Hefty EnergyBag Program

Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit with informational card, orange trash bag, and plastic film.
Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit, received October 21, 2022. Photo by me.

In October 2022, I received this Starter Kit in my mailbox (wrapped in plastic film). This program claims to be a solution for recycling all of the non-recyclable plastics that come into our daily lives. Items must be rinsed or cleaned first, of course, and they don’t accept everything. Items they will accept include yogurt containers, Styrofoam or polystyrene take-out containers, plastic packaging, plastic straws, and many others. For a full list please refer to the graphic below. They do not accept items that you can already recycle in your area, such as any plastics #1 and #2. They also do not accept #3 PVC plastics.

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

The program admittedly sounded exciting, but over the years of doing this, I’ve learned to be skeptical. With this program, I could now recycle all my non-recyclable plastics with this mostly convenient Hefty EnergyBag Program and honestly, it felt too good to be true. So I started looking into it.  When I first looked up their website, using the QR code from the mailer, they did not include Tennessee – the closest was Atlanta, Georgia.

Screenshot of their locations from Hefty's website
Screenshot of their locations from Hefty’s website, captured on October 23, 2022.

I started by reaching out to them through their Contact Us page and asked why I received the mailer if the program wasn’t available in my area. A week later, they updated their website and responded to me. They said I could take items bagged in the orange bags to our local recycling center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They sent the mailers out just a couple of weeks too early.

How does the program work?

Let’s break this down so we can understand how it works. I follow the order on the company’s mailer. This information is also available on their website.1

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

#1: “Consumers must purchase Hefty EnergyBag product.”

The bags, which you must purchase at your own cost, cost about $10.49 per box of 26. This amounts to under $0.41 per bag. Seems cheap, but when compared to Hefty Strong Tall Kitchen Drawstring Trash Bags in the same size (13 Gallon ), those are about $0.18 per bag. That means these special orange bags are more than double the cost of regular trash bags. So right at the beginning, the company is shifting the cost to the consumers. Hefty makes many plastic products that you’re already paying for, so why aren’t they covering the cost of the bags if they really want to do the right thing?

#2: “Hard-to-recycle plastics get collected in the bag.”

Consumers are once again given the responsibility of not only collecting all the items into the special bags, but also understanding which items are and are not eligible.

#3: “Full tied bags can be dropped off at any of the designated recycling centers in the area.”

It refers to their website for locations. The bags are not collected curbside; they must be dropped off at a designated place. Where I live, I must take the bags to the recycling center. I’m not sure of the reason for this. While some people will participate, many residents won’t recycle anything unless it is picked up curbside. 

#4: “The normal recycling truck collects and delivers the bags to a local Recycling Facility (MRF) as a part of normal service.”

This statement is confusing since it seems like they mean the curbside recycling truck will pick it up as part of the normal service, but it means that the orange bags will be collected at the recycling center on a regular basis and taken to the MRF facility.

Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, image shows mountain of colorful trash and a bulldozer at top, clear blue sky in background.
Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, photo by Alan Levine on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

#5: “Bags are sorted at the MRF and sent to a facility for use as valued resources.”

This is where the process gets muddled because our local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) does not ship or sell plastics #3-#7. They landfill those materials. I’ve also read that most MRFs will not open and sort recyclables that are in plastic bags. Will they make an exception for the Hefty EnergyBag Program orange bags? I was curious to know if our local MRF, which is WestRock, has made a commitment to participate in this specific program, and if not, what will they do with the orange bags? I emailed Hefty (Reynolds Consumer Products is the parent company) with the following questions:

1) Your website indicates that these bags go to our local MRF for sorting. However, if our local MRF currently landfills plastics #3-#7, how do we know these items will get used for another purpose and not be landfilled?

2) Do you know if our local MRF is now participating in this Hefty program? Have they made a specific commitment for the Hefty EnergyBag Program?

3) Is it up to each individual MRF to decide what to do with the orange bags?

4) Have the MRFs preselected end-of-life partners (this term was extracted from your 2020 life cycle assessment)?

I wish I could include their response, but unfortunately, I have now sent this request 3 times and still have not received a reply.

More recently, I sent a list of similar questions to our local MRF, WestRock, but I have not yet received a response.2

#6: “The collected plastics can become an energy resource, feedstock for fuels or new products, or ground into smaller pieces to make new plastic building products and plastic lumber.”

Hefty indicates that these plastics can be reused to create energy, lowering our need for petroleum or new fossil fuels. On their website, under their header “PLASTIC WASTE IS MORE VALUABLE THAN YOU THINK,” they advertise that these plastics can be used for the following purposes:

      • Alternative fuel for manufacturing cement, reducing the need for natural resources like coal
      • Aggregate material for concrete blocks, plastic lumber, and other building products
      • New plastic products such as park benches, and Adirondack chairs
      • Feedstocks that can be refined into high-grade fuels or converted back into plastics

I wish plastic waste were actually valuable, because most of the time, it isn’t. Most plastics go to a landfill.

The above information came from a study that Reynolds Consumer Products commissioned, from the Sustainable Solutions Corporation, a company that helps envision and design sustainable solutions for companies. The “intended use of this study is to determine the environmental benefits of alternative end-of-life options currently utilized in the Hefty® EnergyBag® program compared to a traditional trash bag (Flex Bag) sent to landfill.” One of the main goals is “to create a more sustainable future by diverting this waste [from the landfill] and utilizing the material as a valued resource.”3

Full orange trash bag sitting on a street or sidewalk.
Photo from Rawpixel.com (CC0).

Does this mean the Hefty EnergyBag Program is a ploy?

Maybe. Hefty indicates that “the function of the Hefty® EnergyBag® orange bag is to serve as an alternative household waste bag to collect and divert difficult-to-recycle plastics from landfill.”4 A worthy goal, but I don’t know that it is actually happening. They are shifting the cost and effort to the consumer and the MRF. It also sounds like they are allowing the MRF to decide what to do with these items. However, most MRFs cannot sell “hard to recycle” plastics to manufacturers because there is just so much of it and it’s of little value.

In my area, I believe the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) landfills the plastics that the Hefty EnergyBag Program collects. Perhaps that will change soon, and if it does, I will update this article! But it is worth asking your local MRF if they are participating in this program. Be direct and let them know you’ll be spending extra money on these bags and that you’d like to know if they are able to sort and sell or ship the materials.

Marketing (or Greenwashing?)

Hefty wants all of this non-recyclable plastic, including the plastics they manufacture, to stop going to landfills. So they paid for a study showing how these plastics could be used. But they themselves have nothing to do with the recycling or end-of-life use of these plastics. So, Hefty looks like they are doing the right thing, while earning more profits from selling the orange bags. They are not stopping plastic production at the source, even within their own company.

Is this just an excuse to justify the continued production of single-use disposable plastic products?

This is likely just a marketing campaign in order to increase their appearance of sustainability. If Hefty wanted to make a real difference, they would cover the cost of the bags for consumers, and/or cover some of the costs for the MRFs to do the extra collection and sorting. Even more, Hefty could have those plastics sent to them directly and they could reuse them in their own products.

I imagine it will be easy to spot these bright orange bags in landfills 50 years from now.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Plastic-Free Paper Towels

Roll of white paper towels backlit by product shelving.
Photo by Michael Semensohn on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

If you read my article about toilet paper, then you’ll understand that almost all paper towels come from trees and most of its packaging is made of plastic, much like toilet paper. This plastic film is not recyclable and it is mostly unnecessary. Additionally, most paper towels use trees, water, chemicals, and electricity in their production.

Most people use paper towels for a variety of cleaning-related tasks, such as window washing, wiping surfaces, dusting, and cleaning up spills. They also use them to simply dry their hands or as napkins at mealtime. These are used mostly for convenience in our disposable culture. But our overuse of disposable paper items is contributing to climate change and our waste problem.

In America, we spend about $5.7 billion annually on paper towels. Americans “reside in the paper-towel capital of the world…the U.S. spends nearly as much on paper towels as every other country in the world combined…No other nation even comes close.”1 In 2013, we were using more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year, which is equal to wasting 270 million trees!2 But why do we use so many? Is it our desire for convenience, our addiction to disposability, our hyper-awareness of sanitation, or just that we can afford it? Many other nations use rags and cloths for cleaning and wiping.

“About 50,000 trees would need to be planted daily to offset the amount of paper towels thrown away every day.” -Tom Szaky, Terracycle3

Paper towel aisle at a local supermarket
Paper towel aisle at a local supermarket, photo by me.

Paper Towels are Optional

I have not completely eliminated paper towels from our home. There are certain gross things that my family wanted paper towels for, such as pet accidents (waste or vomit). You can use newspapers to clean up stuff like that if you have it around. But you will no longer be able to recycle it, you’ll have to throw it away. (Newspaper is also good for cleaning up dog poop while walking, instead of putting it in little plastic bags.)

We switched to cloth rags, wipes, and washcloths many years ago, eliminating our need for paper towels by about 77% (we went from approximately one roll per week to one per month or so). We buy fewer paper towels, and we now buy ones that are environmentally friendly (see below).

Alternatives to Paper Towels

Cloth towels, or "unpaper towels," substitute for paper towels, colorful fabric on a roll.
Made and photographed by CatEyedKP on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

You do not need to spend a bunch of money on replacements for paper towels! You can use almost any type of cloth:

        • old or second-hand washcloths
        • old or second-hand towels
        • old clothing that isn’t good enough to donate
        • newspaper
        • cloth napkins for meals

I’ve used all of these. I turned stained or torn washcloths into cleaning cloths. I’ve bought old washcloths at yard sales. I’ve cut up old towels of my own or that I bought at the thrift store down to the size I wanted and hemmed the edges. And I’ve used old shirts that weren’t good enough to donate and cut those into cleaning cloths. This is a great way to upcycle old clothing. If you can’t sew or don’t have a sewing machine, don’t fret, you can use them as is. Hemming just prevents the edges from fraying. You can use fabric glues, available at the craft store, but I don’t know what chemicals or toxins those contain.

There are many DIY instructions on how to make cleaning cloths and ‘unpaper towels’ online.

There are also alternatives you can purchase such as reusable Swedish Dishcloths from the Package Free Shop. Their website says that one of these cloths is equal to 17 rolls of paper towels. They are machine washable and backyard compostable. I have not personally tried these so I cannot recommend them, but I think I might! I will, of course, update this article if I do.

You can make or purchase cloth napkins, just try to use or find 100% cotton.  We’ve been using cloth napkins for many years and have saved many trees this way! It does require water and electricity to wash them, but it is less than using new paper products from trees. And cloth napkins are plastic-free!

Silverware set on top of a burgundy cloth napkin.
Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay.

Plastic-Free & Forest-Friendly Paper Towels

Two rolls of white paper towels with white background.
Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

If you want to reduce your paper towel usage but still purchase some for icky jobs, buy plastic-free and forest-free paper towels. The company I prefer is called ‘Who Gives A Crap’ and they sell paper towels (and toilet paper) made from renewable sources, they do not package their merchandise in plastic, nor do their products contain inks or dyes.

Their paper towels are made from a blend of bamboo and sugarcane bagasse. As the company’s website explains, “Bagasse is a byproduct of sugarcane processing and is considered to be ‘waste’. Rather than burning or burying the bagasse (which is often the case), we’ve chosen to upcycle it into our paper towels. Upcycling for the win!”4 They are slightly shorter than traditional rolls. They were intentionally designed this way in order to ship more efficiently. 

I’ve been using Who Gives A Crap toilet paper and paper towels for more than 4 years and I’m extremely happy with the company’s products. While they are not quite as absorbent as brands like Bounty, I use old towels for spills anyway. But they are durable and do a good job overall. Even more exciting, you can use their wrappers for Christmas gift wrapping. Read my article about DIY zero-waste Christmas gift wrapping.

Please note: this is an honest review; I do not receive any promotional items or money for writing about them.

Who Gives a Crap paper towel rolls in box.
Who Gives a Crap paper towels in box. Photo by me.

Make The Switch!

Whether you decide to switch to reusable cloths or rags, or switch to bamboo paper towels, you’ll be making a difference on multiple levels. You’ll reduce waste, protects trees, eliminate toxins, and maybe conserve water. Congratulations! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
This article does not contain any affiliate links nor do I receive compensation to promote these products.

 

Footnotes:

Trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina

All photos in this article were taken by me. All Rights Reserved.

The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.
The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.

This year, we visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I’d only ever been there once, in 2003, just before Hurricane Isabel altered parts of the barrier islands. We enjoyed the landscapes, the nature reserves, the wildlife, the quaint towns, and of course, the beaches.

Natural Beauty

The Outer Banks are a string of barrier islands that span and protect nearly the entire coast of North Carolina. As an Outer Banks Guide explained, “They are made entirely of sand, without the keel of rock that anchors most islands firmly to the earth. It is a fascinat­ingly evanescent phenomenon in geological terms, a landform so transient that changes are visible from year to year.”1 Though there is a lot of development, there are vast natural areas, preserves, dunes, and beaches. We saw inspiring sun rises on the ocean side and gorgeous sunsets on the sound side.

Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk with a dock at center.
Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk, Duck, NC.

Wildlife

There were more birds and crabs than I can list, as well as deer and other animals. Pelicans seemed to enjoy showing off their graceful glide just inches above the sea. Sandpipers and terns poked into the sand seeking food. A few times, I sat really still on the beach when there weren’t a lot of people around, and I became surrounded by ghost crabs! The Outer Banks have laws and protected areas for wildlife throughout the islands. They restricted humans from some places to protect bird nests:

We even saw sea turtle tracks!

Sea turtle tracks on the sand.
Sea turtle tracks at Oregon Inlet, NC.

But sadly, we also found a dead sea turtle. We visited an area called Oregon Inlet and had a picnic snack on the beach. Then we walked along the beach and picked up trash.

The beach along Oregon Inlet, seaweed and shells dot the edge of the water.
The beach along Oregon Inlet, NC.

In the distance, I could see something big with orange stripes and wasn’t sure what it was until we got right up to it. Once I realized that it was a deceased sea turtle, I cried. I don’t know what caused its death, but I was sorry that it had lost its life. When I went to report the turtle, I discovered that spray paint markings like these indicate that this turtle had already been reported. Scientists document the animal’s species, sex, and age, and also extract genetic material to study and to better understand those species.

Dead sea turtle with orange spray paint lines on the sand.
Deceased sea turtle with orange spray paint markings.

The National Park Service has many sites in the Outer Banks, including several lighthouses and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and they had one on Ocracoke Island that offered sea turtle education. My son learned a lot from the rangers and their exhibit.

My son listened to the National Park Service employees and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks.
My son listened to the National Park Service rangers and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks. National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island. Turtle shells, figurines, a skull, and signage on a table.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.

Trash

As usual for my family, we picked up litter and beachcombed. Following are three of the piles we accumulated, containing a range of items – bottles of sunscreen, pieces of toys, Styrofoam/polystyrene, pieces of nylon rope, fireworks debris, food wrappers, plastic bags and film, and many, many small pieces of plastic. I uploaded images of each individual item into the Litterati app.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

As you can see, we found quite a variety of items, some recognizable and some not! Some of these items likely washed up on the beach from other places or fell off of boats, but others were obviously left behind. It’s so important to remember to leave the beach cleaner than you found it! Plastic pollution exponentially increases annually and is harming everything in the food chain, including humans.

Below are a few of my favorite finds – a broken green-haired plastic mermaid, a fishermen’s glove, and two missile-shaped diving weights that we ended up using and keeping!

I also found these goggles, which at first I thought someone had dropped. But upon closer examination, I noticed that these had been in the ocean long enough to grow barnacles:

Jennette’s Pier

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Located in Nags Head, NC, and used for sightseeing and fishing, this pier is unique. It was originally built in 1939 by the Jennette family, hence the name. The North Carolina Aquarium Society bought it in 2003 with the intention of building an educational outpost for the Aquarium, but Hurricane Isabel severely damaged the pier later that same year. The Aquarium rebuilt the 1000-foot-long, concrete pier with educational panels throughout and it reopened in 2011.2 It is LEED certified and has 3 wind turbines:

""Harnessing

Wind turbine, looking from the bottom, almost straight up. Sky in background.
Wind turbine at Jennette’s Pier.

They had exhibit panels on birds and marine mammals and shorebirds, such as this one:

"Sea Turtle Rescue" sign explaining how sea turtles are rescued.
“Sea Turtle Rescue” sign at Jennette’s Pier.

They had others on many topics, including surfing, ocean processes, fishing, and trash. In fact, they had sponsored recycling stations for items like cigarette butts and fishing line:

PVC tube recycling station for fishing line.
Recycling station for fishing line.
PVC tube recycling station for cigarette butts.
Recycling station for cigarette butts, to be recycled by TerraCycle.

The Pier House features a small, free series of North Carolina Aquariums interactive exhibits. I highly recommend visiting this pier if you’re ever on the Outer Banks!

My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks, with fish at top.
My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks.

Other Cool Finds

Outer Banks Brewing Station

We ate at this brewery and restaurant, which was once featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. While we went to several good restaurants, I’m featuring this one because it uses wind energy! It was the first wind-powered brewery in the United States, and the first business to produce wind power on the Outer Banks. They use 100% of the turbine’s energy to supplement their electricity. Over the course of its operating life (at least 30 years), this 10 kW Bergey GridTek system will offset approximately 1.2 tons of air pollutants and 250 tons of greenhouse gases.3 Oh, and we enjoyed the food and brew!

My husband inside of the Outer Banks Brewing Station, with a flight of beer in front of him on a table.
My husband at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, preparing for his flight (of beer)!
Wind turbine against blue sky, at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.
Wind turbine at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.

The Surfin’ Spoon

This frozen yogurt shop in Nags Head was my son’s absolute favorite, and they also offered dairy-free ice cream treats that were delicious! This shop, owned by a former professional surfer, collects and donates money to Surfers for Autism, a non-profit that provides free surf sessions to children and adults with autism and other related developmental delays and disabilities.4

My son peeking through the Surfin' Spoon's sign.
My son peeking through the Surfin’ Spoon’s sign.

Dog friendly

Almost everywhere on the Outer Banks is super dog friendly! I found this pleasantly surprising and hope to bring our dog there someday.

Dog prints in the sand.

Overall, A Lovely Place to Travel

We saved up for this trip and felt privileged to be able to travel the Outer Banks, taking in many sights from Corolla all the way down to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We saw several lighthouses, National Park Service sites, and other places that I didn’t have time to mention above. I highly recommend the Outer Banks for its beauty, dedication to conservation, and relaxed atmosphere. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.
My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.

 

Footnotes:

Where Does Our Recycling Go? Part 2

Woman in colorful clothing separating plastic waste, surrounded by plastic trash.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

In Part 1, I covered the evolution of recycling efforts and touched on some of the huge problems impacting the planet as a result. In Part 2, I’d like to take a deeper dive into the damage caused by sending our plastic waste overseas to other countries, especially China.

Since the practice began, China has transformed into the western world’s main dumping ground for its recycling waste. So much so that, inevitably China became so overwhelmed and polluted that they were forced to implement strict policies to stop the flow of recyclables. “The impact of that decision is still being felt,” noted a report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. There is a constant search “for new destinations for the waste produced by world powers, with the United States at the forefront.”1

“There’s no single country that can replace China’s recycling capacity.” -Adam Minter2

Blue Walmart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues, Guiyu, China.
Walmart gift card found in dump of e-waste residues, Guiyu, China. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Where Does Recycling Go Now?

With China effectively closing its doors to new plastic waste, large western countries have been forced to seek alternatives. Some recycling services have just stopped; others are landfilling recyclable materials. The United States and other western countries have resorted to sending their plastic waste to less developed countries that do not have the infrastructure to manage it. The U.S. exports tens of thousands of shipping containers full of plastic recycling to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste, because they do not have the infrastructure to handle the volumes. Imported recycling exacerbates the problem.3

These countries included Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India; but even countries in Latin America and Africa are now taking the West’s recycling waste.4 “The actual amount of U.S. plastic waste that ends [up] in countries with poor waste management may be even higher than 78% since countries like Canada and South Korea may reexport U.S. plastic waste.”5

New Bans

A few countries, like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, started banning some imports because of pollution. So shipments began making their way to Cambodia, Laos, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal, which had previously handled almost no U.S. plastic. As of 2021, Mexico and Ecuador are among the most significant plastic importers, as they have less legislation regulating recycling imports. The West exports approximately 35 containers per day to that region.6

Colorful plastic packaging and boy at the Structural City Dump, DF-BR.
Photo by Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brasil, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.5 BR)

Recycling Systems Are Flawed

Most plastic is not recycled, though many do not know that because of how our recycling amounts are calculated. A major flaw in our system is that recycling rates are based on how much we divert from landfills, not on how much waste is actually reprocessed into new products. “Plastic waste has been exported and counted as ‘recycled’ by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency…Without documented traceability of the final fate of the plastic waste, bales of waste plastic collected from municipal and commercial recycling systems were loaded onto trucks and shipped to buyers in foreign countries, many of which had inexpensive labor, no health and safety standards, few environmental regulations and no guarantee that the plastic waste would actually be recycled.”7

Local governments follow the lead of the EPA and calculate their recycling rates based on the volume of landfill diversion. “The practice artificially increased the volume of materials diverted away from U.S. landfills and helped municipalities hit their recycling goals.”8 But all it does is take up space and pollute other parts of the world. Worse, this has caused those countries to become major sources of plastic pollution to the ocean.

“Since exporting plastic waste is a convenient way for the United States (U.S.) and other industrialized countries to count plastic waste as ‘recycled’ and avoid disposal costs and impacts at home, there has been in a significant increase of plastic waste shipments to other countries instead of China. Unfortunately, most of our plastic waste is still shipped to countries that are not equipped to safely and securely manage it.9

Gigantic waste pile with a digger on top, workers (and cows) at bottom sorting out recyclables.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay
Gigantic waste pile with workers (and cows) at bottom sorting out recyclables.
Close-up, similar to previous photo. Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

Polluting Other Countries

Our waste is now polluting other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, and harming the health of humans and wildlife in those areas. In the first half of 2018, western countries sent 754,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia alone.10 In Vietnam, more than half of the plastic imported into the country is sold to small household level recycling facilities and processed informally. As an article from The Conversation explained:

“Informal processing involves washing and melting the plastic, which uses a lot of water and energy and produces a lot of smoke. The untreated water is discharged to waterways and around 20% of the plastic is unusable so it is dumped and usually burnt, creating further litter and air quality problems. Burning plastic can produce harmful air pollutants such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls and the wash water contains a cocktail of chemical residues, in addition to detergents used for washing. Working conditions at these informal processors are also hazardous, with burners operating at 260-400℃. Workers have little or no protective equipment. The discharge from a whole village of household processors concentrates the air and water pollution in the local area.”11

Those who run informal facilities aren’t the ones we should blame, though. We need to point the finger at ourselves! We are creating the waste, often with no real way to dispose of it, and it ends up in a developing country. The people who work in those facilities are poisoning themselves just to feed their families. We are the ones who should be ashamed.

Many of the countries receiving our recycling are unable to handle their own plastic waste, to begin with. Waste that comes from the packaging of imported western products. Corporations have influenced most of the developing world that they, too, should buy disposable products. Our bad habits have influenced the entire world even though we aren’t taking responsibility for our own waste.

Harmful to Human Health

Recycling is not only an environmental issue. As attorney and sustainability expert, Jennie Romer, noted, it is also a humanitarian issue. “[The National Sword policy] brought to light that much of the plastic waste sent to China was not effectively recycled and was instead processed by low-wage workers without the health, safety, or environmental protections mandated in the U.S. We were simply outsourcing the problems associated with these materials.”12

In some areas, the pollution from low-value recycling has left long-term problems. In Wen’an, one of the plastic-recycling zones in China, “studies have shown that heavy metal pollution from plastic-waste recycling is high enough to cause risks associated with cancer in children.” In Shandong Province, chemicals from plastic processing have contaminated the groundwater and families must buy bottled drinking water now.13

The fumes from burning plastics are toxic and harmful, even potentially carcinogenic, and people in nearby areas have respiratory problems, unexplained rashes, and other ailments. “Regular exposure can subject workers and nearby residents to hundreds of toxic substances, including hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals, the effects of which can include developmental disorders, endocrine disruption, and cancer.”14

“To protect the health of humans and fellow creatures who share our planet, the urgent priority must be to eliminate single-use consumer plastic, and to invest in reusable, refillable and package-free approaches.”15

Adolescent boy with bags of plastic recycling on a wagon or trailer.
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

It’s Over

The market for recycling, especially regarding plastic, has not come back around and it likely never will. It costs more to import plastic recycling than companies can recover from selling it. We shouldn’t have been sending it away in the first place – we should have focused on reduction. The sheer volumes of waste and ‘recycling’ are hard to fathom because it is measured in the million tons! In fact, despite the challenges of having to send it to other countries, our plastic waste in the U.S. increased in 2020!

Solutions

We must change our thinking. We have to stop producing so much plastic waste immediately. Companies must redesign packaging to eliminate waste. “We need to look beyond collecting and sorting materials. If we consider how products are designed in the first place, and how we process them to maximize recycling, we can minimize the amount of low-value materials and packaging that we need to dispose of.”16

“Instead of pretending that the trillions of throwaway plastic items produced each year will be recycled or composted, we must stop producing so many of them in the first place.”17

Please spread the message about stopping the production and use of waste. We must demand that corporations stop producing so much plastic. We can’t ignore what is going on in other parts of the world, since we all share this planet. What happens to our plastic, whether it is the U.S. or Southeast Asia, affects us all. Check out my Resources page for leaders in the zero waste and plastic-free movements. Stop buying any disposable items you are able to live without. Though recycling looks dismal, keep trying and learn How to Recycle Better. Please share and subscribe! Thanks for reading.

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Plastic Wars,” Frontline PBS, March 31, 2020.

Article, “Shrinking market, poor collection services have Hong Kong’s plastic recyclers struggling to stay afloat — and few are succeeding,” by Zoe Low, South China Morning Post, June 22, 2020.

Video, “The Plastic Problem,” PBS NewsHour, November 27, 2019.

Document, “Destination of U.S. and U.K. Plastic Waste Exports, Country Waste Mismanagement Rates and Evidence of Harms to Receiving Countries,” accessed February 19, 2022.

Article, “Material Recycling and the Myth of Landfill Diversion,” by Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 23, August 2018.

Video, “Asia’s ocean pollution crisis,” SCMP Archive, July 6, 2020.

Article, “How A Picturesque Fishing Town Became Smothered In Trash,” by John Vidal, The Huffington Post, April 10, 2019.

Footnotes: