Friday, September 06, 2013

Uncommon Bag Sense

Trex is a Virginia-based company that was formed in 1996 through the buy-out of a former division of Mobil Oil three years before it became ExxonMobil division.

The company now annually recycles over 1.3 billion plastic shopping bags and film into composite decking, porches, trim, outdoor furniture and fencing.

In the U.S., we use about 100 billion of these bags a year.  Headquartered in the Shenandoah Valley, Trex leads an industry that now repurposes 55% of the postconsumer plastic film recycled in this country.

The company runs a challenge each year beginning on November 15—America Recycles Day—where schools and communities compete for prizes such as wood benches, by collecting plastic bags from cereal, salt, produce, bubble wrap, Ziploc type bags, ice bags, newspaper sleeves, dry cleaning bags, bread bags and grocery bags.

Over the past six years alone, Trex has salvaged and kept more than 2.5 billion pounds of plastic and wood scrap out of landfills.  Most plastic film like grocery bags are recycled in the U.S. when consumers take them back to collection points in more than 12,000 retail outlets including dry cleaners.

It is fairly simple to do curbside collection of plastic bags and film by asking residents to place them altogether in a plastic bag.  According to places such as Madison, Wisconsin where they are collected curbside, it is also not that cumbersome to sort them.

But it takes a long time to collect 20 million tons of plastic bags, the weight needed to fill a truck when baled on pallets.  When new, it takes 1 million unused plastic bags to make a truck load. 

Curbside collection is not as effective as retail collection because so much is contaminated, but worst case, it is worth it just to help keep them out of streams and waterways.

The dilemma needs a both/and solution, but unfortunately only 3% of communities collect curbside, making it accessible to just 11% of Americans.  But Trex is not the only use of recycled plastic film and bags.  Click here to watch a company in Indiana turn them back into more bags.

Thurston County where my Mom lives on Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, is about the population of Durham County, North Carolina, where I live.  That community is suspending curbside collection in a few weeks ostensibly because China’s Green Fence has left them sitting on 60 tons—or three truck loads—of plastic film such as grocery bags.

There has to be more to the story because only 1.5% of what Thurston County collects is contaminated beyond what China will now accept.  Also, Trex now has a west coast manufacturing facility just 11 hours south in Fernley, Nevada.

Inertia is often the more likely reason more communities aren’t collecting plastic film and bags curbside or because the private sector partners they use for materials recovery are resistant to change.

Nobody ever said recycling would be easy but many communities and recovery businesses had grown lackadaisical, having shipped nearly 45% of recyclables to China in 2011.  It was that country’s largest import.

Last February, China launched “Operation Green Fence",” a 10-month effort to prevent contaminated shipments from entering the country.  Only 1.5% of each bale can be allowable contaminant now, ironically, the same percentage Thurston County cited as contaminated in curbside collections of plastic film and bags.

Before we get all indignant about China, contaminants in plastic film and bags come from those among us who are too lazy to remove food and liquids or receipts before putting them in our recycling bin.

The Chinese admit the fence is more psychological than anything, designed to get shippers to be more diligent.  They will need to get material recovery facilities and communities to be more diligent, who will in turn need to get all of us to be diligent.

All of this diligence may be lost on the 17% of Americans who are too lazy to properly dispose of plastic bags or the 4% who deliberately toss them on streets and parking lots where storm water washes them into streams.

Judging by how fast huge islands of plastic bags form where urban streams outlet, volunteer clean ups are also not sufficient and need to be augmented by much more frequent clean outs by local government agencies.

I’ve mentioned recycling but the 3 “R” mantra of sustainability begins with “reuse.”  An excellent “reuse” of a plastic bag is to pick up after pet dogs.  By my observation, the majority of dog owners are oblivious to picking up the toxin-filled droppings.

Reusing grocery bags won’t keep them out of the landfills but it will keep both the poop and the bags out of storm run off where they both pollute urban streams and end up back in the water supply.

Placing a deposit on plastic bags is well proven when used on other types of recyclables to greater increase recovery.  It is also a lot more market-friendly than a tax or a ban, neither of which has proven effective.

We seemed stalled as a country when it comes to facilitating waste disposal. I’m not referring to the recent effort by North Carolina lawmakers to brand the state for mega-landfills.

Readily available aesthetic containers that provide for sorted disposal of paper, food, plastic, glass and cans are still very rare in airports, schools, public buildings, theaters etc.

In Durham, containers such as these found at newer libraries and around Duke University are far too rare exceptions for something that by now should be retrofitted in all public and private facilities. They should also be available along sidewalks.

Other countries may have started later than the U.S. did but they are rapidly leapfrogging us in this area.  Tiny Costa Rica in Central America is an example.

This beautiful Central American country is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.  The population, a little less than that of Louisiana and a little more than that of Kentucky, is about 40% rural and 60% urban.

Prior to 2010 when it passed the comprehensive Law for an Integrated Management of Residues,  Costa Rica had a waste management problem.

Over 60% of its 2,400 tons of daily waste was going into open dumps while 15% was put into sanitary landfills.  Less than 10% was recycled and 250 tons of waste was illegally dumped into streams and along roadsides.

On my recent visit, integrated color and symbol-coded bins were appearing throughout the country, labeled Organico, Vidrio, Aluminio and Plastico.  They could be found in rural villages, resort towns and cities and were visible in every public and private sector facility I saw.

Here, I think we Americans have grown complacent about stewardship as we have about so many things.

No comments: