Junkyard PlanetI just got done reading Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter.  It’s a fascinating book about what really happens to products when they are “recycled.”

Adam’s knowledge is deep and his stories are rare.  He grew up on a scrapyard in the midwest and currently lives in China where he writes about the recycling industry.  His writing takes readers on an engaging journey to numerous scrap yards, recycling facilities, and other places that connect the dots from when a product is “recycled” by American standards, to where it ends up.  The short answer:  China.

Adam terms the act of putting something in the recycling bin as “harvesting.”  (I’m accustomed to calling it “reclaiming” or “recovering” as outlined in a previous blog post, but I like the proactive nature of the term “harvesting.”)  Recycling is the act of processing to regain the material – i.e. to make a product out of material that previously existed or has been reclaimed.  Adam reminded me of the importance of this definition.

Placing a box or a can or a bottle in a recycling bin doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything, and it doesn’t make you a better, greener person: it just means you’ve outsourced your problem.  Sometimes that outsourcing is near home; and sometimes it’s overseas.  But wherever it goes, the global market and demand for raw materials is the ultimate arbiter.

Recycling is better – I won’t write “good” – for the environment.  But without economics – without supply and demand of raw materials – recycling is nothing more than a meaningless exercise in glorifying garbage.

Adam is spot on.  Recycling only exists because companies have found a way to profit off of what other people now consider waste.  That’s the entire driver behind why all plastic containers aren’t actively recycled today.  Companies haven’t yet commercialized ways to effectively recover value from all those mixed #3-7 containers that you throw into your recycling bin.  So they are either shipped to China where they can manually sort and segregate (and recycle) them, or they are landfilled.  And with the China Green Fence in effect, more often than not, those containers are being landfilled right here in the U.S.

Adam’s book was published just prior to the implementation of the Green Fence, so it would be really interesting to see if/how his stories and insights would change as a result of that.

In sum, if you’ve ever wanted to know what happens to your old cell phone or your old car or your old Christmas lights or many other products when you “recycle” them, Junkyard Planet carries you to the end of those products’ lives through a highly entertaining and educating story.  Check it out.

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I’ve blogged about the dire need for improved recycling technology in MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities) on a more ubiquitous scale nationally.  A new piece of legislation in North Carolina further demonstrates the need for that in a major way.

North Carolina recently enacted legislation that would prohibit the sale or distribution of rigid plastic containers, including plastic beverage containers like cups, labeled “compostable” (or other words suggesting the container will biodegrade) unless it also states the additional new required statement “Not Recyclable, Do Not Recycle.”  That legislation goes into effect July 1, 2014.

Why is this crazy?  It means that companies that sell certified compostable containers and cups will now have to add additional text on the containers or they will be in defiance of the law.

That’s incredibly difficult for a manufacturer to do for just one state.  If every state had different labeling requirements, which it seems like that is the way recycling is heading unfortunately, it would create massive problems for product manufacturers.  The net effect is increased product costs for consumers and businesses.

I understand why North Carolina is taking this measure.  Some people in the North Carolina recycling industry are worried that compostable products are contaminating the recycled plastic stream.  Their solution is to hopefully educate consumers through this additional text.

What this text also does is put a negative term (“Do Not Recycle”) on a product that, in fact, does have a positive recycling option – organics recycling (a.k.a. composting)!

I also foresee this bill hindering the tremendous progress that North Carolina is making on composting thanks to companies like CompostNow.  If manufacturers remove “compostable” text from cups for fear of being fined, that will create huge challenges for composting facilities.  Composters want and need compostable labeling on containers.

The real solution to the problem of recycling contamination, North Carolina’s reason for enacting the bill, is better recycling technology.  If more MRFs were using optical sorting technology, they could sort the different plastic types mechanically as opposed to manually.

I realize that most MRFs don’t have the capital to invest hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars into better equipment.  The problem is that recycling is so fragmented with different laws in every state, or even municipality, that MRFs and recycling coordinators are now coming up with solutions that don’t solve the root problem and end up causing multiple subsequent problems.

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Surprisingly to most consumers, the recycling symbol on a product – the one with a little number inside of the chasing arrows -  doesn’t mean that the product can be recycled.

It’s incredibly frustrating (and confusing), but all the symbol does is indicate what kind of plastic (i.e. PET, PP, PS, HPDE, LDPE, PVC, etc.) the product is made from.  And not all plastic products are required by law to have the symbol.  Only containers that hold more than 8 ounces and only in certain states.

That symbol, formally known as the Resin Identification Code has been under fire from packaging companies and recyclers for years.  A couple of years ago, ASTM engaged in a multi-year project to revise resin symbology. 

Progress has finally been made and I’m going to share with you the direction it looks like the ASTM is heading as well as my opinion on the resolution.

The proposed symbols will do away with the chasing arrows and replace them with a solid line triangle.  The same numbering system will apply to denote the resin type.

While I am in agreement with the ASTM’s decision to eliminate the chasing arrows, and I’m hopeful that they will eliminate some consumer confusion, I think it will take many years for consumers to start realizing that the new solid triangle doesn’t translate to recyclable.

Chasing arrows compared to a solid triangle don’t look all that different in the eyes of a fast-moving consumer.  I don’t have a better solution to propose, but I think this will highlight the need for further education about what is and what isn’t recyclable which is largely dictated locally by regional waste haulers. (I’ve written about the reasons why all plastic containers can be recycled here, here, and here, and written about the recycling labeling system here if you want more information.)

Unfortunately, the ASTM and the industry missed a huge opportunity to clear up confusion for labeling compostable plastics.

Today, compostable plastics fall under #7 (“Other”) resin code.  That provides no indication of if the material is PLA or PHA or Polycarbonate or some other type of material that doesn’t fall under #1-6.

Knowing if a product is compostable or not depends entirely on the manufacturer to truthfully label the product (separately from the resin symbol) as compostable.  That label could be in the form of the word “Compostable” embossed or printed on the product, printing the Biodegradable Products Institute symbol, printing a brown or green stripe, or some other method that  manufacturer is clever.

The major challenge in the compostable products industry is that there isn’t a uniform label that companies use.

That’s where the ASTM could have solved this challenge by creating a new resin number (i.e. #8) and used it for compostable plastics.  Granted, any company could emboss the symbol on their product and deceive consumers which is a concern, but companies already do that with various compostable labeling already in play.

Unfortunately, now compostable plastics will continue to be labeled as #7 and a ubiquitous compostable labeling scheme will be nonexistent.  A complete missed opportunity to eliminate confusion.  Bummer.

 

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The always engaging Green Summit has now been rebranded as the Boulder Earth Conference.  It has a killer keynote speaker lineup this year with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as well as Ryan Martens, Founder and CTO of Rally Software.  I’m psyched to hear both speak.  I’ll also be presenting on the topic of Millennials in the workforce.

The conference is on Wednesday, June 12th at the Boulder Theater.  Tickets are just $99 and you can register here.  I hope to see you there.

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I’ve been asked quite a bit recently about the major challenges now facing the U.S. recycling industry and what I think will occur now that China’s Green Fence is in place.  It’s already reduced China’s importation of recycling plastics by 5.5% in the first 4 months of enactment – an enormous percent considering how much plastic waste they import.

Here is an email dialogue I had with someone on the topic that I thought it was worth posting.

Q: What is your take on the sudden halting at virtually all recyclers around the country from Accepting 3-7 plastics due to the market collapse in pricing now that China is enforcing their clean standards for plastic bales.   Sounds like they just got tired of us shipping our plastics garbage across the ocean to them….   Gives plastic recycling a very bad name.   Turns out it seems there is no real market for recycled plastics in the US.    The majority has to be exported to be processed.   Not all , but the very large majority.

My reply: It’s an unfortunate situation regarding what it does to our short-term recycling rates, but an event like this needed to occur in order to drive innovation in the recycling industry.

The current recycling industry is fragmented with varying levels of technology and no ubiquitous solution. Change must happen and it will only be driven if there’s a massive and problematic triggering event which the Green Fence could be.

When gas prices sky-rocketed in 2007 past $4/gallon (from $2.50 in 2006), consumers and companies finally realized that there needed to be a better alternative to oil. It was instrumental in driving bioplastics forward and raising awareness about composting and other important environmental initiatives because every time consumers filled up their tanks they grew frustrated with the country’s dependency on oil.

On top of that, the movie An Inconvenient Truth was released and you couldn’t open a magazine without seeing a huge article on global warming. There was mounting evidence that we were entering a problematic period of global warming that would be difficult to reverse unless action wasn’t taken soon. It created a sense of urgency around the subject more than there had ever been.

The challenge in the current recycling situation with the Green Fence is that the intricacies of recycling are not publicly visible. People throw their plastics in the blue bin and think they will be recycled regardless of resin code and shape. So most people have no idea that this major recycling issue is going on behind the scenes. There’s no publicly triggering event that impacts consumers like existed with the rising price of gas and media attention from movies and magazine articles.

The more we can do to build awareness around the problem, the more people will understand the importance of buying products with recycled materials and asking their municipalities for better recycling infrastructure. The 76 million-person Millennial generation (the largest generation alive) is full of young people who are passionate about protecting the earth and advancing social causes. If that population is educated on the issue, change will occur. It won’t be quick, but it will occur. On top of that, we live in a capitalistic society full of entrepreneurs and businesses looking for the next trend and someone will identify a way to make money by creating a good solution.

I have hope!

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This is Why…

May 16, 2013

Grab a box of tissues and hang on for the next 90 seconds.  (I’m not kidding about the tissues.  Brie, my wife, actually cried.)   This is why – Eco Products from Dan Knudson Productions on Vimeo.

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Way to go Denver Int’l Airport on your composting efforts

May 3, 2013

Going through DIA this week I saw the below picture on the trash cans in the main terminal restrooms. Composting paper towels in restrooms is one of the simplest ways to launch a composting program and improve waste diversion. Think about all those paper towels that would normally end up in a landfill. Great job […]

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NYC is Trying to Become a Recycling Leader in the U.S.

April 25, 2013

New York City has made some major moves to get the city’s trash problem in order.  I’m impressed for a city that big to take these steps, but I’m also concerned that they are drawbacks to some of their decisions as well. They hired the Co-Founder and former CEO of RecycleBank, Ron Gonen, as the […]

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Recyclers: If you’re not innovating, you’re dying

April 12, 2013

On the heels of my previous post about the need for improved recycling and sorting technology comes more news about the major issues US recyclers are now facing with the increased regulations in China on “recycled” waste the country imports. China has formed an “Operation Green Fence” with support from China’s new President to inspect […]

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Material Innovation = More Recycling Challenges (and that’s okay!)

April 4, 2013

Nearly every week I read about a new type of plastic or other material that has been developed.  When I talk to recycling companies or MRFs, generally speaking, their reaction is one of frustration by all of these new materials.  They have a hard enough time as it is sorting the existing material streams.  Their […]

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Thirsty? Don’t go to NYC.

February 25, 2013

Mayor Bloomberg has made two bold moves in the past few weeks.  One is to propose a ban on all polystyrene foam food containers and cups in New York City.  The second is to ban sugary drinks over 16 oz in size.  Each decision is  attempting to tackle a different problem (trash vs obesity), but […]

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If You Don’t Yet Compost, You Will Soon

February 5, 2013

Coming off a week at the US Composting Council Conference in Orlando and a board meeting for the Biodegradable Products Institute, I’m now even more convinced of the important role composting MUST play in our future.  And I mean everywhere, not just in green communities like Boulder, San Fran and Seattle.  Composting will be everywhere […]

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The Eco-Products Hiring Process

January 20, 2013

Eco-Products is primary sponsor of a website and webisode series called Behind the Barriers.  Both the site and the webisode series are based on one of the top Cyclo-cross racers in the world – Jeremy Powers, or J-Pow as insiders call him. If you’re like me, you don’t have any idea what Cyclo-cross is except […]

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