This New Year, Resolve to RefuseJan 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
Do you know the catsup bottle poem? Actually, there are two. The one by Ogden Nash goes like this:
The Catsup Bottle
First a little
Then a lottle
The one by Richard Armour goes like this (I’m not sure it has a title):
Shake and shake the catsup bottle,
None will come, and then a lot’ll.
You’ll notice both refer to catsup (ketchup, if you prefer) in a bottle. Made of glass. Not plastic.
You’ve probably seen the pictures—bales of plastic, wrapped up, stacked up, boldly going nowhere. Or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, twice the size of Texas. Or the rubbish alongside the road—bags, bottles, cans, fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, random articles of clothing.
Isn’t anybody recycling?
Recycling is challenging these days. Whatever borough, town, county, or state you’re in, the rules and regulations are not uniform and not static. In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection administers the state-wide recycling program. Local recycling programs vary depending on the operator—they can work in conjunction with trash pickup, whether that’s a municipal service or a private hauler, or you can take your recycling to a designated facility yourself. It’s similar in New York, except that state agency overseeing the program is the Department of Environmental Conservation.
As much as some of us might like to think that recycling is altruism writ large, it’s not. Recycling is a business, and local recycling programs have to change to adjust to industry trends. Whatdaya mean, I can’t recycle my #29 plastic anymore? Well, the market is saturated, or the company that used to take that type of plastic and transform it into something else, also made of plastic, just went out of business. Sorry.
Around here, we’ve become accustomed to the blue bins—we dutifully fill them and set them out by the curb on recycling day, or schlepp them to the dump ourselves, usually on a Saturday morning along with everyone else in the world, thinking we’re doing “our part” for the environment. We are, I guess, but it seems like such a small part, because—holy cow! there is still a lot of stuff out there. Plastic seems to be one of the big recycling bugaboos at the moment, and not for nothing.
Recyclenation.com says that in one year the average American generates close to 500 pounds of plastic waste and plastic recycling. The problem with plastic, whether it’s recycled or thrown away, is that it never goes away. No one’s figured out yet how to make it decompose, thus the headlines in recent years about the omnipresence of microplastics in water, in our bodies. And because new plastic is typically cheaper to make, and of better quality, than plastic that’s been recycled—well, then, sometimes the demand for your empty laundry detergent jug or your single-use water bottle just isn’t there. Compound the demand problem with that of content. Plastic bags are not the same plastic as clamshells, or all the food product containers that used to be glass and are now plastic (think mayonnaise, olive oil, salad dressings, peanut butter—and isn’t that one a bugger to get clean for the recycling bin?), or the hard casing for that cute little DEWALT air compressor you just bought (yes, that was me), or medical supplies, or car parts. The possibility of any of those things being transformed into another life as a different plastic product depends on what’s in them and how they’re processed and how much money somebody can make from doing it. Different kinds of plastics have to be recycled separately, if they can be recycled at all. Single stream recycling is easier for us, the users, but more expensive and time consuming for the people on the other end wanting to make a buck off your discarded packaging. (Check out encinapointtownship.com to find out how a Texas company wants to make money in Northumberland County using “circular manufacturing.”) If you’re cynical, you might think the petrochemical folks are pleased about all this, perhaps even had a hand in making it play out this way, but maybe it’s all just a quirk of the science. It’s certainly not a quirk of nature, though, because there is nothing natural about plastic, despite its ubiquity and our dependence on it.
Still, there is a great deal of discarded material that doesn’t end up in a landfill (and, let’s hope, not in the ocean or the roadside, either), and that’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. In Pennsylvania in 2021, over 4.63 million tons of recyclable material was collected and processed. In Tioga County, 6,626.10 tons of recyclable material was collected, including 178.5 tons of glass. Data on residential plastic was spotty but included 40 tons of #1 plastic, 108.7 tons of mixed/other plastic, and 116.9 tons of rubber tires. You can get a state-by-state, best-to-worst recycling analysis at oberk.com. Maine is the best, New York is tenth, and Pennsylvania is eleventh.
But there are no guarantees about where all that will eventually end up, or whether the carbon footprint of moving it around, changing its shape and chemistry to some other shape and chemistry, will be any better than if it’s just thrown away in the first place.
Years ago, I read a magazine article about shoes. It was geared toward people who had problems—issues, if you will—with wearing leather. Dead animals and all that. So what about shoes made with man-made materials? Not so good, either. Chemicals, pollution, factories in some foreign country paying workers a few cents an hour. Sadly, the article concluded, there were no silver bullets, no real good solutions. Except to not buy so many shoes.
All the “re”s—reuse, recycle, repurpose, rebuy—are great, and we should participate fully in their implementation, but possibly the best “re” is to refuse to buy it in the first place.
And perhaps write a letter to the catsup people, asking them to please go back to glass. Maybe it would help a lottle.