THE ORIGIN OF THE THREE RS – REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE – is debated but classes of children have been hearing the waste management refrain for decades. The three Rs are deliberately ordered and signify priority. The first goal is to reduce the amount of waste we produce. What we must use, we should try to reuse. And most of what can’t be reused should be recycled.
This slogan of consumer responsibility has long been drilled into the heads of younger generations but data shows it goes largely unpracticed in the world of plastics. Reduce? Annual plastic production in the United States continues to increase. Between 1960 and 2000, plastic production jumped more than 6,400 percent, from 390,000 tons to 25.6 million tons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2018, the U.S. produced 35.7 million tons of plastic. Reuse? The Pew Research Center reports 42 percent of all plastic produced is single-use plastic, such as packaging for goods in a grocery store, water bottles or utensils. Recycle? Less than 9 percent of plastic generated in the U.S. in 2018 found its way into the recycling bin, a percentage that waste management experts say has remained steady over the years. Even then, one-third of the plastic in recycling bins will end up in the landfill because recycling only works if there is a market demand for the used materials, and geopolitics significantly altered that market in 2018 (more on that later).
Plastic is, in some ways, a best friend on whom we’ve relied too heavily for too much and too long, devolving the relationship into a toxic codependency. Produced almost entirely by the natural gas captured through fracking, plastic is durable, lightweight, waterproof and costs nearly nothing to make. It can also last for hundreds of years. This makes it a wonder-material for more enduring uses such as siding on a home and blood transfusion bags but an environmental concern when leaned on for products meant to be used once and quickly trashed.
“Plastic as a material is fantastic. It’s cheap, it’s versatile and you can do anything with it,” says Carmel-based Daniella Russo. Russo’s organization, Think Beyond Plastic, has worked for years to finance the development of plastic alternatives to varying success. “But, at the same time, there is an inherent dichotomy because the material lasts forever,” she says. “Plastic is not the problem. The problem is that we’re making the choice to use plastic for products that are intended to be discarded.”
The proliferation of plastic and what some call the “convenience economy” has made single-use plastic nearly impossible to avoid. A consumer today can take their canvas tote bag to the grocery store, but chances are they will fill it with items wrapped in single-use plastic packaging that, in Monterey County and many other regions, cannot be recycled.
Convenient as they may be, plastic presents an unsustainable waste management problem and rising environmental and health concerns. Experts say too much of the responsibility to address the plastic problem has long been placed on consumers and small businesses, through piecemeal bans and public education campaigns, while industry continues to use and manufacture more plastic each year.
“It takes a huge amount of work on the consumer to avoid plastics.”
“Some ask, ‘How do we get the public to understand the impact of their choices?’ But my question is, why do we have to put the onus on all of us to make the right choice when we don’t have all the information?” says Tim Brownell, director of operations at the Monterey Regional Waste Management District. “It takes a huge amount of work on the consumer to avoid plastics.”
THE CONTENTS OF ALL BLUE RECYCLING BINS along Monterey County’s northern coast eventually wind up in Marina at the waste management district’s materials recovery facility – a 100,000-square-foot labyrinth of waste management activity. Set against the roar of machinery and a steady rain of glass and metal, a collaboration of human hands, conveyor belts and robotics helps the facility sort through 250 tons of materials per day.
The industrial symphony is joined by the constant beeping of recycling trucks backing in and adding to the steady pile of waste at the foot of the $24 million sorting center. The dirty dune is a data dump of what the public knows and doesn’t know about recycling. Brownell says about one-third of that pile is “contaminants,” or nonrecyclable items that will end up in the landfill, despite people tossing them into recycling bins. Most contaminants, Brownell says, are plastics.
Of the seven types of plastic – numbered 1 through 7 – only three are recycled at Monterey’s regional sorting facility (see table). Plastic 1, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is the transparent material most known for making plastic water and soda bottles. Plastic 2, high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, is the more translucent and sometimes opaque material used for products such as milk jugs and laundry detergent containers. Plastic 5, polypropylene, or PP, is commonly seen in items such as yogurt containers and microwavable to-go trays.
The gap between what is recyclable and what gets recycled relies on regional market forces. The final product at the Marina sorting center is not ready-to-reuse plastic bottles or containers. Instead, they produce bales of sorted plastic that are organized and sold to companies that process the materials and make something new out of something old. Although plastics 3, 4, 6 and 7 are technically recyclable, there is no local market for the used materials so they inevitably land in the landfill.
The market for plastics can be as volatile as any other. Just outside the sorting facility one finds the valuable recyclables sorted, cubed and stacked 12 feet high, creating a maze of marketable used materials. A constant stream of forklifts and workers buzz among the rows, shifting, inspecting and prepping these bales for sale. Off to the side of the hive is one wall of plastic that receives little attention: 80 tons, or about 10 dump trucks’ worth, of mostly ice cream and juice cartons. The cartons are made from a type of Plastic 2 that the sorting facility can typically sell to manufacturers of industrial toilet paper – the type commonly seen in offices and commercial buildings. However, Brownell says the pandemic and work-from-home policies have tanked the demand for industrial toilet paper and has left the sorting facility with an 80-ton (and growing) question mark. If the market doesn’t move soon, Brownell says that plastic will be dumped in the landfill.
“Consumers think they’re doing the right thing. They see something like a coat hanger and think, ‘Oh, this is plastic, I’m not putting that in my trash,’ but that’s not a recyclable product,” says Zoe Shoats, spokesperson for the waste management district. “It may be recyclable somewhere else, but it’s not recyclable with our facility or in the market around here.”
The waste management industry has a term to describe the phenomenon of consumers recycling plastic we assume won’t end up in the landfill as long as we put it in the blue bin: “wishcycling.” Shoats says wishcycling creates a resource drain for waste management facilities that have to sort through nonrecylables; however, Brownell is again careful to not blame the consumer. The added burden on the industry is self-inflicted, he says, especially in California.
FOR YEARS, THE RECYCLING INDUSTRY SAID ALL PLASTIC WAS RECYCLABLE. Everything in the blue bins would come to the sorting facility, some of the high-value plastics – such as 1, 2 and 5 in Marina – would be separated and the rest would be baled up and shipped to China. In large part, recycling essentially meant diverting plastic waste from U.S. landfills to another country. Once it left U.S. shores, Brownell says no one could be sure what happened to it. Out of sight, out of mind.
That is, until a 2016 documentary by Chinese filmmaker Jiuliang Wang, Plastic China, exposed the scale of environmental problems China experienced by importing plastic waste from the U.S. and other countries. Some plastic was recycled but it was often dirty and contaminated with trash that polluted rivers, neighborhoods and the ocean. In 2018, the Chinese government implemented a policy called the National Sword, which mandated any plastic waste imported from other countries had to be 99.5-percent recyclable material – a significant jump from the previous 90 – to 95-percent threshold. If a U.S. sorting facility wanted to send plastic bales to China, Chinese officials would have to first make a site visit and inspect the bales themselves. The tighter regulation largely ended the practice of exporting plastic to China. Today, Monterey County sends no plastic to the country.
This has forced waste management facilities to be more transparent about which plastics actually have an end market and can be recycled. However, after years of throwing all plastic in the blue bin, Brownell says the public has been understandably slow to adapt. More importantly, without being able to ship the other four types of plastic to China, more is ending up in U.S. landfills. With plastic production exponentially increasing by the decade, Brownell says the current system is unsustainable and, without a paradigm shift, the industry is hurtling toward a crisis.
"The problem is nobody has created a system for you to bring your glass jar to be refilled”
“These are huge questions: Do we prohibit the manufacturing of certain products? Do we create policies around banning the use of single-use plastics? The problem is nobody has created a system for you to bring your glass jar to be refilled,” Brownell says. “We weren’t always living with this problem. In the 1960s, Coca-Cola came in refillable glass bottles. The bulk systems were there. They were all there. But they’ve been lost in the language and economy of convenience.”
ON MOTHER’S DAY, a group of volunteers ventured out on Carmel River State Beach for an early-morning clean-up hosted by Save Our Shores, a Santa Cruz-based environmental advocacy organization that has focused on preserving Monterey Bay for 43 years. The volunteers, divided into five teams of two, spread out and raked the sand and ice plants for litter. They collected 215 items total, 99 of which were plastic and almost none of which were recyclable.
Although most plastic in the ocean is litter from fishing operations, terrestrial crowds, such as the one celebrating Mother’s Day at the beach that morning, leave plastic litter behind as well, which eventually makes its way into the ocean. The 91 percent of plastic that is not recycled lives out its lifespan in our environment and landfills, breaking down over time into microplastics, which are pieces of plastic that range from tiny to microscopic. Microplastics have been found in soil, throughout our water resources and in the food we eat.
Recent research suggests today it is just as difficult to avoid handling plastic in daily life as it is to avoid ingesting it. A 2021 study, led by University of Newscastle’s Kala Senathirajha and published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, estimates that microplastics have become so ubiquitous that the average person eats 5 grams, or about a credit card’s worth of plastic, each week.
In 2019, local marine biologist Bruce Robison was part of researcher Anela Choy’s Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute team investigating the presence of plastic in the ocean. Although photos of the garbage gyres in the Pacific Ocean have circulated for years, the team was the first to analyze the prevalence of plastics between the ocean’s surface and floor, known as the water column. Robison says the oceanic water column is “the largest living space on Earth.”
“We’re talking about an enormous portion of Earth’s biosphere that had not been examined. We were able to determine that, at least in Monterey Bay, microplastics are found throughout the water column, so an enormous number of animals are exposed to them,” Robison says. “And, indeed, they are consuming, ingesting and processing microplastics.”
They found microplastic is in the diet of two species near the bottom of the food chain – a crab and a larvacean. Robison says there is no question about it: Microplastics are in the food web and they make their way to us.
It’s not just food, either. A 2017 study from the data journalism organization Orb found that microplastics were present in more than 94 percent of U.S. tap water samples. A 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers of Chemistry showed that of 259 bottled water samples collected across the world, 93 percent contained microplastics. In July, California will become the first state in the world to mandate utilities monitor and publish the levels of microplastics found in tap water.
Microplastics are all around us and inside us. What remains unclear is the impact they have on our health. No definitive conclusions have been made but Robison says his team answered the fundamental question: Microplastics are in the food web. Now, he says, the work begins on determining what that means for our health and biological processes.
DURING THE MOTHER’S DAY BEACH CLEANUP, one volunteer is Aptos resident Brian Herman, a tanned and energetic 40-year-old who is as enthusiastic about the natural beauty of Monterey Bay as when he arrived six years ago. For Herman, the Mother’s Day excursion was his first experience with an organized beach cleanup.
As he peruses the coastline, collecting trash and seeing the prevalence of plastic wrappers and utensils, Herman says his motivation is karmic. “I go to the beach, and so probably I’m making a mess too sometimes, so this is a good way to balance it out,” he says.
He says he’s conscious of his plastic use but admits he’s not perfect when it comes to single-use plastic. As the cleanup ends, Herman says the experience has made him more likely to pick up litter in his daily life but it hasn’t affected his personal inclination toward single-use plastic. He says they are too convenient and impossible to avoid.
Russo, the founder of Think Beyond Plastic who has worked for years to find plastic alternatives, says Herman’s philosophy is logical. What’s illogical, she says, is how plastic is used by industry, and how little pressure the market has felt to explore and offer realistic alternatives.
“Why on Earth would you create a disposable product specifically intended to be thrown away with material that lasts forever?”
“Why on Earth would you create a disposable product specifically intended to be thrown away with material that lasts forever?” Russo asks as she holds up a miniature plastic bag containing a button that came with her shirt. “I’m tired of people telling the consumer what they should or should not do. The consumer shouldn’t pay the price for not knowing what’s in plastic and getting a product they never asked for.”
Think Beyond Plastic began by adopting the mindset of tech startups and hackathons. The organization would create innovation challenges for single-use plastic products and offer cash-prizes to the winner. However, Russo found that unlike tech, where the market for solutions is consumer-focused, innovation in single-use plastic is aimed toward product manufacturers who may or may not want a solution.
“We realized companies say they would love to adopt a new type of packaging if only it will do everything plastic can do at the same price, which is ridiculous because you could never find a material like that,” Russo says.
Think Beyond Plastic has since moved from innovation challenges to offering grants and what Russo calls “catalytic funding” for researchers developing plastic alternatives who need help bringing the products to commercialization.
Agriculture is among the largest industrial users of plastic. From acres of tarp tunnels and the plastic mulch draped over the soil to drip irrigation tape and the transparent clamshell containers berry pickers use to pack their harvests, plastic is used at almost every stage of the process. Brownell says the industry and the Monterey Regional Waste Management District have recently partnered to try and recycle more of that plastic. He says the clamshell packaging, made from Plastic 1, represents the best example of a circular economy, which in plastic means a system that tries to max out the lifespan of existing plastic instead of constantly creating new material.
However, plastic mulch, which is employed to preserve soil moisture and the temperature of a field bed for a season per use, continues to be a problem. The effort required to clean the material makes recycling it too expensive says Janna Faulk, recycling coordinator at the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority, which dumps close to 1,000 tons of plastic mulch into its landfill in a typical year.
In 2019, the waste authority – which serves the entire Salinas Valley, plus North and South County – received nearly 4,300 tons of dirty plastic mulch from local farms. It was a stockpile that Faulk says farms held onto for years in hopes of a recycling solution. That solution never arrived. All 4,300 tons of plastic mulch went into the landfill.
Chris Christian, vice president of the California Strawberry Commission, says the industry understands the negative impact of plastic mulch, but no viable alternative has been created. Russo says Think Beyond Plastic has been working with strawberry giant Driscoll’s for two years on a price-competitive and environmentally friendly option, but it is still under development.
KATHERINE O’DEA, THE FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR SAVE OUR SHORES who stepped down in May, gets worked up when talking about plastics and begins pacing around whichever room she’s in. Her organization and others like it host beach cleanups, public education campaigns and lobby lawmakers to curb the proliferation of plastics. Although plastic bag bans and efforts to skip the straw have been successful in some jurisdictions, the plastic problem is growing.
The EPA reports in 1960, the U.S. produced 390,000 tons of plastic. By 1990, that number jumped to 17.1 million tons and in 2018, the U.S. generated 35.7 million tons. More than half of the plastic ever produced in the U.S. came after 2010. In response, California has passed bans on plastic bags and restricted full-service restaurants from offering plastic straws and utensils unless requested.
“I don’t think anybody… understands the magnitude of the problem and how fast it’s continuing to grow”
“I don’t think anybody, even me, understands the magnitude of the problem and how fast it’s continuing to grow,” O’Dea says. “The plastic legislation we’re seeing are these one-off bans. People get tired of it, they feel like we’re trying to take things away from them because first we ban this then we ban that. The ban language is problematic.”
Bans can offer easy wins but are delicate and cannot work on their own, Russo says. A ban without innovation leaves consumers without an alternative. On the flipside, when you’re trying to innovate and there is no ban, there is no incentive for industry to adopt an alternative because nothing is better and cheaper than plastic. Russo says plastics present a “wicked problem.”
“You can’t say we’re going to recycle ourselves out of this mess because you’re going to find most of this stuff is not recyclable and the costs do not support it,” Russo says. “If you decide, to hell with plastic, we’re not going to use it, that creates another problem because the manufacturing of plastics employs millions of people.
“You can’t just get out of the product and not think about what’s going to happen to all these people and their livelihoods, just like you cannot continue to increase the amount of waste because it creates jobs. The challenge is to always keep everything in balance.”