A Wonder Material You Can't Get Rid Of
To anyone who's truly green at heart, San Francisco's central recycling plant is an exhilarating sight. There, tons and tons of paper, plastic, glass and who-knows-what works its way through a mountain of belts, gears and gizmos. Much of what the city throws away gets separated, classified and bundled for sale.
Recycling is a point of pride to Robert Reed of Norcal Waste Systems. When it comes to giving garbage a second life, no American city does it better.
"We like to say 'life's a mess but we sort it out,'" he told CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. "There’s a Safeway bag – it doesn't go through like the rest of the stuff."
But not everything is welcome here. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag.
"Plastic bags — they're very light and they float around," he said. "They get twisted around things. They're a difficult material. They're one of the most difficult things to recycle. The recycling business, like the garbage business, is all about tonnage. You want so many tons of aluminum cans and so many tons of paper that you can bale. And you can handle."
Put simply, it costs so much more to process the bags than can be earned from selling them that they're simply trucked off to the dump. And while a few flimsy bags don’t seem like much, they add up: Americans consume an estimated 100 billion of them every year.
So many bags, they seem to grow on trees, which is why in northern New Jersey, Bill McLelland and Ian Frazier invented the bag-snagger.
"It's annoying to see a bag in a tree. [Investing the bag snagger] was sort of a sport. It was something to do for fun," Frazier said.
And something to do for the environment: plastic bags blowing in the wind have become a litter problem nation-wide.
"You see a bag in a tree," McLelland said. "One bag. And you notice it. And it bugs you. And you can get that bag out of the tree. You suddenly see this tree just kind of come back to life. And you feel like, you know, you've really made a little dent in the problem."
It's a problem that's pretty clear when you see how much we send to the dump. Each of us generates more than 1,600 pounds of garbage every year. That's more trash per person than any other nation on Earth. Much of it comes from plastic bags, plastic water bottles and plastic packaging. As some see it, our love affair with plastic has turned us into a throwaway society. The plastic heads straight to landfills, where it stays for years and years and years.
It wasn't always like this.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it came to trash, practically nothing went to waste. Everything from rags to scrap metal to manure found a second use. Recycling was truly the American way, says Heather Rogers, author of "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage."
"Disposability and the way that we dispose is learned — a learned behavior," she said. "We've had to be taught how to do that."
Rogers argues that today's attitudes towards trash took root in the postwar boom, when plastics were promoted as a new wonder-material: cheap, versatile and disposable.
"One of the first disposable plastic items was a rigid plastic cup that was dispensed in vending machines that sold coffee and hot chocolate," she said. "And after people consumed their drink, they had this cup left over that they clearly recognized could be re-used. And a discussion erupted in the plastics industry trade press about, 'How do we convince consumers that this product that clearly can be re-used is garbage?'"
In the four decades since "The Graduate" parodied the phony or plastic values of American society, plastics really have taken over. Just look around and try to imagine a world without them.
"The last 40 years have been good for the plastics industry," Greg Babe, chairman of the American Chemistry Council's Plastics Division said. "But the plastics industry has been very good over the last 40 years for society as well."
Recently, the plastics industry has come under pressure to boost the relatively low percentage of plastic recycling. While close to three-quarters of cardboard boxes and nearly half of aluminum cans find new uses, only about a quarter of plastic bottles — and just 5 percent of plastic bags — get recycled.
<!-- longtext start-->"We just as an industry believe that this is not a material problem. It's not a plastics problem. It's a behavioral problem," Babe said. "We don't from that then step away and say we have no responsibility; we know that we have a responsibility. Our responsibility is to help to educate the consumer and it's to ensure that as we recycle more and more of these plastics that there are going to be products in which we can use them."
Babe predicts the rising costs of oil and natural gas — the raw materials of plastics — will encourage manufacturers to use more recycled content without the need for new laws. But right now we seem to be finding more and more ways to use more and more plastic.
"One out of every three servings of water now comes from a bottle in the United States. And this is apparently how we're increasingly hydrating ourselves — with these big packs of petroleum-wrapped water," author Dan Imhoff said.
Imhoff believes far too many things come wrapped in plastic. His book "Paper of Plastic" takes aim at what he considers over-packaging.
The problem is that packaging is now a big part of the global economy: low-priced imports are protected by all that plastic for shipping, and the big boxes make them both attractive on the shelves and too bulky to shoplift.
"It certainly catches your eye," Imhoff said. "But what are you gonna do with it when you get it home — I mean, if you safely can get this thing open?"
When you finally get the packaging off, Imhoff said it goes in the trash and then it will be around for the next 1,000 years.
Indeed, when plastic is thrown away, it doesn't just go away. Far out in the Pacific Ocean, where currents carry floating waste, plastic is now more plentiful than plankton. Along coastlines, seabirds are turning up dead - their bellies literally stuffed with it. In landfills, there are concerns about long-term pollution as plastic decomposes. All reasons why just last week, the city government of San Francisco announced it would stop buying bottled water.
And remember all those bags? San Francisco's leaders have calculated that a plastic bag which costs a supermarket just a penny to buy costs the public seventeen cents to deal with as litter. So the city has moved to ban them from big chain stores and wants to replace them with biodegradable bags made from corn starch.
Ironically, plastic bags were first introduced as an Earth-friendly alternative to paper. The discussion has left many shoppers wondering just how to respond when asked "Paper or plastic?"
"Really, the easy answer is just neither," Imhoff said. "Neither paper nor plastic. Bring your own bag, bring something that's reusable. Have a whole stash of these reusable bags — you'll give them to your grandkids, they'll last forever!"
Chances are, they may thank you, because as we've seen, little things have a way of adding up.