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Recycling in Nashville (and All of America, Actually) Might Be Dead

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Recycling Nashville Plastic Aluminum

“We like to think that our society is employing every area of human knowledge in order to achieve peace and happiness, but this is not true.”

Sometime last year I remember reading an NPR article about how America’s recycling stream had hit a roadblock. Trade restrictions have reduced the number of incoming shipping vessels (mostly from China), which means there are also fewer outgoing vessels. Those outgoing shipping vessels had been used to inexpensively transport domestic plastics elsewhere, where they were being processed and (hopefully) recycled internationally. Now, without that option, those plastics are simply piling up with nowhere to go. I shared the article with some friends and family before briefly investigating my own local recycling policies, hoping to determine whether what I had been bringing to my local recycling drop-off station was actually being recycled, or if it, too, was piling up somewhere or being landfilled. I recall listening to a Nashville Public Radio program which ran last year, looking into what our local recycling policies were, and the conclusion I drew ended up being broadly simplistic: When I took my recyclables to the drop-off center, mixed plastics and aluminum cans would continue going into the plastics and aluminum bin, paper products into the paper bin, and glass into the glass bin. Easy enough, I thought.

This past Friday I began reading Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. The book is available online and I’d recommend anyone interested to give the first chapter a read, which is as far as I’ve made it to this point. That’s where the above quotation is pulled from, but within the pages I found other passages which I’d previously highlighted from my first attempt at getting into the book. Each gave me reason to pause. Memories having escaped over the passage of time, I suppose.

Over the course of the past week I watched the “Plastic Wars” episode of PBS’ Frontline series three times, which is what reminded me of the NPR article. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to call the program a paradigm-shifter (which is why I kept returning to it). That video led me down a rabbit hole where I found an investigative journalism series produced last year by The Guardian titled “United States of Plastic.” Across several articles a remarkably grim profile is painted of the country’s recycling practices, essentially concluding that America’s recycling stream hasn’t hit a roadblock insomuch as it has completely broken down. I wholly recommend watching the Frontline episode, but for a brief overview of some key points, here are some excerpts from the Guardian’s articles:

From “Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret” by Erin McCormick, Bennett Murray, Carmela Fonbuena, Leonie Kijewski, Gökçe Saraçoğlu, Jamie Fullerton, Alastair Gee and Charlotte Simmonds

“[In 2018], the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.”

“But much of what America sent was contaminated with food or dirt, or it was non-recyclable and simply had to be landfilled in China. Amid growing environmental and health fears, China shut its doors to all but the cleanest plastics in late 2017.”

“Reflecting grave concerns around plastic waste, [in 2019] 187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash. A few countries did not sign. One was the US.”

There are so many aspects of the evolution of this issue that blow my mind. How far are those plastics transported to the coasts prior to sending them overseas in the first place? And how many resources are simply involved in moving those plastics—most of which ultimately become trash—to third world countries? The Frontline program outlines how the recycling program we are all familiar with now was originally installed by plastics manufacturers to preemptively avoid further regulation that might impact them, before those systems were handed off to local municipalities and private companies. Those systems never took hold because there was no widespread planning, implementation, or regulation, but now—decades later—does America really have no manufacturing infrastructure to harvest existing plastics for use in the creation of new products? Whether there’s a robust infrastructure in place or not, it turns out few countries actually do have the capacity to recycle most of the plastics we view to be “recyclable.”

From “America’s ‘recycled’ plastic waste is clogging landfills, survey finds” by Erin McCormick

“Experts estimate that 20% to 70% of plastic entering recycling facilities around the globe is discarded because it is unusable.”

That’s not plastic that goes unaccounted for in landfills, mind you, but an estimate of plastics which have been gathered, pre-sorted, and transported to recycling facilities. At those facilities certain items are cherry-picked before the bulk is again gathered and transported to a landfill. Accounting for the resources involved in this process is staggering.

“The research, conducted by Greenpeace and released on Tuesday, found that out of 367 recycling recovery facilities surveyed none could process coffee pods, fewer than 15% accepted plastic clamshells – such as those used to package fruit, salad or baked goods – and only a tiny percentage took plates, cups, bags and trays.”

From “Americans’ plastic recycling is dumped in landfills, investigation shows” by Erin McCormick, Charlotte Simmonds, Jessica Glenza, and Katharine Gammon

A lot of mixed plastics are items that consumers encounter every day, such as clamshell-style containers, salad and berry tubs, meat trays, cold beverage cups and lids, plastic cutlery, or dairy tubs and lids. Items made of plastic that is rigid and bulky – crates, coolers, buckets, lawn furniture or play structures – are also defined by the recycling industry as mixed plastics.

Sometimes yogurt tubs and lids, labelled No 5, are pulled from other mixed plastics to be recycled separately, as there is a growing, but limited, US market for recycling them.

Bags and plastic wrap, known in the industry as “film wrap”, are not regarded as mixed plastics but are still extremely problematic. There’s little market for them, and they can cause operational problems at recycling facilities when they get caught in machinery, requiring removal and repairs.

Since China stopped accepting most bales of mixed plastics in 2017, most US cities have been left with little choice but to landfill or incinerate them.

Those numbers on plastics identifying their type? It turns out they’re practically meaningless. As is the recycling logo as we know it today, identifying only that the item it appears on could hypothetically be recycled if facilities were set up to accept and process such materials. For largely financial reasons such processing facilities have never been broadly built across America. Instead, we’ve opted not to invest in building out such a production chain in favor of the financially less-burdensome option of dumping those plastics elsewhere. (Keeping that bottom line in mind, Nashville’s Metro Public Works published a 2019 release titled, “How Nashville was impacted by International Recycling Markets,” which brings into question future feasibility of any local programs: “Metro pays for collection and processing of recyclables. Depending on the current market rates, Metro will get some revenue. The revenue, even in the best of times, does not offset the total cost for collection.”) If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.

The Guardian offers a quick-hit guide to common recycling mistakes, and from a local perspective, that months-old Nashville Public Radio program referenced earlier already bears out of date information on what will and won’t be accepted at recycling stations here in town (and in areas which actually have curbside pickup). Aluminum foil, for example, is listed in the program’s article as being recyclable, where Metro Nashville Public Works now lists it alongside clamshell plastic containers and takeout containers as items which cannot be recycled. Other items which cannot be recycled at drop-off sites or via curbside pickup include Keurig cups, food packaging and wrappers, takeout coffee cups and lids, and other single use drink cups, just to name a few. That isn’t even to mention the broader issue of “contamination.” The Tennessee Environmental Council notes that at least a third of curbside recycling pickup is contaminated, meaning that an entire load of recyclables might have to be discarded due to problematic recycling practices (examples include if recyclables are in a plastic bag, they can’t be recycled; or if items are soiled by food, grease, or liquids they may have to be trashed). On another level, within my community’s locally-focused Facebook group there are posts regularly calling out people who are dumping non-recyclables or trash into the large pickup containers at our local drop-off site. I can’t imagine how many of the huge dumpsters worth of materials are sent to landfill because of the oversight or disregard of a few. Again, the effort and resources wasted when that happens is massive.

So do we just give up and not recycle anything?

As best I can make of it (reference 1, reference 2, reference 3), in Nashville the following are the only items which will be recycled: Newspaper, magazines, mixed paper (mail, toilet paper rolls, cereal boxes, etc.), food and beverage cartons (like “tetra paks”… though further reading leads me to question whether these are, or can be, recyclable), corrugated cardboard, aluminum and steel cans, beverage bottles, detergent and cleaner bottles (though not their pump/dispenser pieces), milk and juice jugs, plastic food jars, glass bottles, and glass jars. But even then, plastics and jars have to be cleaned! (Lord knows I’m not running my own empty peanut butter containers through the dishwasher before recycling.) That aside, I’m going to take this all into account and keep recycling appropriately where I can, hoping that I’m not adding to the larger problem that is bubbling beneath the surface of this all.

I forwarded the Frontline video to my mom and after watching it she sent me a text, “Well that’s disturbing.” “What a mess we have made,” came the next line, to which I replied, “Collectively, sure. But it’s very particular to the same people who are letting us down right now. If there isn’t a financial incentive to do the right thing it won’t be done. More and more I’m feeling like we’re on our own in many ways.” After digging through all of this, my initial reaction was one of defeat, but it’s changed over the course of the past few days.

Much of the focus goes back to that initial Mindfulness quote, “We like to think that our society is employing every area of human knowledge in order to achieve peace and happiness, but this is not true.” Finger pointing aside, this has me thinking about what my role here is, and who I want to be in this picture moving forward. Knowing what I know now, if I continue to “recycle” non-recyclable plastics, I’m knowingly adding extra steps to the already fragile recycling stream that does exist with the benefit being… what, exactly? Deferring landfilling? Plain and simple, dumping (what I now know is) trash at a recycling center versus discarding it in my trash bin amounts to little more than virtue signaling.

I sat with that over the weekend. And in the days that passed, for the first time in years, a plastic clam-shell container hit my trash can. Honestly, it felt weird. Like it didn’t belong. One or two more items like that and my trash can started filling up at a rate that bothered me.

Working these ideas out in public is a helpful practice for me. The hope is that doing so aids in sorting out my thoughts while also checking my own B.S. along the way. The biggest benefit the last couple weeks has come in tying larger threads together. A few days ago I sat with a meditation titled “Social Distancing as Metamorphosis,” which seems all the more relevant given my thoughts of the past few days. Forget globally, nationally, or even locally, hyper-locally this topic of recycling has created an urgency within me to revisit my own personal responsibility for “reducing” and “reusing.” Recycling, after all, is the last stop in the waste hierarchy, and when bringing the idea back to a personal level I’m renewed with a feeling that this period of turmoil can also be a time of immense personal change and growth.

Over the past couple days all of this has been in the back of my head while going about my daily routine (or as much of a routine as we have these days). What could I be doing differently? I could just as easily use bar soap rather than liquid soap in the shower, and at sinks around the house, eliminating potentially non-recyclable plastic bottles and the definitely non-recyclable pump mechanisms. How about a cotton washcloth instead of a plastic mesh loofah? Those are very small changes, of course. And why don’t I buy more items used when I need them? Clothing, for example. While I rarely buy at thrift or gently used stores, I rely on that process for discarding old clothes. The past several years I’ve used Plato’s Closet to sell clothing I no longer use. If it’s not sellable, and it’s in good condition, I bring it to Goodwill. If it’s not in good condition, I try to “recycle” it at H&M or a local drop-off bin that explicitly takes clothing and shoes for recycling (though my hunch is that system is broken, as well). What about larger items? Electronics? Appliances? I’ve been pretty good about buying used in the past, but where could I have changed my approach? I’ve certainly been driving less given our present state of affairs, but what changes could I make there moving forward? What are the big picture decisions that overshadow issues like recycling, which I might be ignorant to? (Doug Stanhope has a particularly sharp take on this, which is probably fodder for an article unto itself.) There’s so much to consider here and it can easily become overwhelming, but when cutting right down to the core the broader question, what I’m thinking about aligns with topic of mindfulness. What am I doing right here, right now, and does it align with what is important to me?

What areas of human knowledge am I utilizing to enjoy peace and happiness? What areas of human knowledge am I not utilizing to enjoy peace and happiness? Certainly this education on the pitfalls of recycling has been eye-opening if only to recognize my own culpability in that realm, but the change I’m feeling as it pertains to a broader sense of responsibility to myself and the world around me goes far beyond recognizing and accounting for the true cost of my purchasing habits. Hopefully this is sustainable, and isn’t just the quarantine talking.