He heads sustainability at Nestle Waters North America, which owns Poland Springs, among other bottled water brands. That means they produce 20 billion plastic bottles a year — and it looks bad when their brands end up in places they shouldn’t be, like on the sides of streets and beaches. Washburn wants to change that by making all companies that make products that come in recyclable packaging to take full responsibility of recycling it. It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility. The concept is not without its critics; Washburn has seen pushback from other big companies, private haulers and municipalities.
“We want to move to much higher rates of collection so that there is a greater supply of recycled material. We can have better infrastructure and less expensive processing to turn this material back into a less expensive material for us," says Washburn. That would create a "lower-cost, more robust and more efficient recycling system."
The financing mechanism would be a built-in cost of the package. Washburn says it would be miniscule — about .4 cents more for a bottle of water. If you extend it to every kind of recyclable packaging, it would pay for a streamlined recycling infrastructure … one in which you would see recycle bins at every storefront, gas station, park and airport. The slight added cost of what we buy would also pay for the hauling and sorting of this new bounty away.
Which brings us back to the supermarket. Remember that package of English muffins that Steve Alexander was holding, with the plastic bag that he says most people wouldn’t know what to do with? It could come back in its next life as …
“Could be a deck, could be a railroad tie, the trim and fascia board on your house. Typically stuff with a long second life — 20, 30 years," says Alexander.
And not end up in a landfill, a gutter and the ocean. It could even improve the economy and increase the number of jobs. But first you need to recycle it. Imagine that.
> > EXTRA: Steve Alexander of the National Association of Post-Consumer Plastic Recyclers talks about the Concord ban.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE REST OF IT
Subscribe to WGBH News Emails