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May 22, 2022

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In Our View: Plastics problem continues to grow

The Columbian
Published:

Over the past 50 years or so, the recycling of paper, newspaper, plastics, cans, bottles and other items has become second nature for Americans. In Clark County and in most parts of the country, recyclable material is separated from garbage and set out by the curb to be picked up.

But then what? As an informative article by Columbian Features Editor Erin Middlewood detailed, most residents have little idea what happens to our recycling once the big truck hauls it off. In fact, officials in the recycling industry have little idea.

In Clark County, most material is sent to Waste Connections’ West Vancouver Material Recovery Center. From there, most plastic is sold to brokers for export, with the rest going to North American mills.

“Our expectation is that they are selling it to mills and facilities that are handling it in an environmentally appropriate way,” District Manager Derek Ranta said. “Brokers have relationships with those mills overseas and would report back to us. … The customer has to trust that the city of Vancouver, Clark County and other cities in the area have vetted us as a contractor and trust that we’re doing the best we can with materials we collect.”

We do trust that. But the issue raises questions and helps illuminate a pressing global issue — plastic waste.

A 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances estimated that 9.1 billion tons of plastic were manufactured between 1950 and 2015, with only 9 percent of that being recycled.

These days, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, about 8.8 million tons of plastic annually wind up in the world’s oceans, and one oft-cited study suggests that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex of marine currents that bring together ocean waste, is estimated to be roughly the size of Texas.

This is a problem, and it is getting worse. For years, China had handled nearly half the world’s recyclable waste, but in 2018 it severely restricted the import of most plastic waste. That upended global markets for recyclables.

Citizens and governments are paying attention to the issue. Washington this year enacted a ban on single-use plastics (some exceptions are allowed, including for newspaper bags), and other states and municipalities have made similar moves. Several years ago, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that by 2030, his city would no longer send any garbage to landfills.

That seems to be a specious declaration; people use products, and that use leaves behind waste — some of which must go to landfills. But increasing recycling and reducing the amount of garbage remains a worthy goal.

To some extent, the modern age of recycling was born with Oregon’s 1971 bottle bill, which required deposits on bottles in an attempt to reduce roadside litter.

Other items were added to the recycling movement over time out of a desire to reduce the amount of trash that winds up in landfills. But recycling has leveled off in recent years, with experts saying that about 34 percent of all waste in the United States is recycled.

Any effort to increase that percentage must start in the home — and not only with your recycling bin. Being conscientious about product packaging before making a purchase is an important and easy way to reduce garbage. Avoiding plastic packaging is an important and easy way to reduce plastic waste.

With a little practice, it can become second nature, just as recycling is now.

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