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- Plastics Marketplace
Don’t Give Up on Recycling Plastic
A new report casts serious doubt on whether the material can ever be reused economically. It doesn’t account for innovation.
Is plastics recycling a lie? That’s the question at the heart of a new investigation into whether Americans have been filling up their blue bins with misplaced hope.
The evidence on the side of recycling doesn’t look good. As far back as 1974, industry insiders were doubting whether plastics could ever be recycled economically. More recently, China’s decision to severely restrict its import of recyclables has left much of the world looking for new places to send used plastics — and falling short. Most damaging of all, waste plastics aren’t valuable, and “never have been,” according to authors of the investigation (a joint undertaking by National Public Radio and PBS’s “Frontline”).
It’s a disturbing story that’s roiling the industry and upsetting environmentalists. But Americans shouldn’t turn their backs on plastic recycling just yet. The production and use of plastics in emerging markets is growing rapidly, and there’s no reason to think that demand will weaken. Without a recycling solution, those tonnages are bound for landfills and incinerators. Fortunately, the global recycling industry has a history of transforming what was previously “unrecyclable” into useful products. It’s poised to do so again.
Recycling is as old as manufacturing. Garments have long been repurposed into rags; swords have been remelted into plough shares. The Industrial Revolution, which created new demand for raw materials to feed factories, transformed this act of personal thrift into a commercial enterprise. In early 19th-century Yorkshire, a shortage of wool for the mills led Benjamin Law to develop a process for producing new fabric from old rags that had accumulated in homes and businesses. By 1855, 30 million pounds of rags were being used in the region each year.
But perhaps the industry’s most important innovation emerged in reaction to one of the 20th century’s biggest — and now forgotten — environmental crises: abandoned cars. In 1970, an engineer at General Motors estimated that over the previous 15 years Americans had abandoned between 9 million and 40 million cars in fields, rivers and city streets. Among other problems, the cars leaked oil and gas into soil and water, and were such a blot on the landscape that they inspired Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification campaign. In 1970, President Richard Nixon told Congress that “few of America’s eyesores are so unsightly as its millions of junked automobiles.”