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Is Plastic Bottle Recycling Heading for America's Trash Bin?

Is Plastic Bottle Recycling Heading for America's Trash Bin?

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

The monthly residential recycling fees in Saskatoon, Canada, are increasing this year from $2 to $7.38, or from $24 to $93.96 a year. In Chesterfield County, Virginia, the annual residential recycling fee is increasing to $40 from $25.

It appears that recycling fees and processing charges are going up all over the U.S. and in other countries. The real issue for recycling in the U.S. is not curbside pickups, but how successful the programs are in each state.

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Contamination and higher costs for recycling are among the top factors driving this significant change in city and state recycling budgets.

Many States Ending Their Residential Recycling Programs

According to WasteDive, many many states are ending their residential recycling programs. For example:

  • Alabama ended most of its curbside recycling program. Its recycling operations center is closed. The items recycled may go to a mixed waste site.
  • Alaska has put a ban on paper and plastics that were part of their recycled program.
  • Arizona is struggling to decide whether or not to continue its residential recycling program.
  • Arkansas is struggling to maintain its recycling program. One change is to stop accepting plastics.

California is examining how to turn its recycled items into some kind of business. The state is also investing in a public education program so residents will better understand how to deal with items that are trash and those that could be recycled.

China had been accepting and processing more than half of the world’s trash and recycled plastic, paper and metals. After 25 years, China has stopped accepting plastics from the U.S. for recycling. China was concerned that waste and recycled items were harmful to the population and the environment. The ban has affected the thinking of how to deal with trash, waste and recycled products.

Plastics’ Impact on Our Community and Environment

Plastic bottles take about 450 years to decompose. About 75% of all the plastic bottles used in the U.S. ends up in landfills, not in recycled centers. That means only about 25% to 30% of plastics are part of the recycling effort. The total estimate of plastics in our oceans is at 250 billion tons.

Creating Responsible Supply Chains

Products such as plastic bottles are part of the complex daily supply chains that transport everything from raw materials to finished products. Every item on a grocery store shelf is part of a complex web of workers and materials.

While supply chains help us enjoy a better life, they also have a negative side. The plastic bottles in the landfills or in the oceans, rivers, and lakes create environmental problems. Animals die due to plastics deteriorating in the water or by choking on bits of broken bottles and other plastic items.

Manufacturers and users of plastic bottles are seeking responsible supply chains to alleviate this social and environmental problem. One such company is Coca-Cola. Coke reportedly uses 200,000 plastic bottles per minute, or three million tons of plastic a year.

Although the company does not plan to stop using plastic bottles because customers continue to purchase them, Coke does plan to change the type of plastic to one that is biodegradable in 2030.

Recycling Companies Sending Plastic Bottles to Landfills

Despite companies such as Coca-Cola working to curb plastics waste and improve the recycling of used bottles, millions of bottles still end up in landfills. The problem is that the plastic problem is not just about the bottles that we throw away; the problem is that the recycling companies are sending them to landfills.

Recycling companies that are still collecting plastic bottles are taking them to landfills, either locally or in another state. Sacramento, California, has dropped plastics from its recycling program. Hooksett, N.H., has just stopped curbside residential recycling due to the cost. The waste manager in Bakersfield, California, says, “The situation is ‘not just a little bad, it is terrible.’”

The future of plastic bottles and the recycling effort is a continuing battle to realize the dream of a circular plastics economy when 100% of all plastic bottles can be reduced, reused, recycled or just turned into sand, something useful for the land and water we depend on.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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