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The recycling myth: A plastic waste solution littered with failure

346 points342 comments2 months agoreuters.com
by relax882 months ago

One thing I’m always curious about is why we are so concerned with plastic waste.

My local grocery store recently switched to paper bags. So I got curious. Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags. This is impossible since they are made of paper. Aluminum and glass bottles require several hundred times more energy to produce as well (between 170-250x).

Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

Plastic waste really isn’t a big problem unless you’re talking about developing nations. North America is responsible for about 3% of mismanaged plastic waste. Asia and Africa account for 86% of it.

Don’t get me started on plastic straws. They make up 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean.

If we want to make a difference here we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways.

The Yangtze and Ganges are releasing plastic into the ocean at a rate far greater than all of North America combined, and our response is to expend huge amounts of energy produced by fossil fuels trying to recycle our plastic instead of burying it in a landfill where it is unlikely to pose a major ecological threat.

Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.

by xenocyon2 months ago

You're leading with energy use but that's really not the point.

The point is that plastic takes many centuries to degrade, and we go through a lot of single-use plastic. For example, a disposable diaper takes >500 years to biodegrade.

It's nice to imagine all this plastic going into walled-off landfills that protect the rest of the earth and water from being contaminated, but in practice this is a myth. US localities are seeing an unsustainably growing amount of plastic contamination in local waterways and beaches, some of it visible, some of it not.

Incidentally, this doesn't mean you need to use a single-use paper bag instead of a single-use plastic bag. Instead, use a durable bag made out of any material you like. The phrase is "reduce -> reuse -> recycle". Recycling was never meant to be the foremost part of our sustainability efforts.

by dmitryminkovsky2 months ago

> You're leading with energy use but that's really not the point.

Isn't that the critical point? Of all our environmental problems, atmospheric CO2 is the biggest one, right? My assumption is that the energy used in industrial manufacturing is almost always non-renewable. If we're advocating for using paper bags over plastic bags, that means we're advocating for way more CO2 in the atmosphere. So what we should actually be advocating for is mandating that people reuse bags, bottles, and containers of all kind.

It's been a long time since I've been involved in chemistry, but my understanding is that extruded polymers like plastic bags, wraps and containers are almost always synthesized from waste products of fossil fuel refinement. If it wasn't for products like plastic wraps and bags, these "waste" gasses that are polymerized into plastics would be released into the atmosphere (especially in places without environment regulation or enforcement). The production of plastics at least traps those gasses into some solid state that we can then hope to maybe possibly bury in a landfill. I know it's ugly and pretty horrible, but from a climate perspective I'd go so far as to say that I'd prefer the plastic in a body of water than in the atmosphere.

by JulianMorrison2 months ago

> Of all our environmental problems, atmospheric CO2 is the biggest one, right?

We honestly don't know how bad micro-plastic is. Our experience with asbestos, another fibre that can penetrate cells, suggests "very bad" is on the list of potentials. We do know that it's in literally everything from dirt to water to air, and that it has circled the globe and got to places no human sets foot.

Like soil depletion and loss of insects, it's on the list of problems which aren't trendy to focus on right now, but might end up being really serious.

+2
by Symmetry2 months ago

Microplastics are a good reason to make sure your plastic makes it to a landfill instead of the ocean more than a reason to give up plastic entirely. Of course, not every country has government provided waste disposal so to the extent that our rich world preferences get foisted onto developing countries by default I guess that is a valid reason to want to reduce plastic use.

But on the third hand locking up hydrocarbons in plastics while we're dealing with global warming seems like a positive good.

by rstuart41332 months ago

> Our experience with asbestos, another fibre that can penetrate cells, suggests "very bad" is on the list of potentials.

On the other hand, the issue seems to be animals ingest microplastics, mistaking them for food. The thing is, the vast majority of any environment is "not food". Tiny sand particles, dust, lignin, volcanic ash. If there is one thing life is phenomenally good at, it's distinguishing "not food" from food. Introducing a poison like pesticides into the environment, or wholesale environmental change like CO2 is doing - that could and indeed is wiping out a lot of species. But I have a hard time believing another source of "not food" will cause the same scale of damage.

+1
by dmitryminkovsky2 months ago

Yeah microplastics might indeed be worse. I didn’t know microplastics potentially had so much in common with asbestos.

by rakshazi2 months ago

> If we're advocating for using paper bags over plastic bags, that means we're advocating for way more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Not exactly. The point is not to use paper bag, but to use durable/persistent bag from any material (even plastic) as long as you can.

For example, I almost never use one-time plastic bags, because I have backpack, so when I go to a grocery store, all the things placed into the backpack.

In such case (from energy perspective) it's easier to peoduce 1 backpack (32l) for several years of daily use instead of paper/plastic/etc ONE-TIME bag.

Unfortunately, that approach doesn't work with other things. For example, it's impossible to buy yogurt not in one-time plastic package and we didn't find a "mass market" solution to that problem. Same goes for any other ONE-TIME package

+1
by gcanyon2 months ago

Using your backpack for a year makes it maybe superior to single-use plastic if you don't use the single-use bag for trash later on: https://youtu.be/JvzvM9tf5s0

+2
by phreeza2 months ago

> For example, it's impossible to buy yogurt not in one-time plastic package and we didn't find a "mass market" solution to that problem. Same goes for any other ONE-TIME package

Actually there are completely package-free supermarkets in Europe (and probably the US, too) now, where you bring your own container and pay by weight. It's very niche now but I can imagine it increasing in popularity.

+3
by Forbo2 months ago

SciShow did a great episode on this very issue:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvzvM9tf5s0

+1
by distances2 months ago

> it's impossible to buy yogurt not in one-time plastic package and we didn't find a "mass market" solution to that problem.

In Nordics most yoghurt is sold in one-liter Tetra Pak style cartons, similar to milk. I've noticed it's next to impossible to find these in Central Europe though, for whatever reason.

by dmitryminkovsky2 months ago

> The point is not to use paper bag, but to use durable/persistent bag from any material (even plastic) as long as you can.

Of course. I was referring/responding to the parent comment.

by 08-152 months ago

> extruded polymers like plastic bags, wraps and containers are almost always synthesized from waste products of fossil fuel refinement

That's almost completely false.

It obviously depends on the kind of plastic. PE and PP are made from ethene and propene, which are indeed byproducts of fuel refining. But demand far outstrips supply now, so these are now made on purpose. PS is made from styrene, which is not a byproduct. It is made from low-value chemicals, so it's upgraded waste. PET is made from terepthalic acid, which is very much not a waste product of any process.

Even if there were any waste products from fuel refining, they would certainly not be vented. They'd be burned as fuel. Which is also a sensible thing to do with waste plastics. (Someone is going to object that this releases CO2. It does. Burning fuel releases CO2. We can come back to this point once we longer burn coal or methane for energy.)

by bobiny2 months ago

Wiki and some other sources say that PE is made from crude oil byproducts https://extension.psu.edu/how-plastic-is-made-from-natural-g...

by dmitryminkovsky2 months ago

Thank you for the check.

> PE and PP are made from ethene and propene, which are indeed byproducts of fuel refining.

When we're talking about things like plastic bags and wraps, aren't we talking about PE/PP?

> Even if there were any waste products from fuel refining, they would certainly not be vented. They'd be burned as fuel.

This makes a lot of sense. But what if a refinery is not equipped to do this? What if the refinery is in a place with poor or non-existant environment regulation/enforcement?

> But demand far outstrips supply now, so these are now made on purpose.

This is the kicker. So how do we make PP/PE when supply of precursors from crude refinement is not sufficient?

> PS is made ... PET is made from ...

I shouldn't have used the word extruded, I guess? I was thinking more about PE/PP.

by robocat2 months ago

> So what we should actually be advocating for is mandating that people reuse bags

Except that many reusable bags are likely a waste of resources:

Danish study: "polypropylene bags (most of the [] reusable bags found at supermarkets) should be used 37 times paper bags should be used 43 times, cotton bags should be used 7,100 times."

UK study: "paper bags should be used three times low-density polyethylene bags (the thicker plastic bags commonly used in supermarkets) should be used four times, non-woven polypropylene bags should be used 11 times, cotton bags should be used 131 times."

https://phys.org/news/2018-08-reuse-bags.html

A simple approximation for environmental damage is the cost in $. If a plastic bag costs 1c, and a jute bag costs $2, then you can guess crossover point is 200 usages (weekly shopping for 4 years to reach breakeven also presuming you value your extra time and hassle at zero).

Reusable bags are a huge waste IMHO.

I dropped a bottle of wine the other day because I didn't have a plastic carry bag - cost equivalent of 1000 plastic bags... Arrrrghhh!

by inglor_cz2 months ago

7100 times is quite a lot. If used once a day, that would mean approx. 20 years of use.

When I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, we mostly had cotton shopping bags for everyday use. Nicely printed, colorful plastic bags were a bit of a luxury. But our cotton shopping bags rarely lasted more than two or three years. The wear and tear was significant. A lot of food comes in edg-y or point-y packaging, which is not friendly towards the bags.

+2
by XMPPwocky2 months ago

> A simple approximation for environmental damage is the cost in $.

Neglecting externalities seems like the exact opposite of what you'd want to do in a discussion about environmental impact.

by dheera2 months ago

> Isn't that the critical point? Of all our environmental problems, atmospheric CO2 is the biggest one, right?

Energy is important, but the energy consumption of a grocery bag is small compared to the energy consumption of most of the things in the grocery bag, and if you drive a car to the grocery store, the energy consumption of the car for the roundtrip (~0.3 kWh per mile).

I'd say for grocery packaging the ecological impact should be the bigger concern.

Honestly the solution is easy, change the $0.10 grocery bag surcharge to $1.00 and people will stop using single-use grocery bags tomorrow. $0.10 is not enough for people to care.

+2
by njarboe2 months ago

Even better solution. Charge $100 to go into the grocery store and that will greatly reduce people driving to stores, shopping and using single-use bags.

by faeyanpiraat2 months ago

If you factor in cleaning into the reuse process you might end up with more waste:

- cleaning products (with plastic containers

- water (warmed by burning gas)

- spending time which could be used in any other way

- who knows what else

by 2muchcoffeeman2 months ago

I feel these sorts of arguments are just excuses to be inefficient.

In many office kitchens, I see so many people using the hot water to wash when the cold would suffice. Using massive amounts of washing liquid when you only need a little. Keeping the faucet on while they scrub their dishes.

And depending on your household situation, you can do dishes for a family of 4 in under 30 mins. Cleaning a single plate during the day takes seconds. Or even just learn to pack your dishwasher properly. Let’s not pretend that doing a few menial tasks everyday is what’s stopping you from being that extra bit more efficient.

by justnotworthit2 months ago

Jokes on you: I never wash anything!

by techbio2 months ago

Unfortunately there is no winner take all solution for environmental impacts, it is a many-fronted theater.

So better plastics solidified and made useful than released as fumes, but your decisive line of argument omits the carbon sequestration possible with large-scale paper for one thing (just not the kind that spills outflow directly into waterways), and the general degradation of the living oceans.

by plorg2 months ago

If what we are talking about is energy use, then we are probably wasting our time talking about bags, because the goods the bags are carrying probably take an order of magnitude more energy to generate. Refuse and energy consumption are separate but related problems.

by atonse2 months ago

Yes I keep preaching this to anyone that will listen. It was THREE Items that form the phrase. And we just don’t reduce or reuse given how easy it is to buy more stuff.

At my house, we have a whole “fixin’ stuff box” full of items that broke but not seriously enough that maybe we can figure out how to fix them. I started this to teach my kids that we can repair stuff rather than throw it. I still have really fond memories of fixing things around the house in India in the 1980s with my grandpa. Although those days most fixes involved either adding oil, or taking things apart and cleaning the dust.

What does make me happy is now, sometimes when I say let’s throw something my 7 year old son says “come on let’s at least try to fix it first”. We have fixed his headphones twice by taking it apart and re-soldering wires that came loose. And it feels so satisfying to know you can bring something back to life.

It’s had mixed results. The biggest pushback even with me is time. Do I have the time to fix that broken pencil sharpener or can I solve this in 2 mins on Amazon because I have 50 other things to do.

And more often than not the 2 mins wins.

I think if fixing things was more socially present (you saw more people around you doing it), more people would do it.

by laurex2 months ago

This becomes a reinforcing problem as we purchase cheap solutions in the quick fix option, ones that are more likely to break, be more difficult to repair, and more likely to let us to another quick fix.

by MereInterest2 months ago

And it is nigh impossible to know ahead of time how repairable a device is.

by Tronno2 months ago

This doesn't detract from your main point, but there is a third alternative to fixing a purpose-made pencil sharpener vs buying a new one - use a knife.

This is what I did as a child whose family had no access to such luxuries. Of course, you can't bring this solution to school.

by colechristensen2 months ago

You can just burn plastic though, lots of places do for energy.

And if you put it in context, you’re already “burning” the carbon in the food you eat and plastic just adds a little bit of overhead to that.

by stjohnswarts2 months ago

Uh that just releases more carbon dioxide faster, how is that a solution to anything other than maybe landfill issues? I would personally say that's worse as it is contributing to our biggest problem of all which is climate change. At least if it's buried it takes centuries to break down

by colechristensen2 months ago

Well we already burn the same fossil fuels for power… instead of an oil fired plant you add an extra step and turn that oil into packaging for a while before burning it. As long as some of your power comes from fossil fuels it would really seem to be carbon neutral because a similar amount of carbon was going to be burned anyway.

And the amount of plastic actually burned is quite small when you compare it to everything else.

+1
by atonse2 months ago

Depending on the technology used by whichever incinerator, they do go through multiple passes and filtration steps but I am not actually sure what that does about CO2 emissions.

by imtringued2 months ago

I think the assumption is that point sources will have carbon capture.

by exporectomy2 months ago

You seem to be directly contradicting your parent commenter about US releasing plastic into the sea. Even if it's growing, do you still agree that it's insignificant compared to less developed countries?

A lot of the arguments against plastic miss this anyway. They say "don't put it in the landfill" but the landfill is exactly where it's walled-off and safe. If it was about getting into waterways, it'd be "Put your plastic in the landfill instead of the street".

Why does it matter how long it takes to break down? As long as it's secure, it'll just sit there doing no harm. Is there any evidence that landfills will one-day release their contents on a large scale and cause an environmental problem? Presumably that will happen in some post-apocalyptic world where people no longer bother to maintain things and the apocalypse will be tolerable but not the plastic?

by eloff2 months ago

We have no shortage of space for landfills. As the OP mentioned, we manage or garbage well in North America and most of it is disposed properly. I would argue the opposite of you, the energy consumption of production and shipping is more important than if it's biodegradable quickly or not.

by city412 months ago

There are a lot of factors to consider in reusable versus single use. For example, this video says you need to use a cotton reusable bag 7100 times to offset its environmental impact versus single use plastic bags. It goes into many other considerations too, including disposal problems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvzvM9tf5s0

by plorg2 months ago

Perhaps if bags are made from new material, but it's not difficult to sew a bag out of old clothes, say, or other fabric that would otherwise end up in a landfill. In any case, the bag you already have is almost certainly better than a new, disposable one.

+2
by city412 months ago

I agree with all that. But it is interesting to see what the implications can be. I once went to a conference where they made an announcement that they were being green by giving every attendant a canteen to fill up with water instead of using disposable cups. But I'd be willing to bet many of those canteens went into the trash right after the conference, and thus they probably accomplished the exact opposite of what they were after.

by cryptonector2 months ago

I don't see people doing that though. Do you?

by gcanyon2 months ago

Reusable bags aren't necessarily better. https://youtu.be/JvzvM9tf5s0

On greenhouse gas emissions alone, reusable plastic bags need to be used about ten times to be as good as single-use plastic, and cotton bags over 100 times. Paper bags are no better than single-use plastic.

On total environmental impact, single-use plastic pulls further ahead: paper bags are much worse, reusable plastic bags need to be used 50 times to match single-use plastic (achievable with focus and effort), and cotton bags take thousands of uses to equal single-use plastic.

And if you reuse single-use plastic bags for trash bags, they are far superior to all alternatives.

by lupire2 months ago

Does this account for the fact that reusable bags are larger capacity and stronger than single use bags (don't need doubling).

Also, single use bags , as the name suggests, are used in far far higher quantities than trash bags. A week means 1 trash bag but a dozen grocery bags.

Anyway, regardless of that your shopping bag is, most of the plastit is inside it, wrapping your individual items...

by Zababa2 months ago

> The phrase is "reduce -> reuse -> recycle". Recycling was never meant to be the foremost part of our sustainability efforts.

The thing is, "recycle" is the only one that preserves the economy, so that's what everyone jumped on.

by seventytwo2 months ago

But reduce and reuse are bad for bottom lines!!

by lurquer2 months ago

> The point is that plastic takes many centuries to degrade

So? Is there a shortage of centuries? Do you really think—300 years from now—they’ll be using plastic?

by southeastern2 months ago

There have been numerous cases of finding plastic waste in some fish, and because it doesn't decay organically it can form blockages in their digestive tracts. Whatever they're using in 300 years, they'll still be finding plastic in oceans and rivers(absent a massive clean up program)

+2
by lurquer2 months ago

Bits of plastic can form blockages? Says who? I seriously doubt it.

A bit of plastic — to a fish gut - is no different than a pebble, chunk of coral, bit of bone, etc.

Littering is bad.

And litter that doesn’t naturally decompose is annoying.

But, it’s an aesthetics problem. Plastic is harmless (despite the occasional picture of a turtle with a straw in its nose...)

Over time, whether is decomposes or not, it will be covered with sediment and gone from the ecosystem.

by biasedbrain2 months ago

Still, it is mostly a cosmetic problem, while we are supposed to believe that global warming will kill us all in a short amount of time. So the priorities should be clear.

by trainsplanes2 months ago

Have you gone to a beach lately?

I don't live in the US but it's certainly not a developing country. Beaches are absolutely covered in plastic waste and it's noticeably worse each time I go. Forests are steadily becoming filled with plastic that either gets tossed there or blown there. Animals eat garbage and die. It's horrible. Assuming I live a very long life and die in 70 years, that plastic will still be there. New plastic will be there as well.

America and the EU "manage" their plastic waste by literally shipping it to other countries, then blaming them for mismanaging it. Most was sent to China, then it was banned by China.[1] Now the EU and US ship it to other countries, claim they manage their plastic, and blame new countries. The US and EU have yet to manage their plastic, though. They're just dumping it on their neighbor's property.

My worry about paper bags is that, corporations doing what they do and going for the lowest bidder, they'll be made with clear-cut rainforest wood from Indonesia and Malaysia instead of sustainable sources. I'm sure a lot are.

I just reuse bags and never use paper or anything unless it's forced upon me. I bought some durable bags 5 years ago. I keep a couple in my vehicle, a few at home, and others in other places so I almost always have a bag with me.

by crazygringo2 months ago

I live in NYC, we actually have tons of beaches here in the metropolitan area, and they're certainly not covered in plastic waste. Nor are our forests -- the hiking trails around here are great. And I'm talking about the single most populated metropolitan area in the US.

Sure there are a few strewn candy wrappers or something, but there really isn't any big problem. It's all quite nice.

What country do you live in that your beaches are so bad?

by trainsplanes2 months ago

NYC probably has people actively cleaning trails and beaches.

Japanese beaches that aren't ultra popular tourist destinations are currently flooded with trash. Going through Shizuoka, Aichi, and islands of Kagoshima, they're increasingly looking like dumps. Some are completely covered in pieces of trash, and most of it isn't Chinese. It's washed up laundry detergent bottles and toys and stuff all from here. Some places like Okinawa and Kamakura beach are generally cleaned, but having visited Kamakura 4 years ago and again a year ago, it's noticeably filthier.

Major beaches are maintained and cleaned daily. Walk a few hundred meters beyond the crowds and there's a good chance you'll see trash everywhere. Two weeks ago I visited a beach I last went to a couple years back, and it was depressing seeing the state of it. The beach used to have crabs and isopods roaming the sands and crawling around the rocks. Now it's covered in shards of plastic and washed up tires and other things. Not a crab to be seen.

by titzer2 months ago

> NYC probably has people actively cleaning trails and beaches.

> Japanese beaches that aren't ultra popular tourist destinations are currently flooded with trash.

This is exactly my experience as well. Every place that I have been, if it is a remote site that no one is actively cleaning up, then it has weeks, months, years, or even decades of accumulated garbage. Popular destinations, like beaches around resorts, well-maintained hiking trails, private beaches; these all have people regularly picking up garbage.

Some of the most "pristine" beaches I've seen were on outer islands of Fiji. But they were pristine because they had resorts on them, or near them. Kayak over the other side of the island, where no one picks up, and it's trash city. The global ocean system deposits garbage everywhere, on every beach. Depending on where you are in the various gyres, that beach gets more or less washup. I've been to beaches in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Hawaii, Fiji, Africa, Europe, and both coasts of the US. The primary discriminating factor on how much garbage you see is how regular and thorough the pickup is.

+1
by qiqitori2 months ago

Yes, agreed. I lived in Matsue a couple years ago and found a couple nice spots that were covered in ocean trash. Loads of plastic bottles both from Japan and other countries (there was a milk carton from Australia), styrofoam, polyester apparel, some random other stuff.

Pic: https://blog.qiqitori.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/DSC0249...

Boring blog entry: https://blog.qiqitori.com/2017/08/beach-cleaning-in-matsue-j...

+2
by Retric2 months ago

The outer banks of North Carolina has miles of beaches linked to nature reserves that don’t get cleaned or accumulate such trash. Japan is surrounded by a sea of trash due to the countries surrounding it.

Litter ends up in streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean. You can argue it’s an issue with plastics, but it’s equally an issue with trash.

+1
by codethief2 months ago

> Some places like Okinawa and Kamakura beach are generally cleaned

As for Okinawa that seems to depend on the island. When I was there some years ago, many beaches on the smaller islands were covered in trash (mostly of Western origin – one could often still decipher the letters on e.g. beer and shampoo bottles).

by latchkey2 months ago

Vietnam. Cambodia. Laos. I spent 4 years living and traveling all over those countries by motorbike.

Not just the beaches, but every single waterway, alley, forest, jungle. Literally everywhere.

I have pictures of the waterways in Saigon at low tide and the ground is covered in plastic. At high tide, there are government run boats that go up and down some of the waterways to collect a fraction of the trash that people just dump in there.

Every single little town/commune/village has a spot on the way in/out of town with mounds of trash (mostly plastic). Usually partially burning, smelly and covered in bugs.

It is tragic.

by Ayesh2 months ago

Even worse in Indonesia. Cities like Jakarta and Malang are almost unlivable.

by ClumsyPilot2 months ago

"By 2025, the ocean will contain around one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish"

It washes up on beaches. Uninhabited islands thousands of miles from the nearest settlement are covered in plastic:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/henderson...

by protoax2 months ago

You also live in one of the richest cities in the US, so I think your experience may be slightly skewed.

by msdrigg2 months ago

Im on the east coast and Ive never seen more than a plastic bag or two on any beach. Even less in forests. Any plastic waste Ive seen outside of a city area is an isolated incident.

by 4r4r4r2 months ago

Hong Kong. Beaches are littered with plastic garbage including bottles, bags, and wrappers for about 5 meters off shore. After that its microplastics. This is across the street from the Ferrari showroom.

by morpheos1372 months ago

Not GP but Maybe Somalia? Yeah the hysteria about environmental degradation in the USA is among some online people who don't even bother to go outside is absurd. Within 50 miles of NYC are pristine woods, mature second growth trees, deer and black bear. And yeah near the road side you may see a plastic bottle every couple hundred feet. The sky is not falling.

by PhasmaFelis2 months ago

As others have said, the fact that beaches and trails are kept tidy near one of the world's wealthiest cities proves nothing. There are plenty of American beaches that are filthy with plastic. Look outside your bubble.

by burlesona2 months ago

As an American, one of the things that shocked me the most in visits to Europe was how much litter there is. I lived in Italy, and it was astonishing how there was just trash everywhere, even though Italy is a wealthy nation. I’ve traveled all over Western Europe and the only part that felt relatively “clean” to me was London - clean as in comparable to NYC or other major US urban centers in terms of litter level.

By comparison, I’ve lived and traveled all over the US, cities and rural areas, beaches, forests, etc. Litter is rare. Where you will find it are freeway underpasses, neglected urban or near-urban waterways and railways: places where people aren’t really “supposed” to go, and are therefore loitered in and rarely cleaned.

There are many areas where the US lags Europe, but in my experience when it comes to litter, we have far less of it.

by Swizec2 months ago

You must be going to different parts of Europe than I have. American cities (not suburbs, the actual cities) are absolutely filthy with trash and litter. European cities feel squeaky clean in comparison.

And what's with all that trash on freeways? I've seen a whole couch casually waiting to biodegrade by the side of the freeway. Discarded bumpers and tyres aren't even worth mentioning anymore there's so many everywhere. Large debris like that gets cleaned up immediately in Europe because it's a hazard.

by yissp2 months ago

Evidently making blanket statements about two geographically huge and economically / culturally heterogenous areas is misguided.

by sershe2 months ago

I had the same experience in Spain... we were doing some climbing around Costa Blanca and parked/walked along a few random stretches of highway and they are all covered in trash thrown from cars. That was really surprising, I had a stereotype of EU being more civic-minded/civilized than the USA, and there isn't much litter on US highways that I've seen in similar remote-ish areas.

I just don't even understand what process operates in a head of someone tossing an empty bottle out of a car... sometimes, I feel like I have trouble recognizing them as a fully-formed human, more like someone who needs house-training, like a dog.

by cryptonector2 months ago

Italy isn't that wealthy though. Wealthier people care more about a ton of things, like rates of automobile accidents and fatalities, the environment, etc.

by edflsafoiewq2 months ago

Don't know what you're talking about. You can walk down any highway I've ever seen in America and pick up trash for miles and miles.

+1
by throwawayboise2 months ago

It's better than it used to be. The anti-littering "crying Indian" and "Give a Hoot" ad campaigns in the 1970s actually worked.

Perhaps things are trending the other way lately. I do seem to notice more litter now than I did when I was younger. But there are more people now also.

by carbine2 months ago

I just learned that depending on what reusable bags are made of, they can be many orders of magnitude worse than plastic. Cotton bags need to be reused thousands of times to make up for the additional environmental impact it takes to produce them. Organic cotton, even moreso. https://qz.com/1585027/when-it-comes-to-climate-change-cotto...

This last bit is not directed at you but re: the issue in general: I get really frustrated with how distorted the notions of “right” and “wrong” behaviours are among many environmentalists — rather than being rooted in fact, they’re all about virtue signalling.

My local grocers are all eliminating plastic and switching everything to paper, and I highly doubt that decision was informed by a thoughtful analysis of potential environmental impact.

by acituan2 months ago

> Beaches are absolutely covered in plastic waste and it's noticeably worse each time I go.

No disrespect but I don’t think anyone can uniformly sample all the beaches. There might as well be prevailing currents that fill certain places disproportionately more, and leave others disproportionately pristine.

This “making a global inference based on the beaches we’ve personally been to” is going to be deceptive in either direction of the argument.

by titzer2 months ago

> This “making a global inference based on the beaches we’ve personally been to” is going to be deceptive in either direction of the argument.

I've been to beaches on four continents and every. single. one. The only place you do not see[1] trash is where someone has specifically picked up there, recently. That tends to be places around resorts and people's homes. Unless someone does it out of their own goodwill or is paid to, the trash just floats up and accumulates.

There's a place for healthy skepticism, but not denial.

[1] You don't see it, but microplastics are thoroughly distributed through the ocean by this point. There is literally no way of cleaning up microplastic pollution at this point. We can only improve the optics at our scale.

+1
by acituan2 months ago

> There's a place for healthy skepticism, but not denial.

I’m not saying I’m necessarily denying your premise, at least not wholesale, but what is the point of skepticism if it doesn’t include the possibility of rejecting a premise?

It’s like saying “I’ll allow you to ask questions but ultimately you have to come my conclusion”

We can be passionate and rational at the same time.

by morpheos1372 months ago

There is a huge difference between seeing a piece of "trash" like a soda bottle or two every couple acres of sand and a beach "covered" in trash. In my life I have only seen one "beach" "covered" in trash in person and that was Race Point at Fishers Island New York. It is where much of the water exchange with the open ocean and the eastern end of long island sound occurs so it stands to reason that stuff would collect there. A mile away there is a pristine sand beach. At race point there was also a lot of drift wood when I visited including whole tree trunks that had washed up. Much of the human created waste was old, including metal debries like very old very rusted rifle bullet casings presumeably from soliders at the now abandoned pre world war two fort behind the beach. Who knows the beach may have been the fort's dump.

by SuoDuanDao2 months ago

But the question was about why there was such an obsession with plastic waste. If a lot of it was accumulating at your beach, that would be all the sample size you need to form an opinion.

by colechristensen2 months ago

The US had problems with littering that were mostly quashed with some public efforts in the middle to later periods of the last century. Our beaches are mostly clean and our forests and wild places are too. Not pristine and littering still happens but so do efforts to cleaning it up like “adopt a highway”.

by Retric2 months ago

The vast majority of plastic doesn’t last that long when exposed to the elements. Micro plastics are a significant concern but their extreme surface area to volume ratio is associated with a short individual lifespan. What’s going on is new plastics are introduced from littering and fishing nets which continuously replaces the plastic which is breaking down.

by southeastern2 months ago

>Micro plastics are a significant concern but their extreme surface area to volume ratio is associated with a short individual lifespan

Isn't the whole issue that they DON'T break down? Yes they can wear into smaller pieces of plastic, but chemically they're still plastic. And when they get to a certain size, they become small enough to easily absorb into the body.

by Retric2 months ago

More that the don’t break down fast enough. Most individual plastic molecules on their own doesn’t last that long. Polyethylene the most common plastic is simply a very long chain of carbon and hydrogen it’s a ready food sources for many different kinds of bacteria and is broken down by sunlight etc.

There are of course more and less chemically stable plastics, but they all last much longer in a landfill than the vastly more harsh aquatic environment.

by zelphirkalt2 months ago

True, and educating all people in a country to not leave their trash where it does not belong is a part of managing our trash as well, which is very neglected.

It is just assumed, that everyone knows what to do with plastic bags and stuff, but the reality is, that many people do not have any sense of responsibility and throw stuff everywhere. Every week I see new heaps of trash in forests, which were definitely not there the week before. We need to start educating dumb/lazy/irresponsible people not to throw their trash everywhere, if needed by leveling up punishments and rewards.

If anyone is caught throwing trash into the forest, there should be hefty fines for that. If anyone takes time, for example on their weekends, to clean the forest, there should be rewards.

by D13Fd2 months ago

I’m posting this from an east coast (U.S) beach. I’ve walked up and down multiple beaches in the last two days, and I haven’t seen any plastic trash at all, although I did see someone find an old rusty fish hook today.

by rufus_foreman2 months ago

>> Forests are steadily becoming filled with plastic that either gets tossed there or blown there

The forests would be a lot nicer if we spent more time raking and cleaning them, like in Finland.

by jvanderbot2 months ago

OK, the greenhouse-gas argument is correct, but misses the point of plastic recycling. The point is not oil use, it is plastic use and plastic pollution. If you've ever been to a beach in some countries that's completely covered in plastic bags, you'll instantly feel differently about disposable plastic, which just seems to blow in the wind and float up to the beaches. If oil were free and environmentally friendly, I'd ask them to burn more of it to give me a solution to plastic -- not more plastic.

Glass is sand -- throw it in the deep ocean or pile it up I don't care. Aluminum is recycled because it is cheaper than mining new aluminum. That's a win.

Still, your comment is spot on. Many, many environmental initiatives have feel-good effect (Straws!?) and many, many legislation efforts are not based on sound math.

However, _trying_ to recycle plastic is noble enough, especially if we're trying some fairly advanced methods. A sound recycling method that produces usable fuel would go a long way for those third world countries. I can think of no greater incentive for recycling than a little cash in the pocket of those who collect and return. Hell, every Tuesday some poor soul comes and steals all the aluminum cans out of our recycling bins for precisely this reason. Imagine if plastic were equally reimbursed.

by relax882 months ago

The beaches covered in plastic bags are exactly my point. The problem is plastic waste being mismanaged.

Recycling is not a solution to mismanaged waste streams, and yet for some reason everyone loves talking about recycling plastics and nobody talks about ensuring that the other 80% of plastics that aren’t recycles or burned are properly disposed of in landfills.

The entire reason glass and aluminum are reimbursed is that they are orders of magnitude more energy intensive to produce.

If the current recycling technology can’t make a profit recycling plastic bags then the solution is making sure each and every piece of that plastic is properly disposed of in an engineered landfill.

by jvanderbot2 months ago

I'm actually not disagreeing with you ("Still, your comment is spot on."), just clarifying the motivation to remove plastic and trying to show how recycling efforts do make sense.

> The beaches covered in plastic bags are exactly my point. The problem is plastic waste being mismanaged.

Yes, I agree.

> Recycling is not a solution to mismanaged waste streams,

Well, it can be. Incentivized collection (e.g., aluminum and glass) motivates consumers better than providing passive options that don't work well (like expecting perfectly non-contaminated and sorted plastic from everyday consumers).

> If the current recycling technology can’t make a profit recycling plastic bags then the solution is making sure each and every piece of that plastic is properly disposed of in an engineered landfill.

One solution is doing that. Another solution is not using plastic or using less. A third is fixing current recycling technology with (4th option) perhaps involving the plastic producers and making plastic easier to recycle.

You made an excellent point about waste management being a very good cost effective solution to reducing plastic pollution. You're fundamentally right, but absolutism based on assumptions about people you disagree with doesn't help. We can fix waste management, improve recycling, and reduce supply all at once which _also_ reduces oil use at the same time.

by 3grdlurker2 months ago

> everyone loves talking about recycling plastics

Who's everyone? I've read more about economists and environmental scientists outright calling out recycling, and then proposing a complete abandonment of plastic altogether.

by exporectomy2 months ago

It's very popular with old people in my area. They love the feeling of doing something good by putting their rubbish in separate bins. I think they were indoctrinated in the 70s or 80s or something.

by noxer2 months ago

The aluminum cans are stolen because they actually have a intrinsic value. The plastic bag does not and there is no way to artificially add value to it so people collect and return them.

>Glass is sand -- throw it in the deep ocean or pile it up I don't care.

But who gonna do that? And why would someone do that but not do it for plastic?

The reason we dont have a floating patch of glass in the ocean is not because humans piled it up on land its because its sinks and rather fast reaches a destination where it stays for hundreds of years. Unlike plastic which falls apart floats around get eaten by animals etc. etc.

The oceans must be full of human made glass its just not visible and has no known severe effects. But replacing all plastic with glass/aluminum just for the small fraction that will ends up in the ocean makes no sense. The extra pollution cased by not using plastic is far far grater. Instead we should focus on the moment plastic turn to pollution. Ive used thousands of plastic bags in my life and none of them ended up in the ocean. This is true for most people so where do the bags actually "leak" into the environment. I would assume there are places where rivers are used as garbage trucks to move the trash away. This is the real problem. Not people who actually use the plastic bags. Its people who intentionally "dispose" trash in the environment.

by ClumsyPilot2 months ago

>"Ive used thousands of plastic bags in my life and none of them ended up in the ocean."

99% chance this is wrong, just because you placed it into garbage big does not mean it wasn't shipped off to china to a poorly managed facility and didn't end up in the ocean

>"But replacing all plastic with glass/aluminum just for the small fraction that will ends up in the ocean makes no sense."

Do you remember when milk was delivered to your door, and you returned the bottles, and they were reused? Reused glass products make perfect sence.

We now use inefficient, plastic laden and polluting processes because we are lazy. Most people don't have a real coffee machine, they buy shitty overpriced plastic pods filled with second rate coffee that then pollute the environment for 'convenience'

+1
by noxer2 months ago

>99% chance this is wrong, just because you placed it into garbage big does not mean it wasn't shipped off to china to a poorly managed facility and didn't end up in the ocean

My trash is burned locally there is zero chance it is moved somewhere else. The plastic bag is not separated from other (non-recycling) trash and the energy released from burning is actually used to heat buildings and water. This is not true for different trash like e-waste which could be moved far far away and there is no way to know where it finally ends up but its 100% true for the normal trash.

>Do you remember when milk was delivered to your door, and you returned the bottles, and they were reused?

That was never the case here. Like 30 year ago you could bring your own bottle and fill in milk form large containers. However you would need to go to a place where they fill milk in bottles an not to you local shop where you would usually buy milk. This was only feasible if you lived near such a place. Also dont think this is possible anymore due to hygienic regulations and most likely also because it did not generate enough revenue.

>Reused glass products make perfect sence.

Most dont. Glass is heavy and moving glass bottles around especially empty bottles (return for cleaning/refilling) is a huge waste of energy. It may not cause the visible kind of pollution but it indirectly burns way more oil than plastic bottles would.

There are also aseptic packages with significantly reduced the amount of plastic needed compared to plastic bottles.

>We now use inefficient, plastic laden and polluting processes because we are lazy. Most people don't have a real coffee machine, they buy shitty overpriced plastic pods filled with second rate coffee that then pollute the environment for 'convenience'

I agree with the fact that single portion packages of many products are needlessly resource wasting. But nowhere in the western world these plastic pods go in to the environment at any significant rate. In many places these are actively collected for the bio material inside which actually has value. The plastic is then likely reused for something or burned an used as fuel. There is simply no finical incentive to somehow move this kind of "trash" over long distances (which is expensive) and possibly dump it in the environment if people can make money by re-using/burning it locally. Even in places like the US where they would dump it into a landfill, it makes no sense to move it further than the next landfill.

So I agree reducing the energy and plastic needed is good. Replacing it with glass however is nonsense. And assuming the plastic goes in the environment simply because it exists is nonsense too.

by skripp2 months ago

>The aluminum cans are stolen because they actually have a intrinsic value. The plastic bag does not and there is no way to artificially add value to it so people collect and return them.

Sure there is. When you buy a bag have it cost $1. If you return the bag you get that back, or maybe $.90 to cover the cost. Not sure about the US, but this is done with glass and plastic bottles in a lot of countries.

by noxer2 months ago

All this would do is incentivize fraud. Clearly I can find a way to buy these bags for under $0.90 since their real value is almost zero so I could generate money by wasting bags.

by sokoloff2 months ago

Given how prevalent and light they are, I suspect some of “your” bags have actually ended up as pollution (blowing out of trucks, being mis-managed in waste processing, or otherwise escaping the system that you dutifully turned them over to).

It’s not like all the trash out in the ocean was dropped off a boat by the original users.

by noxer2 months ago

See https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28025410

Even if blew out of the the garbage truck (which is not possible they are closed) it would just end up on the street which is then cleaned with another truck or washed into the sewerage collected and disposed. There is no feasible way that my properly disposed trash would end up in the environment. Even if I would dump it somewhere in the woods it likely will gets cleaned up and properly disposed within weeks if its anywhere near civilization. I would need to find a large river so the trash has a realistic chance to reach the ocean. Its completely absurd.

by pixl972 months ago

>Its people who intentionally "dispose" trash in the environment.

In the US and Europe we tend to have well developed municipal waste systems and only a small portion of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

The problem is the rest of the places that do not. There are many places in the world that will gladly sell you a plastic soda bottle, but after that point it's your job to burn it or bury it.

In addition, you had plenty of 'recycled' plastic waste end up in the ocean by proxy. Before 2017 or so, if you were 'recycling' plastic, it was getting shipped overseas on a container where it had a very high chance of just being dumped.

by noxer2 months ago

>In the US and Europe we tend to have well developed municipal waste systems and only a small portion of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

Thats exactly what I said

>The problem is the rest of the places that do not. There are many places in the world that will gladly sell you a plastic soda bottle, but after that point it's your job to burn it or bury it.

And to solve this problem the people in this thread what to replace plastic bottles on the other side of the world (in the west) with glass/aluminum bottles. See how that does not work?

>In addition, you had plenty of 'recycled' plastic waste end up in the ocean by proxy. Before 2017 or so, if you were 'recycling' plastic, it was getting shipped overseas on a container where it had a very high chance of just being dumped.

This is a side effect of the whole "recycling at any cost" nonsense strategies. Plastic was carefully and labor intensively separated form trash to be sold. But only very specific plastics have accentual market value. The rest does not have value or maybe it sometimes has but supply and demand fluctuates so there could be many month where no one wants to buy it. Consequentially the US companies would need to pay for it to have it burned or land-filled. But that would destroy their "recycling goals" so what they instead do is they sell it with the valuable stuff by offering it only together. Whoever buys it then dumps the worthless stuff somewhere. The whole recycling-mania created the incentive for this. There is no way moving the plastic trash so far away is cheaper than the local landfill. They are simply not allowed to landfill it due to recycling goals which if they reach it probably gives them taxpayer money to do do more useless recycling.

by titzer2 months ago

> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

Go to any waterway in the US and you will find it. Plastic bottles, bottle caps, chip bags, cpu lids, straws, milk jugs, food containers, chewing tobacco cans, lighters, ping pong balls, syringes, milk crates, fishing line, bobbers, clothes hangers, insulation, O-rings, tires, fishing nets, pens, pen caps, grocery bags, six pack rings, chew toys, fake flowers, buckets, handles, 55 gallon drums, soccer balls, the broken plastic housing of almost any consumer product you can imagine.

I have with my bare hands picked up over 500 bags of this shit off coastlines and waterways and highways on three different continents. Based on my experience, every single mile of ocean coastline and nearly every waterway is littered with plastic waste to a greater or lesser degree.

The problem is so bad that unless you are in a national park a hundred miles from civilization, you cannot walk more than 100 feet along a waterway without seeing some kind of garbage, unless someone has specifically detrashed there, thoroughly, in the past week. The water is full of our junk.

> Don’t get me started on plastic straws. They make up 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean.

The tone of this comment really raised my hackles. I'm not going to unload on you, but I am so tempted to right now. But holy shit, if you'd dragged 5 tons of shit out of the creek you'd not complain from behind your keyboard that they want to take your stupid straws away.

I say ban all single-use plastic.

by lumost2 months ago

I’ll be honest, I spend a lot of time outdoors in New England. Plastic waste is not nearly as endemic as you describe in North America. The only area that gets comparable to what you describe are waterways in major population centers such as the Charles river and Boston harbor.

Banning single use plastic is still a great way to cut down on

by titzer2 months ago

It's a sliding scale, which is why I mentioned the national parks. More people = more trash. Take a little plastic bag with you next time and pick up every piece of trash you see. Suddenly it will pop out of the woodwork. Waterways collect and concentrate it.

by PragmaticPulp2 months ago

> Plastic waste is not nearly as endemic as you describe in North America

Plastic waste isn’t really endemic to North America. Surely there are some locations with plastic waste problems, but I do a lot of hiking and local travel and I can’t remember the last time I saw huge swaths of plastic waste. People around here are generally good at picking up behind themselves and even picking up waste that others mistakenly leave behind.

That said, I’ve been to some developing countries and been absolutely shocked at the quantities of plastic waste I encountered in certain locations. Unfortunately these are the same places least likely to switch to use degradable plastic bags if they’re more expensive.

by greeneggs2 months ago

> I say ban all single-use plastic.

The alternatives are worse. They use much more energy, and you can't go outside without seeing how bad global warming is now, and how devastating it soon will be.

We need to forget plastics recycling entirely, and spend all that effort on redirecting trash to landfills.

by industriousthou2 months ago

If plastic that's "properly" disposed of still ends up in the environment, how do you dispose of all the trash you collect to ensure that it doesn't end up back in the environment?

by 3grdlurker2 months ago

> North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

Yeah, about that, North America ships garbage to China and to poor countries in Southeast Asia to be burned there, or to be dumped in a forest/farmland next to low-income rural communities.

> we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways

I don't know why you say that like it's easy, but in the first place, maybe plastics just shouldn't be forced upon developing nations as conditions of trade if we already know that they don't have the infrastructure to manage it, in the first place?

> The Yangtze and Ganges are releasing plastic into the ocean at a rate far greater than all of North America combined, and our response is to expend huge amounts of energy produced by fossil fuels trying to recycle our plastic instead of burying it in a landfill where it is unlikely to pose a major ecological threat.

I never understood this line of reasoning, to be honest. So you have a ton of problems, some bigger than others. Why does the fact that you have bigger problems in your backlog negate working on the smaller, quicker wins first? Also you keep talking about "North America" as if it's a single, sovereign, unified country that has no conflicting interests.

> Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.

Didn't we already make ourselves feel better by arguing ourselves into what is effectively indifference about the problem of pollution?

by gurkendoktor2 months ago

> Why does the fact that you have bigger problems in your backlog negate working on the smaller, quicker wins first?

One should pick the tasks with the best cost/benefit ratio first. It seems intuitive enough to me that the same amount of $ will go much, much further around the Ganges than in an effort to ban plastic straws in developed countries, or whatever else I see political capital being burnt on.

by 3grdlurker2 months ago

Is it just the cost/benefit ratio that you have to consider? How about the quality of being realistic? Tell me, and in the context of the previous responses--how realistic is it that North America will be able to carry out and enforce its agenda in the Ganges?

+1
by gurkendoktor2 months ago

A good cost/benefit analysis would have to include this. And yes, I personally think that the developed world can drive change in other countries, otherwise I wouldn't donate to an NGO that attempts to do just that (not for plastics though).

One problem is that what I'm saying could easily be framed as "white people telling brown people what to do", and then everyone would drop it like a hot potato because it smells like colonialism. So it's politically safer to stay in my lane and buy a MacBook pouch made from recycled PET bottles instead.

(What I agree on is that the developed world should not export its trash or otherwise sabotage foreign countries.)

by kingdomcome502 months ago

> we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways

>>I don't know why you say that like it's easy

Are they saying that like it's easy? How should it be said? Your tone is so defensive...

by 3grdlurker2 months ago

Buddy, that wasn't even a comment on his tone.

by Trex_Egg2 months ago

I agree.

by relax882 months ago

Agree on your first two points. That’s what I mean about helping developing nations. We shouldn’t be exporting billions of pounds of plastic waste to places that cannot ensure proper disposal.

By focusing resources on waste management and international cooperation we would be focusing on 90% of the ocean plastics problem instead of directing our resources at well managed waste streams that do little environmental damage by comparison.

Being pragmatic is very different than being indifferent. At the end of the day a plastic bag in a landfill is a way better outcome than a plastic bag in a waterway, and also arguably better than spending 43-250x more energy mostly from fossil fuels producing paper/glass/aluminum instead.

When there are no perfect solutions, you must choose the least harmful.

by 3grdlurker2 months ago

And the least harmful is not to dump plastic in a landfill, but to not produce plastics at all. :) Similarly, we can put more money into research on how to produce paper/glass/aluminum/others with less energy, and also redesign consumerism and normalize bringing refillable containers to the grocery down to the household level. There's a lot that can be done that doesn't involve polluting the environment.

+1
by nitrogen2 months ago

And the least harmful is not to dump plastic in a landfill, but to not produce plastics at all.

And all of the human advancements in sanitation, food safety, and transportation energy afforded by plastics? You'd significantly increase CO2 output of transportation if every plastic item was replaced by something heavier. Stopping all plastic production would be very harmful.

As for people bringing reusable containers to the store, this was stopped because it's a health hazard.

+1
by goodpoint2 months ago

> redesign consumerism

Better: eliminate consumerism

by goodpoint2 months ago

No, there is no such thing as "proper disposal" of plastic.

by Trex_Egg2 months ago

good

by the_mitsuhiko2 months ago

> Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags

But that’s okay. Energy is not the issue with bags but the fact that they don’t decompose. Using more energy to switch to something that decomposes is a good enough deal.

by relax882 months ago

A plastic bag in a landfill is less harmful to the environment than a paper bag that costs 43x more energy to produce.

The former is trapped underground in a location engineered to prevent seepage and runoff, and will be sitting there for a thousand years where it only poses a threat to the bacteria and worms in the landfill.

The latter required a tree to be cut down and used 43x more energy, and therefore it’s waste is in the atmosphere warming our planet.

by mdorazio2 months ago

Multiple misconceptions here:

1) We don't cut down old growth trees to make paper products - we cut down fast-growth trees that are farmed for exactly this purpose. Cutting down these trees is not a problem, and in fact pulls some carbon out of the atmosphere because the trees captured it and the paper product end of life is usually getting buried where the carbon is mostly trapped.

2) You're ignoring that renewable energy can be used for production.

3) You're also ignoring that common plastics start with oil, which isn't just used for making plastic products. If you see a bunch of plastic bottles, you should also be thinking about the other oil products associated with them that got burned and turned into GHG.

+1
by relax882 months ago

The paper industry ranks #5 in carbon intensity and is responsible for something like 9% of global CO2 emissions.

Do you honestly think that industry uniformly manages their forestry in an environmentally friendly manner?

You could use renewables but the fact is that most of the input energy into paper mills is natural gas co-generation because you need both heat and electricity.

Petrochemicals are used in 90% of the regular every-day items we live our lives with. Clothing, furniture, our homes, cars, personal belongings… banning single use plastics isn’t going to change that.

I’d rather plastic waste in landfills than more CO2 emissions.

by goodpoint2 months ago

> A plastic bag ... is less harmful ... than a paper bag ...

This is a strawman: you insist comparing two harmful options and ignoring others.

For example, in many countries own reusable shopping bags made of cotton.

They last a decade and are even more comfortable to carry.

+1
by Zarel2 months ago

Most sources say that cotton is worse than plastic or paper.

https://qz.com/1585027/when-it-comes-to-climate-change-cotto...

Intuitively, this makes sense to me: cotton comes from a plant that can be harvested and replanted, just like paper. The main difference is that you use a lot more cotton to make a cotton bag.

by 8note2 months ago

Why limit your analysis to the cost of production, rather than a full lifecycle?

by noxer2 months ago

Its the same reason as allays, some kind of subsidies. Created by politicians who are fooled/bribed by lobbyists. Same reason the US replaces certain % of fuel with bio-fuel. It does make any sense. It pollutes more to create the bio-fuel than if you would use normal fuel. Its also not carbon neutral and it destroys incredible amount of land and the soil and even fossil water is used up sometimes.

Obligatory PENN & TELLER: BULLSHIT S02EP05 Recycling https://www.bitchute.com/video/j0Hd6UfA4MKo/

by Voloskaya2 months ago

> Plastic waste really isn’t a big problem unless you’re talking about developing nations. North America is responsible for about 3% of mismanaged plastic waste. Asia and Africa account for 86% of it.

Because North America sends all its plastic to be recycled in Asia. See Canada-Philippine waste dispute: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada–Philippines_waste_dis...

by inglor_cz2 months ago

I haven't seen any reliable data yet on what portion of the plastic waste that ends up in the water originates in NA/Europe and what portion comes from the population of Asia and Africa themselves.

But given that several billion people live there and one-time plastic use is really widespread (just travel there and see), plus the waste management systems are subpar, I would be very surprised if local waste wasn't a majority of those 86 per cent. Have you been to places like the Philippines? Everything comes wrapped in plastic and waste plastic is not really managed at all.

IDK about Indonesia or India, but perhaps HN users from there can chime in.

by Voloskaya2 months ago

https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288

> The United States generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world (42.0 Mt). Between 0.14 and 0.41 Mt of this waste was illegally dumped in the United States, and 0.15 to 0.99 Mt was inadequately managed in countries that imported materials collected in the United States for recycling.

by refurb2 months ago

Unless it’s our plastic waste that’s ending up in the ocean I’m not sure this matters.

by Voloskaya2 months ago

It is.

> The United States generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world (42.0 Mt). Between 0.14 and 0.41 Mt of this waste was illegally dumped in the United States, and 0.15 to 0.99 Mt was inadequately managed in countries that imported materials collected in the United States for recycling.

https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288

by yarky2 months ago

I'm not an expert, but a plastic bag takes longer to disappear naturally than a paper bag.

Your energy accounting and waste source/destination issues are just the top of the iceberg. The elephant in the room is the plastic.

by skohan2 months ago

Yeah and haven't microplastics been found in basically every organism by now? I feel like this is something which we may look back on like lead in 30 years.

by exporectomy2 months ago

Radioactive particles from nuclear testing are in every organism too. Just because something exists doesn't mean it's a disaster. You'd need science to back up a feeling like yours otherwise you're probably just regurgitating what popular opinion has indoctrinated you with and that's whatever's widely emotionally satisfying to believe.

by skohan2 months ago

Oh sure, I'm just speculating. But if you always waited for concrete evidence to conclude that something might be a risk, you would have may have been wearing hats coated in mercury in the 19th century, and eating of uranium-infused plates in the early 20th century.

by capybara_20202 months ago

Just a quick search shows how even though it might be just 3%. 3% is a huge number with the US being the biggest plastic waste generator. 3% = 1.25 million metric tons.

And in 2016, more than half of all the plastic collected in the US was shipped abroad. To places that supposedly "mismanage" plastic waste.

I have personally seen the impact when China banned all this waste from landing. It moved to places like Malaysia and Indonesia. I got more than a few calls to try and see if they could move that plastic from Malaysia and Indonesia to other countries. It is still a massive ongoing problem.

Basically the US and a lot of western countries have outsourced pollution and then blame developing countries. This happens when discussions about CO2 emissions also comes up. When most of that pollution is generated production cheap goods for the west.

Source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/us-pl...

by vimy2 months ago

> This happens when discussions about CO2 emissions also comes up. When most of that pollution is generated production cheap goods for the west.

87% of Chinese emissions are attributable to domestic consumption. https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-worlds-largest-co2-import...

by vesinisa2 months ago

> Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags.

This sounds way too high. And indeed, this BBC article cites paper bags being just four times as energy intensive as plastic bags: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47027792

That's a difference of an order of magnitude. It would be very interesting to hear where you sourced that number from.

As others have pointed out, the whole equation involves also recyclablility. Plastic bags - unlike paper bags - are very hard to recycle, as this article demonstrates. Therefore efforts to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place are preferable.

Before we can begin to solve plastic waste problem abroad we need to first develop lasting and scalable solutions at home. Caricaturizing the problem to encourage people to close their eyes of the issue might make you feel better but is entirely unhelpful.

by relax882 months ago

It was a study from the Danish EPA on grocery bags. It wasn’t energy use but total impact actually, so I mis-remembered that a part.

https://mst.dk/service/publikationer/publikationsarkiv/2018/...

I’m not trying to get people to close their eyes to the issue. I’m trying to get them to ask questions.

by vesinisa2 months ago

Thank you for providing the source. The study does not support your original claim at all. On page 79 the study specifically notes that unbleached paper bags had the best CO2 performance across all of the numerous options surveyed!

The ridiculous "43 times" number was only obtained when considering "all environmental factors", not just energy use/climate change. The methodology chosen required offsetting the worst individual factor compared to conventional LDPE bags (pp. 80). For paper bags, this was "Freshwater eutrophication" (pp. 119). So this ridiculous number is only a) due to questionable methodology used in this study (clearly chosen to give plastic bags an unrealistic environmental performance), and b) because plastic production has negligible impact on nutrient content of lakes compared to forestry.

The study seems to have altogether omitted to consider the impact of persistent plastic pollution on the marine environment. This is where recyclable/biodegradable materials, like paper, really do shine compared to nonbiodegradable and hard-to-recycle (TFA) plastic.

+1
by acchow2 months ago

I think OP needs to edit their post lest many be led astray

by 6gvONxR4sf7o2 months ago

Disposable plastic versus disposable paper is the wrong choice. Buy half a dozen reusable cloth bags and leave them in your car, and you don’t need either.

We’re obsessed with finding the best disposable option, trusting our ingenuity to find a way to make our conveniences responsible, rather than starting with responsible stuff and trying to make it convenient. As the article covers, we’re failing at that.

by tonmoy2 months ago

I personally think you are spot on. I am yet to find any major environmental issue with landfill plastics or any health issues with micro plastics - especially compared to the harm caused by GHG. If using paper bag produces significantly more GHG compared to plastic then using our green political resources to reduced plastic use not only detracts us from focusing our resources into something more useful, but it may be more harmful by producing more GHG in the long run.

by Abishek_Muthian2 months ago

>If we want to make a difference here we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways.

>The Yangtze and Ganges are releasing plastic into the ocean at a rate far greater than all of North America combined,

It should start by developed countries not dumping their garbage in developing countries, China has banned the practice recently, But other developing countries do not have that luxury yet.

by jdasdf2 months ago

> One thing I’m always curious about is why we are so concerned with plastic waste.

Because of virtue signaling.

That's literally it, it doesn't matter how effective or ineffective something is, what matters is that politicians (and companies) are seen to be taking a stance against pollution (regardless of how sincere or effective that stance may be)

by MattGaiser2 months ago

Mostly because it is clearly visible and enduring pollution I think.

by sirwitti2 months ago

> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

As someone who was struck by the magnitude of careless resource use when visiting the US this felt wrong when reading it. But I thought commenting did not help anyone.

Ironically not even a day later the first link on HN is titled: "U.S. generates more plastic trash than any other nation, report finds" [1]

[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/us-pl...

by brandmeyer2 months ago

"generates more plastic trash..." isn't comparable to "properly disposing of plastic".

by jka2 months ago

> Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.

Either way, instead of reifying the relevant facts and statistics and iterating on them (or upturning them when invalidated), we tend to debate them repeatedly, even over decades as manufacturing methods and trends in society change.

(this is me pining for a system like arguman[1] with the critical mass of wikipedia to help forge these debates into more reliable, long-term results)

[1] - https://github.com/arguman/arguman.org

by beached_whale2 months ago

A large chunk of the recycled materials in Canada and the US is not recycled domestically and a majority of that is sent to countries with inadequate controls. So the culpability starts with the users/manufacturers.

by vimy2 months ago

I often see this claim but never any evidence for it. How do we know it’s Western plastic being dumped in rivers instead of their own thrash?

by beached_whale2 months ago

That doesn't matter.

Until the countries have processes and infrastructure in place to properly handle it, it should not be sent there as that is relying on inadequate laws to reduce costs. And here we are.

But here is an article that talks to some of it, single source so grain of salt. https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2019/3/6/1570...

by Spooky232 months ago

Energy is one dimension of resource utilization. Plastic bags clog sewers, kill wildlife and generate a lot of rubbishy.

Paper bags are reusable, made of a renewable material, and break down in weeks or months. They are a better solution.

by ssivark2 months ago

While the point about the energy consumption of paper -vs- plastic is certainly worth considering seriously, you might need to take a more careful look at your assumptions about plastic disposal.

Mismanaged plastic waste in Asia/Africa and really clean numbers for North America are two sides of the same coin -- flawed accounting. The developing world certainly does not consume, or generate anywhere close to the same amount of waste, (per capita) as North America.

Part of the reason North America appears to have such clean numbers for "properly disposing of[f] plastic" is that garbage is exported to poorer countries, either for "recycling" or more likely burning/landfills (thereby externalizing the accounting, and also most of the damage).

Eg, see: https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/30/21542109/plastic-waste-u... and https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/13/7025017...

by ZeroGravitas2 months ago

We're obsessed with plastic waste because the main input is petrochemicals, the producers of which have a lot of political power. If they didn't, then we'd just implement what the scientists recommended all along (i.e don't use it when you don't need to, use as little as possible, recycle what you use, burn what can't be recycled for energy, charge the producers based on these externalities to incentivize changes at the top of the chain to make all the other steps easier and/or encourage consumers to choose something else).

Similar to how we'd have have dealt with climate change back when crazy environmental radicals like Margaret Thatcher and Newt Gingrich accepted a) that it existed and b) there was a clear path to co-operate on fixing the problem by putting a price on carbon and enforcing global standards.

But then politics happened. And now you could say, "Why are we so obsessed with climate change?" It's almost like a Trillion dollar industry has waged a highly successful misinformation campaign and made what was previously common sense a big debate.

And as far as they're concerned, you thinking "well maybe these hippies are going too far and haven't thought of this drawback" is just as much of a win for them as the guy "coal rolling" a Prius because his political tribe is now pro-pollution, like some kind of absurd parody of a Captain Planet cartoon villian.

For the record, recycling and burning plastic for energy are both better for the planet and economy than landfill. Well, that's the "scientific consensus" but what do those eggheads know, eh? Neither sounds good for the bottom line of fossil fuel companies and so...

by dheera2 months ago

Energy is only one issue. There is also that plastic is a petroleum product. Also even if "managed" well ultimately ends up in the landfills, and its resources don't get recycled by the environment for thousands of years. It also wreaks havoc on the environment if it ends up in the wrong place; paper largely doesn't.

by NohatCoder2 months ago

Could you provide a credible source for those 43x and 170-250x numbers?

Trying to find some numbers for CO₂ in paper production, numbers vary a lot depending on source, and I assume that they also vary a great deal between different paper products and manufacturers. In any case, this paper https://www.transitionpathwayinitiative.org/publications/49.... would suggest an average of around 0.7 tons of CO₂ per ton paper produced.

Meanwhile polyethylene might be cheaper and less energy intensive to manufacture (depending on how much of the refinery process you include), but it emits 3.14 tons of CO₂ per ton plastic when decomposed.

A paper grocery bag might need to be a bit heavier than a plastic bag to have equal utility, so in total I guess they are not wildly different.

by nsonha2 months ago

> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic

As in selling it to other countries. China used to buy this shit btw, since you were wondering why they has so much plastic. Ever heard of the law of preservation of garbage? No you wouldn't have, I've just made it up.

by LatteLazy2 months ago

Of course, to make plastic you need oil and that either means dirty fraking or sending cash to some particularly horrendous regimes.

I'm not sure how we compare human rights to polluted land to dead fish or trees to Co2E, so I won't say you're wrong. I think the lack of a single measure is why we make so little progress. I wish I had an answer...

by jdavis7032 months ago

I live in the US on the coast. The top waste I see in the brackish waters are plastics and car tires.

People (everyone from consumers to scavengers) tend to recycle glass and metal because they’re valuable. And paper seems to break down quickly.

Paper may be bad for energy usage. But energy consumption is not the only environmental issue to be concerned about.

by seventytwo2 months ago

If you want to view this from an entropy perspective, then fossil fuels are basically cheating because their use can’t be used as part of a closed system (closed with respect to the sun’s lifetime) unless we factor in the energy and time required to convert sunlight into crude oil or natural gas.

by sjg0072 months ago

Ummm... the USA exports a lot of plastic recycling.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/climate/plastics-waste-ex...

by stjohnswarts2 months ago

I think like a lot of this stuff it is virtue signaling by stores and local governments. To be fair it does cut down a bit on them flying around the neighborhood though. The plastic bags in grocery stores aren't the real problem. The real problem is plastic recycling is a joke and that we need to get people more involved in reusing like we used to with glass or just using your own containers. The fact is that Asia is the one dumping 80% of the plastics into the ocean. Obviously Asia has a lot more people than North America so the amount per capita might not be all that different. We all need to adjust our ideas of consumption.

by mschuster912 months ago

> for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic

Shipping trash to piss poor Asian and African countries is not adequate disposal

by lupire2 months ago

Yangtze plastic waste includes imported plastic from North America's fake-recycling, doesn't it?

by Trex_Egg2 months ago

The Plastics from the North America is being shipped to south and southeast Asia, probably. So what good it does to them.

by Chris20482 months ago

It also ignores having to double-bag stuff, or losing produce when the bags get wet and split.

by moooo992 months ago

> My local grocery store recently switched to paper bags. So I got curious. Turns out you have to re-use a paper bag 43 times for the energy use to be the same as plastic grocery bags. This is impossible since they are made of paper.

This is true, but thats just one side you of a tradeoff you have to make. The main concern with plastic waste is the duration it takes until it degrades. Also, microplastics are an issue too. And even the plastic waste that makes it to recycling facilities is often impossible to recycle due to the material composition, its often just burned instead, releasing Co2 in the air.

> Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

> Plastic waste really isn’t a big problem unless you’re talking about developing nations. North America is responsible for about 3% of mismanaged plastic waste. Asia and Africa account for 86% of it.

So are most parts of Europe, but properly disposing the waste is just one part of the equation. The other more challenging part is actually getting rid of the waste we produce. And an important cornerstone of the waste strategy is to export it. In January to June 2018 the US alone exported 150,000 metric tons of plastic waste to Malaysia, 90,000 to Thailand, and a considerable amount to other nations [1]. With the EU countries, its even more extreme with 362,000 tons plastic waste being exported to Malaysia in 2020 [2].

So I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that a significant portion of the plastic waste that is sent to the ocean in developing countries is actually the export of developed nations.

> Don’t get me started on plastic straws. They make up 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean.

thats true, thats just virtue signaling.

> If we want to make a difference here we should be helping developing nations to better manage their plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in waterways.

The best way to go into the future is to just quit producing so much plastic waste. Plastic is a great material, its super durable while also being super cheap. That makes it useful for a lot of purposes, but also pretty unsuited for many others. Look at how much (unnecessary) product packaging is made of plastic. It's a material that can easily last decades and is instead used massively used to produce single use items just because of the low price.

My best guess as to why plastic is so massively used:

As the world moves towards renewable electricity sources and away from fossil fuels, plastic production is one of the biggest (growing) markets that will remain interested in oil. Stopping to use plastics that excessively would of course hurt that growth. [3],[4],[5]

> Like many environmental initiatives I worry that we’re more concerned about making ourselves feel better than actually solving the problem.

Unfortunately, that is very often the case. I guess it's easier to make one feel better by sacrificing something like plastic straws instead of actually trying to change the own lifestyle to drive actual change.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/892470/us-exports-plasti...

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1235938/annual-plastic-w...

[3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-petrochemicals-iea-idUSKC...

[4] https://www.statista.com/statistics/664933/oil-demand-plasti...

[5] https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/21419505/oil-gas-...

by 8note2 months ago

Has north america stopped shipping it's plastic waste to Asia now?

Otherwise, that properly disposed of American waste likely counts in Asia and Africa's mismanaged waste. Tacking somebody else's name on the problem doesn't put you in the clear

by itronitron2 months ago

This is why I like glass deposit bottles.

by delfinom2 months ago

>Then when you look at plastic pollution and see that for the most part North America is quite good at properly disposing of plastic you wonder why we are so obsessed with this as a problem.

You have read FAR too much into propaganda my friend.

We ship our plastic waste to the third world you are saying mismanages it.

You are a degenerate like the rest of Americans.

by dang2 months ago

Nationalistic attacks and name-calling will get you banned on HN, regardless of which country you have a problem with (or belong to). No more of this, please.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

by superflit2 months ago

Because the US is not the problem.

The lobby is So strong against US that even if we take photos, investigate where is the problem people will come and say:

"The evil US made they do it."

Because maybe the US Pay and ship a fraction to be recycled outside US. But still US is blame for other countries corruption too.

It really does not matter.

"Green" will became a hidden tax on middle class to power elite.

by morpheos1372 months ago

Added to what you said is the fact that the most commonly used plastics like polyethylene are biological inert. Thus most plastic is about as harmful as sand which only really harms life in a mechanical way if at all.

I think it is a mass hysteria fueled by social media. Plastics are not bad for the environment in of themselves and certainly not worse than chopping down trees to make paper or burning coal to make glass.

Solar produced polyethylene could be a terrific carbon sink if there was not a mass hysteria about "plastics."

It is so fascinating how the general public can demonise something they don't even understand.

"Plastic" in general is harmless to the environment. That is because it is chemically inert. Plastics are used every day in medical proceedures and medical devices. Plastics provide habitats for small organisms. Ever find a discarded plastic bottle that has been sitting in the woods for years? Usually it is teeming with life, from algae to spiders, to worms and other invertabraes.

by GordonS2 months ago

I don't disagree with everything you're saying here, but some plastic products (especially bags, polystyrene boxes and small pieces of plastic) are definitely harmful to some animals, who of course form part of the environment.

by speeder2 months ago

I was thinking these days, that when I was a kid some 20 years ago, people were all the rage against paper, because you had to cut trees and whatnot, everything was switching to plastic so you could "save the trees"

I still wonder what that was about, all it did was screw the paper companies that had their own private forests, and cause the stupid plastic patch on the pacific ocean, and now everyone has to switch BACK to paper.

by hoppyhoppy22 months ago

Maybe the overarching moral of the story is that single-use "disposable" products aren't a good environmental option regardless of what material they're made of.

by cogman102 months ago

I have a little bit of a different take here.

Paper products represent carbon sequestration. Single use paper products are great in that they are capturing and locking atmospheric carbon.

Trees are renewable resources that can be farmed. I never understood the "save the trees" argument. From what? Most modern lumber harvesting not only cuts down trees, but plants new trees for later harvest. Same way we plant other consumables. Where's the "save the potato!" movement?

by the-smug-one2 months ago

Well, the slogan should be something like "Save diverse fauna, flora and funghi which goes through a natural life cycle inside of a vast forest with trees of varying species and ages", but that doesn't fit on a t-shirt :).

Edit: Apparently all living organisms are collectively called "biota", cool.

by 8note2 months ago

Sequestration only works if the carbon stays locked up.

If you dispose of the bag, and it decomposes to methane in the landfill and is then burned, you've barely done any sequestration

by alkonaut2 months ago

Fwiw I never heard the "save the trees" only "save the rainforest" (which still makes sense). I grew up with 10k trees per capita though and now it's probably more because farmland is abandoned.

by jolux2 months ago

This is true but the incentives are currently not calibrated to ensure that more durable products are used. Making disposable bags more expensive, or similar to, reusable bags would go a long way here, I think.

And there are some cases where disposables are important for hygiene and safety, like medical usage. But it would be best to reduce production to those things that have a strong reason to be disposable.

by ca98am792 months ago

When I was traveling in India, the vendors would sell food in small terracotta bowls that you could simply throw down and step on when you were done. I thought this was a nice single-use, disposable and easily recyclable product.

by refurb2 months ago

But that’s rarely been highlighted. Plastic bags in grocery stores are banned but I’ve always reused them multiple times. Now I just buy bags to replace the ones I don’t get now.

If the message is “be diligent and minimize use of materials” that’s a pretty agreeable statement to most.

by kaybe2 months ago

I wish the plastic packaging of the toilet paper was even better suited as a liner for the bathroom bin. It's just good enough as it is, but the producers don't even seem to be aware of this fantastic secondary function.

by imtringued2 months ago

Turn the single use paper into soil erosion blankets and fight desertification.

by ip262 months ago

30-40 years ago logging was running at an unsustainable clip, so it was probably a fair criticism at the time.

by tobias32 months ago

Then you had a different experience from me. Some teachers in e.g. elementary school forbade binding our loaned books with plastic and had us use paper instead even though that broke much too fast and we had to redo it all the time. This was in Germany.

by samstave2 months ago

Could have been a PR campaign from Big Oil to sell more plastics only.

by nitrogen2 months ago

If previous environmental outcries were driven by PR, what's driving the current plastics outcry? Why should one believe that "this time is different?"

by 6gvONxR4sf7o2 months ago

> Pressure is also building for “polluter-pays” laws that would shift the cost of waste collection from taxpayers to the companies that make and use plastic. Earlier this month, Maine became the first U.S. state to pass such legislation… The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry group whose membership is dominated by plastics makers, says polluter-pays measures would hurt the economy.

This is the kind of solution that seems to appeal to HN and appeals to me personally. It’s a system-wide incentives problem. So just change the incentives and price in the externality, right? Same goes for carbon taxes. I hope these kinds of laws catch on.

by dang2 months ago

Recycling threads, recycled:

Oil Companies Touted Recycling to Sell More Plastic - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24454067 - Sept 2020 (232 comments)

How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24441979 - Sept 2020 (313 comments)

Pringles tube tries to wake from 'recycling nightmare' - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24440516 - Sept 2020 (395 comments)

Plastics pile up as coronavirus hits Asia recyclers - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23040674 - May 2020 (19 comments)

'Horrible hybrids': the plastic products that give recyclers nightmares - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22927072 - April 2020 (40 comments)

Industry spent millions selling recycling, to sell more plastic - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22741635 - March 2020 (105 comments)

Coke and Pepsi are getting sued for lying about recycling - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22467015 - March 2020 (170 comments)

Is Recycling a Waste of Time? - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22318165 - Feb 2020 (94 comments)

Recycling Rethink: What to Do with Trash Now China Won’t Take It - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21837414 - Dec 2019 (152 comments)

The Great Recycling Con [video] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21742196 - Dec 2019 (77 comments)

How Coca-Cola Undermines Plastic Recycling Efforts - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21303618 - Oct 2019 (132 comments)

All plastic waste could be recycled into new plastic: researchers - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21297639 - Oct 2019 (150 comments)

We asked three companies to recycle plastic and only one did - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21102560 - Sept 2019 (64 comments)

Exposing the Myth of Plastic Recycling - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21043986 - Sept 2019 (17 comments)

Plastics: What's Recyclable, What Becomes Trash and Why - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20762789 - Aug 2019 (215 comments)

Smart plastic incineration posited as solution to global recycling crisis - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20728911 - Aug 2019 (84 comments)

'Plastic recycling is a myth': what really happens to your rubbish - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20726689 - Aug 2019 (63 comments)

Americans' plastic recycling is dumped in landfills - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20549804 - July 2019 (282 comments)

Landfill is underrated and recycling overrated - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20433851 - July 2019 (336 comments)

I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20134641 - June 2019 (15 comments)

Why Recycling Doesn't Work - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19889365 - May 2019 (216 comments)

Reycling Plastic from the Inside Out - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19844551 - May 2019 (46 comments)

Bikes, bowling balls, and the balancing act that is modern recycling (2015) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19799348 - May 2019 (35 comments)

Just 10% of U.S. plastic gets recycled. A new kind of plastic could change that - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19728391 - April 2019 (116 comments)

America Finally Admits Recycling Doesn’t Work - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19483074 - March 2019 (35 comments)

The World's Recycling Is in Chaos. Here's What Has to Happen - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19399543 - March 2019 (25 comments)

What Happens Now That China Won't Take U.S. Recycling - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19346342 - March 2019 (219 comments)

The Era of Easy Recycling May Be Coming to an End - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18893252 - Jan 2019 (84 comments)

Recycling in the United States is in serious trouble. How does it work? - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17841584 - Aug 2018 (94 comments)

Trash piles up in US as China closes door to recycling - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17677698 - Aug 2018 (272 comments)

Californians love to recycle, but it's no longer doing any good - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17495872 - July 2018 (14 comments)

Plastic recycling is a problem consumers can't solve - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17409152 - June 2018 (441 comments)

An enzyme that digests plastic could boost recycling - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16856246 - April 2018 (122 comments)

Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16174719 - Jan 2018 (71 comments)

Recycling Chaos in U.S. As China Bans 'Foreign Waste' - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15888827 - Dec 2017 (233 comments)

China Bans Foreign Waste – What Will Happen to the World's Recycling? - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15528740 - Oct 2017 (63 comments)

Is it time to rethink recycling? - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11083898 - Feb 2016 (147 comments)

The Reign of Recycling - https://archive.is/o8LBm - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10327585 - Oct 2015 (34 comments)

Recycling is Garbage (1996) - https://archive.is/JKG7y - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9757853 - June 2015 (55 comments)

Is Recycling Worth It? - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7778956 - May 2014 (13 comments)

Recycling is Bullshit; Make Nov. 15 Zero Waste Day, not America Recycles Day - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1186666 - March 2010 (18 comments)

The Recycling Myth - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=937097 - Nov 2009 (36 comments)

by 3grdlurker2 months ago

Commenting to save

by dang2 months ago

Please don't; that adds noise to the threads. You can either upvote a post to save it, or favorite it as gnicholas describes. Both upvotes and favorites are available from your profile. (The difference is that favorites are public.)

by gnicholas2 months ago

You can also click on the comment (where it says "x hours ago") and then favorite it.

by ggcdn2 months ago

We’ve been misled for so long into thinking this is a consumer problem that needs downstream solutions. Actually I think it’s a regulatory problem that needs upstream regulation

by samstave2 months ago

I agree, I have always thought that these biggest CPG (Consumer packaged goods) companies, oil and plastics companies should be required to have a larger % of their packaging as glass, paper, mycelium, etc. and they should be required to accept any and all used products containers and recycle them themselves.

We think of milk men and the reusable coke bottle programs as archaic in the day of instant gratification from something that you then just throw away after single use.

Milk companies, and the coke cleaning recycling program (in the Philippines) for example are good examples of a more closed loop packaging solution.

by jvanderbot2 months ago

I agree with the sentiment of the article: Inter-state and global companies making cost-saving moves to plastic benefiting big plastic producers and passing the pollution blame to consumers / local governments is a move we've seen far too often.

> The trouble, it said, was that Boise’s waste was contaminated with other garbage at 10 times the level it was told to expect.

> Boise spokesperson Colin Hickman said the city was not aware of any statements or assurances made to Renewlogy about specific levels of contamination.

Classic. There's definitely contamination level agreements for recycling companies, which Renewlogy probably got, yet Hickman said he never made statements or assurances to Renewlogy. (Which is probably true -- they were communicated to the recycling pickup companies!).

And hang on:

> It’s being trucked to a cement plant northeast of Salt Lake City that burns it for fuel.

That's ... a win?

> Most of those endeavors are agreements between small advanced recycling firms and big oil and chemicals companies or consumer brands, including ExxonMobil Corp, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Procter & Gamble Co (P&G). All are still operating on a modest scale or have closed down, and more than half are years behind schedule on previously announced commercial plans, according to the Reuters review.

Sounds like the ``perpetrators'' are funding possible solutions instead of shutting down entirely. Demonizing this is not going to help, you know.

by throwaway9843932 months ago

I love this classic journalistic style. No editorializing, simply stating collected facts - and actually following up on information, and then reaching out to all parties for comment, and publishing it, whether it fits "the narrative" or not. I know pop journalism will never go back to this style, but I wish we could make it popular so that people don't lull themselves into seeking entertainment over information.

by burlesona2 months ago

That is Reuters house style. Dry, dry news. It’s great!

by beckman4662 months ago

From the top comment and others like it, it seems many of us are looking at this from a non-systemic viewpoint. Example:

> Plastic waste really isn’t a big problem unless you’re talking about developing nations. North America is responsible for about 3% of mismanaged plastic waste. Asia and Africa account for 86% of it.

Except when you look at the logos that are on the waste, you see that they are all products made by Global North/Western companies (Coca Cola bottles, etc.). So is it really fair to blame workers who buy things in unsustainable packaging that is produced by a big company?

I love the short movie 'The Story of Stuff'. It does a great job of illustrating that we should focus on the point of production (and the pollution caused there by big companies), instead of looking at the point where we meet the products for the first time (on a shelf in a store).

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM

by Meandering2 months ago

Thanks for linking "The Story of Stuff". I remembered the content but forgot the title. I would look at how gasification is evolving for waste disposal.

So, who is responsible for improper disposal of waste? I would say that the end consumer has a responsibility to dispose waste correctly. However, it seems the ability to do so has been tainted by a horrible waste management system.

Plastic Wars: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/plastic-wars/

Plastic is a cheap and versatile material. It is a by-product of an independently lucrative business; oil. I would love to see alternatives but, the development of sustainable packaging is hiding behind a research market barrier and the economic cost difference between the cheap "waste" product of oil. I hope consumer choice leads use to a better system... where those choices are informed and have influence.

by aurizon2 months ago

On the face of it, this is like a bottle deposit - an incentive to return the glass bottles = clean, check and refill. This works well with beer/soda bottles made of glass. Enter plastic bottles. The soft nature of plastics make wash/test/inspect/re-use impractical with a high fail rate(unless you started with better bottles) makes recycled bottles cost more than new ones. The basic nature of packaging must be changed so the life-cycle cost is applied at the front end. So Coca-Cola sells a 1 liter of coke = they pay a recycle cost of - say 39 cents and that is collected by an account bot, which prints a unique ~48 bit unique ID on the bottle and which follows to the recycle end and which can be redeemed to grab and segregate the bottles into unique piles of pure plastic and the bot tallies and funds each stage = the motivation that replaces altruism to make it happen. Money works this way, if you throw away or lose money, people will 'recycle' it... I feel the only way to deal with the amount of trash we create is to interdict the production in the first place (if possible) and to adequately monetize the trapping and re-use of whatever waste we make. We are in a 'stern chase', so it will take years. The border is a good check point. Imports bar code and the fee charged at importation - no matter how they wiggle/squirm/lobby - they must pay the end case recycle/reuse fee up front. Same for all domestic manufacturers. It will take years to implement, but the crap in the ocean has taken years to build up = the build-down will take as long - but it must be done.

by legitster2 months ago

I don't understand the argument against plastics.

- Extract oil from underground

- Buy oil off the market, prevent it from being burned

- Turn it into affordable and useful goods

- Properly dispose of it by burying it underground again

Obviously a bit simplistic, but it seems like plastics are a rudimentary carbon sequestration technology!

by ceejayoz2 months ago

If the goal is carbon sequestration, just skip... all of your steps, and leave the oil in the ground, where it is already-sequestered carbon.

by NullPrefix2 months ago

No way to pay VAT and increase GDP if you skip all the steps

by dahart2 months ago

Too bad the steps where you extract oil and turn it into goods produce and emit a whole bunch of co2 into the atmosphere, otherwise this might make a believably simplistic solution. Oh, and the pesky problem with needing to burn a bunch of oil just to produce plastic and get it delivered.

BTW the term carbon sequestration is talking about extracting co2 from the atmosphere today to slow co2 pollution. It is not referring to using fossil fuel carbons from the ground or carbon that was in the atmosphere millions of years ago. It doesn’t even make sense to suggest you’re ‘sequestering’ carbon by pulling it out the ground and then putting it back.

Curious, what parts of the argument against plastic aren’t making sense? The main problems with plastic is it’s non-renewable and doesn’t decompose, so we’re going to run out and we can’t get it back. If you’re a proponent of plastic, these facts should worry you, no?

by samstave2 months ago

And dont forget that California looted the CRV fund that was supposed to go to help pay for these programs and spent/stole the money for other things... NPR had a story on it a few years back.

https://duckduckgo.com/?t=ffab&q=npr+story+on+california+crv...

by brisance2 months ago

The tone of this article feels like fear-mongering. There are bioplastics which are less harmful on the environment, are compostable and sourced from 100% renewable and sustainable sources. Some bioplastics like PLA are biocompatible; sutures and tea bags are made from it. We're still in the early stages of this technology and it seems premature to tar everything with such a broad brush.

by antattack2 months ago

We need to disincentivize use of food containers that are hard to recycle.

For example: Some yogurt containers are pure plastic with paper ring around that has text/graphic. After use paper ring is easy to take off and plastic easy to recycle and better quality.

Also, I recently found that black plastic is not being recycled at all because it's impossible for current technology to sort it (because it's black).

by fmajid2 months ago

The EU is banning single-use plastic.

by antattack2 months ago

Are yogurt containers considered single-use? What would they use instead?

by saddlerustle2 months ago

> It’s being trucked to a cement plant northeast of Salt Lake City that burns it for fuel.

That seems way worse than putting it in a landfill?

by toast02 months ago

Burning waste for fuel is generally a good thing, if done with reasonable emissions controls.

Less waste to store in a landfill. Less new fossil fuel extracted to run the cement plant. Less fuel used to transport the fuel.

by saddlerustle2 months ago

It makes no difference to the atmosphere whether you're burning oil or plastics made out of oil. It's better to not burn oil at all!

by escape_goat2 months ago

This is a somewhat blinkered perspective. It's true in a sense, but the emissions can be offset by not burning some oil that's in the ground not causing any problems. In the meantime, it is an optimal way of getting rid of huge categories of toxic or otherwise intransigent waste that will have harmful effects if they are not removed from the biosphere.

+1
by saddlerustle2 months ago

But carbon in the atmosphere has a much worse effect on the biosphere than plastics in a landfill.

by nostromo2 months ago

The cement plant was using coal and would continue to do so without the recycled plastic.

Saying, “just don’t make cement” isn’t a serious answer.

by 8note2 months ago

Make significantly less cement could be an answer though.

If we design structures to last much longer, we don't need to keep replacing them

by samstave2 months ago

I've always wondered how a better filter could be for factory emissions, specifically, if you could pipe the emissions to come out of the bottom of a giant pond, filled with water that will capture a lot of the particulate as it aerates up through the water? and then treat the water the same way you would normally

Like if the bottom of the pond was filled with layers of activated charcoal, aerogel pellets (aerogel is known to collect heavy metals pretty efficiently... and then sand.

A reverse water filter basically.

by ashtonkem2 months ago

On which metric? For global warming it’s worse, but it’s probably better in terms of water and soil pollution.

by saddlerustle2 months ago

The water and soil pollution from a landfill is predominantly caused by biodegradable waste. Hard plastics aren't a big contributor because they're stable for a hundred years.

by TheRealPomax2 months ago

"This is future humanity's problem, if there ever is one" is not a great argument though. Eventually it destabilized, and 400 years from now all the plastic we've put in the grounds in the last few decades will "suddenly" all create a whole new problem.

by saddlerustle2 months ago

Yes, but climate change is definitely going to cause problems in far less than 400 years, and landfill soil pollution is highly regional problem, not a global problem.

by zug_zug2 months ago

Well, I'd presume it's releasing a lot of chemicals into the air.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/21/bpa-exp...

by ashtonkem2 months ago

I skimmed, but I don’t see anything in that article about burning. Given that BPA begins to decompose at a measly 227C, I doubt a lot of it would escape a proper incinerator.

by Spooky232 months ago

Cement is a cornucopia of nasty stuff anyway.

by ashtonkem2 months ago

It also releases CO2 at roughly a 1:1 ratio too. One ton of cement is roughly one ton of CO2.

by ju-st2 months ago

It's better for global warming when the plastic is replacing oil/gas in the cement plant.

by Forge362 months ago

Is burning the waste to CO2 worse than the methane from decay in a landfill?

by saddlerustle2 months ago

Plastics don't decay into methane in significant quantities.

by thrower1232 months ago

With modern emissions controls in an incinerator, you take a tractor trailer load of waste and turn it into a coffee can of ash that needs to go in the landfill.

And you get a megawatt/hour of electricity out.

by saddlerustle2 months ago

A landfill is a far more sensible place for the waste to end up than the atmosphere.

by crisdux2 months ago

Not necessarily. In countries like Japan and Sweden, they claim that their waste to energy (trash burning) operations reduce greenhouse gases when all factors are considered. So much so that Sweden imports trash to burn. Landfills arent the best place either. For example, organic waste decomposing in landfills produces methane gas, which is way more potent than carbon dioxide. There is an argument to be made that burning organic waste is better than burying it.

Trash incinerations are too controversial in the US to expand much. I think because of a ill-informed public.

+1
by saddlerustle2 months ago

Volatile organic waste yes, but most plastic waste doesn't decay into methane in significant quantities.

by dccoolgai2 months ago

I remember when the film "plastic China" came out and blew the lid off this whole "industry". Looking back, I think it's in the running for one of the most impactful works ever produced on film.

by olivermarks2 months ago

The Chinese used to manually process imported western recycling, they stopped in 2017. https://youtu.be/jnNNnHTLjmg It's a complicated global issue far greater than the use of oil to run vehicles via petroleum/gasoline which is highly energy efficient.

We are focusing on ending this instead of the use of oil to make tires (22 gallons per unit,Tire particulate pollution in cities is a huge issue for clean air) and plastics which produce a lot of pollution and waste and which vehicles are increasingly made out of. .

There are bio product alternatives for many plastic packaging products but little pressure to evolve...

by lou13062 months ago

Somewhat related: John Oliver recently did a segment [0] on plastics and how we recycle it (spoiler: mostly we can't).

It seems regulations are sorely needed: differentiating domestic plastic waste will not get us very far. Still, research on waste reuse must continue: I'm afraid we won't put effort into really cleaning up our mess unless it becomes a somewhat profitable business.

[0] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Fiu9GSOmt8E

by delfinom2 months ago

Not to worry, people want to recycle it by turning into roads!

Completely ignoring the microplastics disaster it will accelerate

by 8note2 months ago

Let alone that blacktop is the big win of reuse and recycling already, and these plastic additives likely make it less reusable

by doggodaddo782 months ago

The plastics industry pushed recycling (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) as an individual's duty to return piles of packaging and single-use items, not the manufacturer's, to subtly shift the blame for microplastics and plastic pollution.

by rapjr92 months ago

Plasma gasification seems like an ideal way to deal with all waste, including plastics:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_gasification

by ezconnect2 months ago

As much as we hate plastic waste it made our food distribution safer and cleaner.

by softwaredoug2 months ago

Honest question: isn’t putting plastics in landfills the ultimate form of carbon capture? Or is there a version of doing this that is net negative carbon?

by fmajid2 months ago

Plastic recycling is a scam designed to lull people's conscience with the illusion that it will be taken care of, when the reality is it ends up in landfill or worse.

I think we should phase out plastic for aluminum instead. It's estimated 75% of all the aluminum ever produced is still in use because of recycling. Instead of wasting time and effort in trying to make material that is inherently hard and unprofitable to recycle recyclable, use one that has a proven track record of being profitably recycled.

by mothsonasloth2 months ago

Renewlogy sounds like the Theranos of recycling.

by pessimizer2 months ago

No, Theranos's entire purpose was to attract huge amounts of investment. Renewology is filing for $250,000 grants and has garbage piled up behind an empty warehouse. Renewology is one of many excuses propped up by the oil industry as a reason for us to continue to produce disposable plastic (or to produce even more disposable plastic.)

by golemiprague2 months ago

Japan burns most of its plastic for energy in a pretty clean way, why not copy it to other places? Maybe not ideal but pretty decent solution

by stewbrew2 months ago

Again? This is getting tiresome.

by londons_explore2 months ago

Plenty of paper bags don't really break down either. From the 'inks' which are actually a plastic coating, to the plastic based glue, to the paper itself which seems to rot far far slower than wood fibers, presumably because of some additive.

Try it today - put a grocery store paper bag in your compost, and watch it still be there in a decade.

by gotoeleven2 months ago

I mean I guess it's nice that a mainstream press outlet is finally admitting what has been known for 20+ years--that recycling, with few exceptions like aluminum, is a big waste of energy and wealth and is a net negative for the environment overall--but only when they can somehow blame it on "big oil." Maybe we can end the idiotic ritual of sorting our garbage like hobos now?

The focus should be on reducing plastic usage overall and using paper-based materials except where absolutely necessary. The recycling catechism telling us the answer to waste is recycling has probably done more harm than good because it has prevented us from thinking properly about the problem.