For nearly a decade I have been saving clean plastic film. This has included plastic bags, clear plastic shrink wrap and other colored soft plastics. This diversion habit came to an abrupt halt for me after watching a documentary film called "Plastic China" (www.plasticchina.org) that reveals the crude way this type of plastic is recycled with some of the human/animal/environmental costs and impacts to a village outside of Beijing, China.
Our community has been able to divert this material (because it contaminates mixed recycling) in special collection sacks at the recycle center in Ashland. A White City business picks up dozens of these gigantic white bags twice a week from the recycle center and other local businesses. Once at the facility the soft plastics are smooshed tightly into pallets and exported to China.
Seeing the particulars of how this local "waste product" is recycled was enough to change my behavior. In the film, I viewed with horror the trail of plastic when it arrived at a port in China on a barge in an 18-wheeler cargo container. From there it was transported to a town outside of Beijing and dumped in the back yard where a home had become a mini-processing center. The half-dozen workers, including children, dug through the material manually.
This dangerous work earns them about $5 a day. They were seen on the film periodically igniting their butane lighter to melt the material in hand to determine which pile to sort the plastic into or keep warm from the plastic fires. Once sorted, some of the plastic was sent through an extruder (like a giant Play-Doh maker) that melted the plastic and then the "blob" was recycled into plastic pellets for market. This backdoor operation was active seven days a week in sweltering humid heat and pouring torrential rain and wind, with minimal shelter. The humans, chickens and dogs were engulfed by the fumes and blowing particulates from open piles of burning plastic. No masks, no filters, no protection.
It didn't take long for me to mentally weigh out my desire to avoid trash-making with the realities of my choice. While my new trashy habit doesn't feel good, it is easier to live with landfilling than the haunting backyard scene in China. This change has woken me up, again to notice ALL the plastics in my life and avoid buying products that are packaged in this way. Then I don't have to deal with their disposal.
The situation in China is not unique. Electronics and ink cartridges and toners can also end up being exported to other countries to recycle. America needs to stop exporting its discards and create much needed infrastructures to properly deal with all this stuff. American stuff needs to stay in America to be processed and recycled here. Following the life cycle of products from start to finish is the right thing to do and we are overdue to make changes in this arena.
I am a big proponent of following the dots of where things come from, including food, clothes and other stuff we buy. Being aware of that trail (asking questions and following where it goes from A to Z) illuminates information that is not usually transparent or even easily available. We see the finished product on the shelf and give little thought to how it got there, or where it's going to go when I am done with it. By tracking and revealing this information we can become connected to others around the world and the idea that we really are all connected.
Recycling at all costs can be a "trashy" thing to do in a lot of different ways. Ultimately, humans need to stop manufacturing and buying plastic "stuff." If we change our often number-one priority of "convenience first," we wouldn't be stuck in this mounting pile of plastic we need to get rid of. If we aren't making it, we aren't using it, we don't need to dispose of it.
Recycling has its place in the pie of options. It represents one slice, but recycling will always be a downstream solution to an upstream problem.
—Risa Buck has served on the Ashland Conservation Commission and in waste prevention education for more than a decade. You may reach her through email@example.com. Find past WasteNot columns online at bit.ly/rbwastenot.