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NPR Stumbles Upon the Awful Truth About Plastics September 12, 2020

Posted by geoff in News.

Probably comes as no surprise to you, as it didn’t to me, but NPR of all people just published an “exposé” of the myth of plastics recycling. I, like everybody else, faithfully toss all my plastic containers into the recycling bin every week. But I never had much confidence in the notion that it was doing the environment any good.

And it’s not:

Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.

All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties.

But since our sense of self-satisfaction and moral superiority was amply fed by our empty gesture, I guess we shouldn’t be too critical.


1. Jimbro - September 12, 2020

Eh, at a minimum it keeps it in a contained environment and out of the water (lakes, oceans, rivers). I’m not sure how the aluminum can recycling works in terms of efficiency. I have heard cardboard works but now that Chyna is holding up imports that’s changing. We have a deposit on cans and bottles in Maine and used to just leave them at the dump for the local VFD. We now use a thing called Clynk and drop them off for credit we can use at the grocery store.


2. geoff - September 12, 2020

Eh, at a minimum it keeps it in a contained environment and out of the water (lakes, oceans, rivers)

Well, the alternative to recycling is just to throw it away in the regular trash, because it ends up in the dump either way (and hopefully out of bodies of water). So the benefit of using a recycling bin is 0.

3. Jimbro - September 12, 2020

That’s true. Eliminates the middleman and it’s definitely cheaper to just dump them

4. Some Rando - September 12, 2020

Aluminum production requires a lot of energy (mostly in the form of electricity), and that’s separate from mining, which has other issues. Short version: recycling metals, especially aluminum– is a no-brainer. Plastics? Absolute scam. Paper and glass, eh, probably OK.

The landfill/garbage issue is a looming problem. I remember reading articles in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (issues from the 60’s and 70’s, IIRC) about basically superheating trash (in a controlled space, obviously) to break it all down into the component elements and simple compounds, would could be separated. I assume you’d get a much smaller volume of chemical whatever, but also a great deal of elemental carbon, hydrogen gas, and/or carbon dioxide and water vapor. Also carbon monoxide and other waste, but if you could filter out the bad (technical term) there are a lot of possibilities.

Though that gets into the larger issue of tailings and other industrial waste, but that’s more widely known and worked on. (Not out of any altruism, but out of efficiency and profit motive.)

5. mesablue - September 13, 2020

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