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Single-Use Society: The Journey of a Plastic Bottle

Single-Use Society: The Journey of a Plastic Bottle

In spring of 1987, the Mobro 4000, carrying three thousand tons of garbage, traveled down the East Coast from Long Island toward Morehead City, North Carolina. Stacked fifteen feet high, with sagging bales of exposed, weather-beaten trash, the vessel sailed; castaway for 116 days, it sailed past Florida and across the Gulf, down as far as Belize, searching for a place to dock. The 240-foot barge drew national attention during its five-month journey and gained the nickname the Gar-barge. Turned away at every dock, the barge returned at last to Long Island, where its cargo of garbage was incinerated.

What was the point of this failed experiment? Entrepreneur Lowell Harrelson and Long Island mob boss Salvatore Avellino were testing a get-rich-quick scheme to sell garbage that could be turned into methane and subsequently converted into energy. This procedure, which sounded unusual at the time, is now in place at more than 600 landfills in the United States.

Beyond the dramatic news story, the event sparked a larger cultural debate that changed the landscape and the discourse of waste. The barge brought garbage into the consciousness of America in a new way. The trash represented filth, decay, toxicity, and disease; therefore, incineration seemed a fitting prescription, with the ashes neatly swept under the rug, so to speak. Really though, much of the residue—then, dioxin and furans emitted from the less sophisticated incineration technology of 1987—was simply sent into the atmosphere. But at least the unsightly toxic trash could no longer be seen, thereby assuaging people’s anxiety.

For those who still harbored environmental concerns of overflowing landfills and alleged deadly gases from incineration, hope in the form of legislation was on the horizon.

In 1989, after two years of debate and negotiation, spurred by the unavoidable fact that New York City recycled less than two percent of its trash, New York City passed Local Law 19, which demanded that the city recycle. The law offered both progress and promise. It also had mandates that agencies failed to meet along the way.

Local Law 19 called for recycling 25 percent of the city’s garbage within five years. It required building owners to designate areas with appropriately marked containers. It empowered the commissioner to monitor and fine buildings—and individuals—who appeared not to be recycling or not recycling correctly.

Recycling rules continued to evolve to become ever more prescriptive and specific as to what is designated as recyclable material—glass, metal, and the polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET) used to make beverage bottles—but also how those materials were to be separated at the source by consumers and businesses.

Despite the way we think of recycling as part of the post-Earth Day movement, there has always been some form of recycling. In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Dickens vividly described England’s underclass world of scavengers, all looking for anything of value to resell—metal, glass, even bones. That kind of recycling was marked by lawlessness, where our recycling arrangement now is inflected by the rigidity of law. Now rules, and fines, work in tandem in order to ensure public participation (or division of labor in the form of cleaning and sorting) across all sectors of society—regardless of financial status in today’s economy of recycling. But like the days of Dickens, we put much of the responsibility of recycling on the end-users of the product, the consumers—and leave the manufacturer and distributors relatively unaccountable.

In the twenty-five years since laws such as these were mandated in North America, recycling has blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It is a recovery business based on capitalism and commerce that relies on public participation motivated by environmental stewardship, moral or economic tropes. Laws are mandated by the city and marketed as part of being a good citizen. Whether driven by environmental awareness, resource depletion, or concerns for public spending, our “activism” helps move commodities to waste management companies for resale around the world.

Recycling is marketed to us through brightly colored leaflets distributed to homes, with friendly, simplistic graphics that guide us through the process of sorting metal, paper, and plastic from waste. The truth is, most of us do not think much about recycling. Sure, we might clean bottles and jars, crush our cartons and break down boxes, and sort these items into their designated bins or bags, but once we’re done, it’s lights out. Poof! Once we lose sight of the recyclables, the rest of the process is an abstraction, like heaven or hell, a vast space that morphs easily into whatever we imagine it to be, if anything at all.

We have been told that the city handles our recycling, turning this paper and cardboard and plastic back into more of the same, in a lovely and scientific one-for-one exchange. For most of us, the more we recycle the more pats on the back we give ourselves.

With every single-use packaged drink we consume; we ignore a crucial question: where is this plastic bottle going?

 

FIRST STOP: THE MATERIALS RECOVERY FACILITY
Recyclables are picked up once a week, curbside in most cities and towns, and so, after being tossed in the back of the truck, the load makes its way to a Material Recovery Facility. Often enclosed in sparse architectural structures designed for the easy off-loading of garbage. Men in thick hazmat style pants, topped with hard hats move about the lofty facilities. Welcome to the waste world. Bags of recyclables come in on trucks and barges and are loaded onto the conveyer belt, then are torn open by a machine that slices each bag open.

Although these facilities are commonly referred to as a recycling plants, it actually doesn’t recycle anything. A Materials Recovery Facility—what they call a MRF, pronounced “murf.” It sorts, recovers, and discards. This is where recycled items begin their journey, Recycling can be a fairly lengthy process. It’s not like ‘put it in your bin and suddenly it’s a new thing. There are many phases in process of recycling, and MRF’s are just the first stop.

As if made for spectacle, the football field-sized “tipping floor” at a MRF can hold thousand of tons of recyclables. A giant crane, dwarfed by the mountains of garbage in the enormous room, picks up the waste, tossing it onto a conveyer belt. White bags bounce as if they were as light as snowflakes, playfully commingling with a few colored bags in hues of blue, red, and even yellow. From a distance, the tipping floor looks like a white pillowy terrain sprinkled with the colorful confetti of deflated balloons.

There’s something bizarrely impressive about witnessing the magnitude of all recycling in one spot. It’s magnificent. It’s horrific.

The hopeful mixed-recyclable candidates move along an elaborate infeed conveyer belt several stories high from the vast floor. Squinting makes the whole operation look like a gigantic amusement park ride, complete with miniature-looking uniformed employees moving about.

From start to finish, a piece of garbage spends fewer than 30 minutes on a conveyer belt. The plastic bottle I’d binned yesterday, quite possibly already here, will be through the system and on a truck in a day.

Thick and unruly plastics such as high-density polyethylene HDPE—a fancy name for your laundry detergent containers—get compacted into bulky wads of color, then restrained in place by rope. Single-use PET beverage bottles, loved by MRFs for easy resale, compress easily into bales of primarily clear and some green plastic, caps poking out, and labels mashed. Then out they come, the bales of metal and plastic forklifted directly onto a truck. Valued solely by molecular characteristics, these items are sold as commodities based on monthly national rates—and are loaded onto trucks, barges, or trains at the buyers’ own expense.

A decade ago, a used plastic bottle was almost always guaranteed a free trip to China. According to The International Solid Waste Association, in 2011 the United States sold two million tons of discarded plastic, worth a billion dollars, to China. Then something unexpected happened. Despite the enormous profits the industry was making, China realized they were landfilling a lot of the ‘dirtier’ items—meaning containers of mixed plastics. In 2013, China enacted its “Operation Green Fence” policy and refused to take any mixed-plastics bales.

Green Fence shook up the recycling industry because companies relied on being able to send a mix of plastics #1 through #7 to facilities in China, where they have a vast population of workers to sort through the various types of plastics manually. They were able to sell it to China, whereas in the U.S., no one was willing to pay for these mixed shipments because not all plastics have systems in place in order to be recyclable. It’s a commerce-based business. If there isn’t a strong demand for a particular kind of post-consumer-use plastic, it’s not worth it for MRFs to collect it. Some recycling facilities only recycle the first two plastics, #1 and #2—the rest go to landfills. So MRFs had been relying on that easy sale to China.

 

Of other material that ends up in a landfill, some is user-error; people put things in recycling bins even if they are unsure the items are recyclable in their quest to collect imaginary good citizen awards. And then what is actually recyclable is often confusing because it varies by the equipment your local recycling facility has—and by which commodities they can sell.

SECOND STOP: RECYCLING PLANT
If a plastic bottle were lucky, it would be squashed and baled with others at the MRF; then it would travel by truck, train, or barge to an actual recycling facility. There it will be washed, chopped, and melted. CarbonLite, located in Riverside, California, was one of the country’s largest recycling plants. Opened in 2012, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Governor Jerry Brown, the $58-million, 220,000-square-feet space recycles more than two billion bottles a year. (*Original publishing 2015 – More recently, June 2021, CarbonLite, filed for bankruptcy and was sold off at auction).

Ensuring used plastic arrives at recycling plants is a journey filled with a myriad of paths and obstacles. In states with financial incentives—there are ten, including California, Maine, and New York, and each state law is different—the consumer is charged an additional price on each recyclable glass or plastic bottle and that money can be recovered after the bottle is returned to recycling stations. Some of us just throw them out or put them in recycling bins, and the “scavengers” in those states do the work for us.

In this scenario, recycling is merely the economic exchange between the consumer who has the money to pay the deposit to the person willing to scavenge for bottles, in turn helping the recycling process. To make things more complicated, in some cities, scavenging recyclables is illegal.

Suppose the bottle somehow made its way past these obstacles and arrived at a recycling facility (such as CarbonLite). In that case, they are removed from trucks, placed on the belts, and separated from any other trash and debris before being washed in hot caustic water, cleaning them, and removing their labels. The bottles then go through a laser sorting machine, like a live video game, where a beam of light detects the difference between clear PET, green PET, and non-PET items before zapping them to the correct conveyor system. Non-PET gets sent off to other facilities; here, clear and green PET continues on the conveyor belt to be chopped. After being separated and washed, the bottles are then ground into cornflake-sized pieces, washed again and dried, and heated again to eliminate any contaminates.

The flakes are centimeter-sized plastic chips used in carpets or clothing as polyester content. From here, another product is made—pellets. The pellets will eventually be used to make food-grade products, such as bottles and food containers. They are sterilized, melted, and extruded as liquid, then formed into smooth rice grain-sized pieces. This is the end product that a recycler makes. So even in a recycling facility is not the place where the bottle meets its final form. It is simply another stop—the third circle on its tour, cleaned and shredded or made into pellets before it’s shipped out again for its next reincarnation.

THIRD STOP: MAKING NEW FROM OLD – TERRACYCLE

“It’s oil,” said TerraCycle’s founder and CEO, Tom Szaky. “It all leads back to the price of oil.” He ran his hand through his messy-by-design brown hair, shaking his head in exasperation. The raw material needed to make plastic is derived from crude oil. Over the past three years, the price of oil has hovered around $100 a barrel. Today, however, the price is around $55. “Traditional recyclers are dependent on oil prices. If oil is cheap, it means virgin or new plastic is cheap, which means that your recycling price will be relatively much higher, and people won’t pay for that. They’ll just buy new plastic instead of recycled plastic.” Not surprisingly, each plastic bottle we buy is our own little investment in oil. This essential ingredient is what imbues plastic bottles with value, thereby making it a commodity for resale in the waste world. According to Szaky, if the government stopped subsidizing oil, then the oil price would climb, and the price of new plastic would climb in tandem, and then plastic bottle recycling would have a shot at working.

“It’s oil,” said TerraCycle’s founder and CEO, Tom Szaky. “It all leads back to the price of oil.”

Szaky is the rock star of garbage. The gregarious Princeton dropout has made history in the waste world. He is the star of National Geographic’s TV show “Garbage Moguls”, and has hosted a show called “Human Nature.” His latest book was called Outsmart Waste, and Inc. magazine named him “The No. 1 CEO Under Thirty” back in 2006.

Szaky has managed to transform trash into something cool and sexy while gaining fame and maybe someday fortune—TerraCycle had sales of $19 million in 2014. The company started with fertilizer made by worms when Szaky was 19, and has since broadened the mission into finding reusable solutions for some of the toughest waste problems in the world. Today TerraCycle focuses on recycling the unrecyclable—using the results in unexpected ways. The company makes snack chip bags into kites and cigarette butts into garbage pails. It even recycles soiled diapers and used feminine products.

TerraCycle’s main headquarters, a graffiti-covered warehouse in Trenton, New Jersey, is a decorative showcase of sorts for the company’s reusing ideals. Wall dividers are made from clear plastic bottles or old records; desktops used to be doors. The headquarters feels more like a coffee shop than a corporate office—there are a dozen casually dressed twenty-something staff members.

Beyond the price of oil, Szaky feels the government’s role would also have to change to make recycling truly effective. The U.S. tends to be passive on plastic laws compared to, say, Ireland—a country that passed a plastic bag tax in 2002 with striking results. There, consumption has dropped 90%, from 1.2 billion bags to 230 million per year, while $9.6 million in taxes have been raised for the environment. Szaky believes similar laws won’t happen here. “The U.S. is so pro-capitalist,” he said. “In Europe they’re much more anti-capitalist. Companies don’t have the same voice there. It’s just the nature of the country, but their people are happy paying 55% income tax, 60% income tax. Here, who would hear of it?”

Szaky continued: “In the U.S., the closest thing to that would be the bottle bill, where in certain states you can take your bottles back and get 5 or 10 cents back, but those are unfortunately being reduced, not expanded, because some of the beverage companies’ lobbies are strong enough to get rid of those. Companies are going to go anti-legislation. They’re going to push against it. And here, the government listens more to the companies and the lobbyists and so on than they do in other countries.”

Bottle bills tend to focus on the end user to finance the material recovery for recycling. Other countries set up government regulations by charging manufacturers of single-use products, in order to share this responsibility. “They’ve created this thing called ‘EPR,’ or Extended Producer Responsibility,” Szaky said. “The best example of it is the Green Dot, or Der Grüne Punkt, out of Germany, and that now is a law in 50 countries around the world, where packaging companies have to pay for the environmental cost of their packaging. The only place this type of law-making isn’t really happening is the U.S.”

Szaky also doesn’t dismiss the role of the individual. We all play a part in our trash and the recycling of it. In his book Outsmart Waste, Szaky explained, “Garbage is a rare example of an environmental problem over which, as individuals, we have tremendous control.” Szaky feels there is simplicity in the solution—and this solution is to monitor our consumption, products we buy, companies we support. “I already see change happening in a small way, at least on my sort of Facebook feed and stuff I see a lot going on, about the small house movement, about people wanting less,” he said. “And I think that’s really being driven by the Millennial generation—our generation and younger, where people are becoming anti-consumerist…. Like 10 years ago, you go ask a young person what do you want out of life and they’d say, ‘I want five big mansions, two jets, 10 cars’—right? Like that. And that is consumption. But I bet you today if you ask the same question of a young person, they wouldn’t necessarily answer it that way. They may answer it with meaning, purpose, these other things. So that’s already somewhat happening, and that’s cultural. Hopefully that will have a fundamental change and we will be very happy with where we end up, but that may not be enough.

“The other answer is the negative, which is we run out of oil or we run out of raw materials and we are forced into it by nature. That’s the other possibility. That’s not going to be pleasant though. That’s going to be lots of disasters and then we’ll just wake up and be like, ‘Oh my God, we have to change.’ There’s just simply isn’t oil to put in the car anymore, so now we need another choice. Or there’s been so many environmentally related disasters—like big, like global warming—and Florida doesn’t exist anymore and New York City has 10-meter tall walls that people would be like, ‘Shit, we’ve got to change.’ That’s negative force change, that’s another way shock to the system.

“And then the third way—which is I think the least possible or the hardest, honestly—is benevolent legislation, where governments realize this is the right thing to do in the long run and make legislative change. I think the easiest is the cultural change which begins with us as individuals, right?”

Szaky points to a hierarchy of waste diagram in his book Outsmart Waste. “Right now it’s like, the more you move up this, the stereotype is the more crazy granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing hippie you are. We need this to be what the Kim Kardashians of the world are prescribing, ’cause they are not right now! They’re prescribing big and fancy lifestyles. We need to make sexy a more environmentally conscious way…”

Similar to the Kardashians, Szaky realized the importance of TV and video as a vehicle to spread his own cultural message. He shows me clips of his reality shows “Garbage Mogul” and “Human Nature.” Szaky and his team at TerraCycle devise clever ways to reuse packaging that would end up in the trash. Many snack products, drink pouches, even toothpastes are not recyclable due to their mixed materials—aluminum and plastic. This particular episode features the staff at TerraCycle making a kite from Oreo cookie packaging. The company does this for real, even when not on TV, by setting up collection brigades with schools and businesses, arranging agreements with big brands, offering free shipping for customers to send in their trash—and from it making anything from totes to pencil cases from trash packaging. This is a sector the company calls Branded Waste.

Figuring out waste solutions for big brands such as Target, Walmart, or Kraft is part of Szaky’s focus. By sheer volume alone, it would be ideal if these companies were to be onboard with some type of environmental consciousness. For Szaky, consumption and the economy go hand in hand. “What’s the best way to boost the economy? Buy stuff. The best way to get the human group to buy as much as possible is to make it cheap for them to buy, which makes disposability the answer. That’s the reason. And this is a fundamental question, for humanity as an overall group, is, what do we care about the most? Do we care about having the biggest possible economy, which means buy, buy, buy, buy, buy? Buy even if you don’t need it. Or do we care about sustainability? Which means maybe we have to sacrifice the economy. You can’t win on both. ‘Cause as long as the economy is predicated on purchase, which it is today….”

Szaky was not worried about a lone plastic bottle because at least there is a system in place; however, broken and purgatorial it may be. He fights for the doomed items, which will end up in a landfill, trapped under geomembrane, suffocating in methane gases.

Even if a product has properties that could be used again, if there is not a system in place to capture it, it simply ends up in a landfill. “Everything in the waste stream has value,” Szaky said. “It’s just: Is the value big enough to justify shipping and collecting and processing it?” Recycling only works if the value of the product is recognized.

When I asked Szaky about the environmental damage caused by shipping items to be recycled around the globe, he waved his hand, indicating its insignificance—although he admitted that it is not the ideal. He pointed out the need to take into account the amount of energy and resources already invested in the bottle. If we recycle it, then that is one fewer bottle we have to spend energy and oil on to create a new bottle. He used the example of a pen: “This pen is taking oil out of the ground and making it into a pen. That’s 99% of it. So if you can recycle this plastic, you would eliminate this much oil having to come out again. And that’s very valuable and that’s why this comes in, even if you ship it around a little bit. Because shipping is, relatively speaking, not such a big impact. It is an impact, but relative to extracting oil from the earth? It’s a very small, almost negligible impact.” In Outsmart Waste, he wrote: “The key question is: Why do we spend huge amounts of resources—energy, money, and time—to extract oil from the ground and refine it into high-grade plastics, only to burn or bury it after one short use?”

The resources that went into creating a product lend it its inherent value, and understanding this value helps shape a waste hierarchy. For Szaky, recycling is third from the bottom in best practices, right above incineration. At the top, the ideal scenario is to stop buying, followed by buying used, buying durable, buying consciously. Only then comes reusing, upcycling, recycling, incinerating. In dead last place is landfill.

FOURTH STOP: THE LANDFILL
Of the things in life I wish I had never seen at the top of this list is now: leachate. Leachate is the thick, toxic, blackish-brown substance that occurs when the putrescible waste in landfills is leached by percolating water. From time to time it seeps out, sometimes into nearby groundwater.

In cooking terms—because the garbage in landfill is effectively cooking from being trapped under sheets of geomembrane —leachate is the reduction sauce of all the things unwanted in this world. This jus de waste is will be siphoned out of the landfill, collected in a sump, then shipped to a wastewater treatment plant, where it is treated before being released back into the environment.

Landfills are made like a lasagna, alternating layers of garbage and soil, separated and then topped by the black plastic sheets of the quarter-inch geomembrane. If you were to look at a cross-section diagram, a landfill would look like an enormous garbage layer cake. The result is more like a mummification process. The items are held indefinitely because of the absence of oxygen, water, and sunlight—the three basic necessities to transport these items to their next life. The substance that will live the longest is, of course plastic, with a life expectancy of over 500 years. In the U.S., approximately 70 percent of plastics are not recycled, ending up in a landfill. This is why many recycling plants encourage scavenging and see this group as helping the cause.

In the spring of 2015, I met with Reenee Casapulla at the Sussex County Municipal Authority (SCMUA) in Lafayette Township, 17 miles from the scenic Delaware Water Gap. It was shredding day when I arrived at the landfill. Locals bring in their personal paper items and pay by the pound to have them shredded. They watch as the tiny paper flakes are poured into the landfill. “There is finality in witnessing their items being shredded for them,” Casapulla said.

SCMUA is an enterprising business. They are a sanitary landfill, a recovery facility for recyclables (like a small MRF), and they also handle vegetative waste and electronics. Casapulla is the Recycling & Market Coordinator, with an M.A. in Industrial Phycology.

She drove me around the perimeter of the landfill, stopping first at the large navy leachate holding tank, which is near the methane generator. “That is one of our biggest problems,” Casapulla said, and pointed to plastic bags swirling around in the wind. “Plastic film—it’s everywhere, from dry cleaning, grocery bags, shrink-wrapping. It’s even around boxes of water bottles. There is just so much film in the world and most of it goes to landfills.”

Believe or not, there is even a caste system in waste. “Ugh. That’s municipal waste,” Casapulla said, pointing to the landfill area where garbage was being dropped off. “That’s the lowest of the low in wastes,” she said. She scrunched her nose the way a fashionista would at the sight of a fake Louis Vuitton bag. “Office waste is mostly paper and remnants of lunch,” she said. “For the most part, at work, people are more conscious about what they put in the garbage and make greater efforts to be clean. But household trash! Now that’s the worst. People put everything in there, making the contamination level high—truly disgusting.”

Twenty-plus vultures with shaggy black feathers swooped over the latest load.
Landfill workers drove back and forth in giant orange giant Bobcat tractors in humming monotony, flattening each load of garbage upon the next. “One day the guys were flattening the garbage and kept hearing POP-POP-POP, like a mini firecracker,” Casapulla said. “Someone had thrown lithium batteries in the garbage. We have all this methane here. It’s a recipe for disaster. But we found him and fined him. With garbage, there are no secrets.”

Casapulla is right. There are no secrets when looking at our waste that ends up in a landfill. It tells a lot about our single-use society and our ideals. Our waste is piled high on a shallow bed, tucked away, but resisting breakdown.

The dread of the landfill is part of the motivating factor that drives people to recycle.
Decomposing items causes methane gas, which, according to the EPA, has 20 times more impact on climate change than CO2 over a 100-year period. Of the 1900 active landfills in the U.S., so far, only about 600 capture the methane to be used for energy, thus diverting it from entering the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Decomposing is a form of recycling that occurs in all areas of natural life—from the smallest cell on up in the animal world. The problem occurs when our waste products such as plastic can’t “feed” anything because they can’t be broken down by microbial activity. This is not to say that everything man-made is bad; rather, logically, when creating something, it would serve us—the future humans and the planet—better if we did so in a closed-loop system. Otherwise, it has to live forever in purgatory.

If plastic lives for over 500 years, it is possible that the people of the future might conclude that our culture loved this matter, carried it everywhere with us, even made many of the items in their homes out of it. Perhaps future generations will even speculate that plastic was our good luck charm. Maybe when they see we buried it in the ground, they will conclude that it was part of some uninformed ritual.

.Our attempt at minimizing waste is a strange array of state-mandated solutions, green marketing, capitalist enterprise, and indigent or homeless people scavenging. All play a role in recycling, but the real answer stems from individuals’ decisions. Szaky explained what I eventually learned. “The answer is to stop producing it to begin with,” he said. “It’s not about choosing how to buy differently; it’s about not deriving happiness in life from consumption, which is—today—what we do.”

Humans have a unique relationship with their trash. Materials that we once wanted, tracked down and acquired quickly become objects of disdain once their usefulness is done. And then, in the end, most of us want to get as far away from the things we’ve used as possible. A by-product of this aversion is that we know very little about a system that we use every day.

Something as simple as buying a bottle of water sets in motion this elaborate system and its inevitable domino effect. Each item goes on a lonely journey after we’ve forgotten it. But it continues to exist somewhere, left floating in an ocean gyre of plastic objects, or stripped and boiled into a new form, or buried in a landfill to wait out the judgment of the centuries.

A version of this was originally published at theatlantic.com

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