Reduce, Reuse, and Incinerate?

For the past few months, half of dutifully collected, rinsed, and sorted recyclables have not been recycled into new products as intended, but instead sent to incinerators and landfills. Well-meaning citizens of American cities continue to recycle with hopes that it will help the health of the planet and public, unaware that recyclables may actually be causing more harm than good, depending on where they go.

But even before China’s National Sword policy came into effect in January of 2008, many of our potentially recyclable plastics were ending up in landfills and the ocean. Not only can these take up to a century to break down, they never actually disappear. When plastics degrade, they break down into smaller and smaller plastic particles that enter our oceans and water systems, ending up in the stomachs of marine life, and quite likely in ours as well.

When India announced its 100% ban on all scrap plastics, the U.S. ran out of options for where to export its scrap, Malaysia really can only handle so much. Some fear it is only a matter of time before the Malaysian government once again puts a ban on scrap plastics pouring into the country.

The U.S. isn’t equipped to recycle the volume of material at home that we’ve been shipping overseas for decades, and rather than making larger institutional changes, many governments are opting instead to truck their recyclables to low income and minority cities to be burned in incinerators.

While Berg Mill and other Materials Recover Facilities (MRFs) are hard at work consulting with suppliers to more efficiently manage the volume and impurity of recyclable materials, our rather low recycling rate of just 34% has continued to plummet. And meanwhile, it is minorities and the poor that will pay the cost.

Chester City, Pennsylvania is just one example of a city destined to have the long-term health of its citizens affected by this “band-aid” fix. Burning plastics may seem like a better alternative to releasing them into the oceans and water supply or putting them in landfills to release methane, but it has its own cost; it has been shown to release nitrogen and sulfur dioxides as well as particulate matter. Particulate matter is perhaps proof that plastic really never breaks down, even when burned—releasing tiny granules of debris that can be inhaled from the air.

Significant evidence has been found linking air pollution to increased rates of ovarian and breast cancers, and Chester is a living example of this correlation (EPA). The citizens of Chester also have unusually high rates of heart disease, stroke, and asthma compared to neighboring Philadelphia.

The air is further polluted in areas that are near incinerators and landfills by the increased truck traffic transporting recyclables.

Although incineration does produce energy, incineration of plastic goes beyond wasting potentially recyclable materials and becomes a public health hazard to lower income areas that don’t have the platform or the resources to speak out about the consequences. These areas are usually made up of predominantly minority residents, and Chester is a classic example with over 70 percent of its residents being African American.

While the increased plastics incineration hasn’t yet caused emissions to go beyond the threshold set by state and federal regulators, this isn’t much comfort when the EPA has been actively rolling back environmental regulations.

This is a trying time in history for the recycling industry, the United States, and public health. However, it’s not too late for us to wake up to the dangers of band-aid solutions and take a stand towards single-use plastics and turning a blind eye to the effects our mismanagement of waste can have on the health of our citizens.

Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, and we are not going anywhere even when faced with recyclable import changes. If you continue to handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions to offload idle scrap, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill Supply.