ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

The Problem with Plastics - Recycling it overseas poses risks to workers. Doing it here doesn't pay.



It stems the flow of garbage to our landfills. It makes old things new. We can even collect money for our recycling efforts.

Let's face it, recycling makes us feel good. We don't have to toss that plastic Pepsi bottle in the trash, knowing it will lie dormant in a landfill for eons. And here in environmentally conscious Humboldt County, recycling is The Thing to Do.

So when the recycling centers in Arcata and Eureka recently began taking more of the numbered plastics -- containers labeled 3 through 7, rather than just the 1s and 2s -- it was welcomed as good news. As one state official said, "Recycling is one of those things where more is always better." But is it?

The recycling of plastic has a dark side -- one little known to most consumers. The majority of the plastics we recycle, regardless of type, end up in China, where worker safety standards are virtually nonexistent and materials are processed under dirty, primitive conditions. And the economics surrounding plastic recycling -- unlike those for glass and aluminum -- make it a dubious venture for U.S. companies.

Breathing fumes

interior of Chinese recycling factoryI've been in the [Chinese] factories and I can smell it," said Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, a nonprofit group working to support the international agreement on hazardous wastes called the Basel Convention. "It can give you a headache almost instantly, and [the workers] are hovering over this melting stuff all day."

Puckett visited China in December 2001 when his organization was investigating the export of electronics waste from the United States. While he was there, he also saw recycling facilities that handled consumer plastics like soda bottles and plastic bags.

"The ones we witnessed were pretty bad," Puckett said. Since plastics are made from petroleum, and since they must be melted down to be recycled, "the concern is what the emissions exposure will be like," he said. The workers, who make about $1.50 a day, "are breathing it indoors all day long." And some plastics additives, like flame-retardants, can be toxic when heated, he said. No workers he saw were wearing masks or other protective equipment. He also observed labor practices that one would never see in the United States -- such as small children going through bags of shredded plastic for hours, sorting the tiny pieces by color.

[photo above right: Plastic chipper (foreground) and melter unit (behind) in Chinese recycling factory. Photo © Basel Action Network]

Even worse than the occupational exposure may be the effect of plastics recycling on the environment in China, Puckett said. "If stuff has a little bit of contamination [such as an unidentifiable white dust], workers just dump it in the countryside. We saw plastic bags floating around in the fields."

Because plastics are not classified as hazardous wastes, they are not regulated by international law. But "from an environmental standpoint, they worry us a lot," Puckett said.

Puckett readily admitted that there has been little research on the potential health hazards in the Chinese facilities or environmental dangers. There is no information on the long-term health risks workers may be facing, the number of workers involved, or the number of factories.

California, while pushing heavily for the recycling of plastics, has not closely examined the conditions under which the recycling takes place overseas.

"Right now, a lot of our material is indeed baled and shipped off-shore," said Calvin Young, market development specialist with the state Integrated Waste Management Board. "We all hear the horror stories, but there's not a lot of verified information" about working conditions in China or elsewhere, he said. A spokeswoman for the waste board, which manages California's solid waste stream, said the state's hands are tied. "Once you release the material and another person buys it, you can't tell them what to do with it," said Roni Java.

Low conversion rate

What is clear is that plastic recycling presents myriad problems. In addition to safety and environmental questions, technological and economic hurdles have complicated plastics recycling efforts in the United States. The result: Plastic containers get turned into new products at a much lower rate than glass bottles or aluminum cans. The can you recycle today, for instance, will make its way back to the supermarket shelf in just six weeks. Because of health concerns, a plastic bottle will never become another plastic bottle. Recyclers often have a hard time making ends meet because the demand from manufacturers for recycled plastic -- and, consequently, the money paid for it -- is considerably less than for virgin material.

The plastics industry, of course, has nothing but good things to say about the role of plastics in our lives. They are "a responsible choice in a more environmentally conscious world," according to the American Plastics Council, the national trade association for the plastics industry and the group responsible for the upbeat "Plastics Make It Possible" ad campaign. Examples of how plastics "leave a lighter footprint on the planet" include the argument that plastic grocery bags are lighter and create less waste by volume than paper sacks, the industry said. And the fact that plastics are so lightweight and durable enables manufacturers to use less energy and generate less waste in production processes, plastic promoters said.

The plastics industry also likes to tout the many uses of recycled plastic, even publishing a recycled products directory that lists everything from bookmarks to boxer shorts to Dumpsters reportedly made with recycled plastic.

The state of California, meanwhile, earnestly promotes recycling of plastic containers. The state Department of Conservation announced last week that it is launching a new campaign to raise public awareness of the growing mounds of plastic bottles in our landfills and to promote recycling.

"The sight of a water bottle in someone's hand has become as common as a cell phone," said Darryl Young, the department's director.

A proliferation of plastic

Clearly, there is a dilemma. Recycling presents problems, yet not recycling hardly seems an option. Plastic is the fastest-growing portion of our waste stream and now makes up the second-largest category by volume, next to paper, of trash going into our landfills, according to a draft report prepared for the California Integrated Waste Management Board called the "Plastics White Paper."

Plastics make up 17.8 percent by volume of what's thrown into California landfills (and 8.9 percent by weight). While consumers are increasingly snapping those Evian bottles off the shelves, they toss the empties into the trash bin more often than the recycling bin. The recycling rate for plastic bottles is only 16 percent -- miserably low compared to glass and aluminum -- even though consumers can redeem their used plastic bottles for the same CRV (California Refund Value) rate as other containers.

California cities and counties have an incentive to recycle as much material as possible. A 1989 law requires that municipalities reduce the trash they send to landfills by 50 percent by the year 2000 or face hefty fines. (Many, like Arcata and Eureka, have received extensions to meet the goal.)

Diversion, then, becomes the magic word. But from the point of view of recyclers, accepting some types of plastic is more trouble than it's worth. For example, plastics coded 3 through 7 -- cottage cheese, tofu, salsa and yogurt containers -- are particularly difficult to recycle profitably. So why take these additional containers at all, especially when their volume is low? According to Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center, which also manages the Hawthorne Street Recycling Center in Eureka, the answer is public pressure.

"I fought it. There are no domestic markets for it. At a point you get tired of being harangued by people coming in trying to quote unquote `do the right thing.'" They don't want to throw anything away, he said, and that's all well and good. But a more appropriate position might be, "I shouldn't buy it in the first place," he suggested.

The plastics trail

The plastics collected at the Arcata and Hawthorne Street sites are baled and stored for about a month until they fill a 12-ton truckload, Loughmiller said. The truck typically contains 5 tons of milk bottles (the number 2s), 7 tons of soda and water bottles (the number 1s), and about three-quarters of a ton of the so-called "mixed plastics," the 3s through 7s, which are baled together.

They then make their way to Ming's Recycling in Sacramento (which also takes all of the plastics from Humboldt Sanitation in McKinleyville). Kenny Luong, president of Ming's, said his center has 40 or 50 suppliers in California and another 30 to 40 elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Almost all of the plastics that come into Ming's are sold to brokers in Hong Kong, who pay to transport it via container ship from the Port of Oakland to China. The transport is cheap because China exports far more to the United States than we do to them; the ships traveling back to China have plenty of room.

The mixed plastics don't make Luong very much money, he said, which explains why the cities of Arcata and Eureka get nothing for their mixed plastic bales. (A ton of milk jugs, by contrast, pays about $200; a ton of soda bottles, $160.)

"It's enough to cover the transport to the harbor, that's pretty much it," Luong said of the mixed plastics. He would prefer not to take those at all. But a change to state law in 2000 expanded the list of beverages included in the California Redemption Value program. And if the bottle has a "CRV" on it -- even if it's a number 3 or 4 plastic -- a certified recycling center must accept it and pay the refund to the consumer.

"It's really a pain in the butt," Luong said. "There aren't a whole lot, but we are required to purchase them by law. It prompted us to find a market for it."

That market, it turns out, consists of recyclers in Shanghai and Guangdong province. Luong said he has never seen the China facilities and knows little about them. "Once it's loaded on the ship, it's out of my hands."

Recycling in Guangdong

One of his brokers has visited some of the locations in China where plastics from Humboldt end up -- places similar to those that the activist from the Basel Action Network saw. Doug Spitzer is the owner of Monarch Enterprises of Santa Cruz, which is affiliated with the gargantuan paper company Boise Cascade. He sells plastics to Chinese recyclers and ran a plastic film-recycling factory himself outside of Guangdong in the early 1990s.

"Most of our material goes through Hong Kong into that closest province [to Hong Kong], which is Guangdong," Spitzer said. One factory will typically limit itself to one type of plastic, and one village might have most of its residents involved in that type of recycling, he said.

"Within this one town outside of Guangzhou [in Guangdong province], when I was there, my partners were telling me there were at least 3,000 plastic film processors there, and they're right next door to each other. It's a small village; they all process it." The facilities range from a mom-and-pop operation that takes one container-load per month to very large, comparatively modern factories.

One Spitzer saw when he visited four years ago involved soda bottles: The workers would break open the bales, women would sort the bottles by color, a "guy with a machete" cut the tops off, two other men scraped labels off, then the bottles were ground into pellets and melted down.

It was not the kind of place that would be approved by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Spitzer said.

"OSHA would go nuts. The place is noisy, it's crowded, it's just amazing. Not that they're killing people off. They're safe, and all the time we were running the factory there were no major accidents," he said. "Do people engage in unsafe practices to try to make a living? Yeah, all over the world."

He said his current business provides a valuable service. "What I'm doing is I'm supplying a raw material that can go to a Third World country."

There are some facilities in the United States that recycle soda bottles and milk jugs "if the material is clean enough," said Luong of Ming's Recycling. But the market for recycled plastic makes it difficult, if not impossible, for recyclers to make any money. The reasons are many. Since plastic is made from petroleum, virgin plastic makers have a large supply of raw material available to them. When manufacturers can buy virgin plastic pellets or flakes for about the same amount of money as recycled plastic, there is little incentive to use recycled.

There are also limits to the products that can be made from recycled plastic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not allow food containers to be made into new food containers because they can't be heated at temperatures high enough to sterilize them. (The FDA has said it will allow a layer of recycled plastic sandwiched between layers of virgin plastic in soda bottles.)

A numbers game

Plastic recyclers must also face the issue of contamination. Recycling the number 1 (PET) plastics -- the soda bottles -- could work economically were it not for the number 3s that enter the mix, said Peter Anderson, a recycling consultant in Madison, Wis., who has worked with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. Number 3 plastics are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short.

"PVC presents enormous problems because it looks just like PET physically," Anderson said. "A single bottle of PVC will contaminate the entire [10,000-bottle] load" aesthetically, causing the new PET bottles made with the material to be yellowed or, with more contamination, to have black streaks, he said. There are X-ray scanning machines that can detect the PVC intruders, but those are too expensive for many recyclers.

"You can't make plastics recycling work with PVC in the mix," Anderson said. So, he argued, taking the 3 through 7 plastics makes no economic sense. "Who the hell knows what China's doing with them? I don't think anyone can make a case without a smirk on their face that they're recycling 3 through 7s."

He called the idea of recycling all plastics "a serious mistake."

Some recyclers take the 3 through 7 plastics because, they reason, they'll get more of the "good stuff" -- the soda bottles and milk bottles -- if they advertise that they accept a wider range of recyclables. Eel River Disposal in Fortuna, for example, accepts numbers 1, 2 and 3, which they send to Smurfit Recycling in Oakland.

Eel River owner Harry Hardin said he doesn't collect enough of the number 3s to make a separate bale with it, so he bales it with the number 2s. "I even put some 4s in there," he said.

Asked about the PVC contamination problem, Hardin said, "It depends what market you send it into. Smurfit's -- I'm not quite sure what they do with theirs. But they will allow some number 3 and 2 together."

Not so, said Don Kurtz, plant manager for Smurfit in Oakland. "If we identify that there are 3s in there, we reject the bale," he said. Eel River was recently told to come and get one of their bales that was turned away for that very reason. "We really don't want number 3s. It really doesn't make sense for us to mess with it." (Unlike Ming's, Smurfit is not legally bound to take any particular recyclables because the company is classified as a "processor," not a recycling facility.)

Another Humboldt County recycler sells his material to a middleman in a different part of the state. The man, who did not want to be identified, said he does not collect enough 3 through 7 numbered plastics to bale them separately, so he mixes them with the bales for the numbers 1 and 2. "Don't advertise that," he said. "It's garbage plastic, but a lot of people like to recycle it." His company then sells it to a broker who sends it overseas.

"If they're putting it in with the PET [number 1s], I guarantee they're getting thrown out," said the broker, Patty Moore of the Sonoma-based Moore Recycling Associates.

Destination landfill

All in all, plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can't be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a "durable good," such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.

"With plastics recycling, we're just extending the life of a material. We're not creating a perpetual loop for that material," like we do with glass and aluminum recycling, said Loughmiller, the Arcata recycling director.

"I think people really need to have a reality check on plastics," said Puckett of the Basel Action Network. "The mantra has been, `divert from the landfill.' What we've been saying is, divert to what? Dump it on the Chinese? Plastics recycling needs to be looked at with a jaundiced eye," he said. "It's not what it's touted to be."

[symbol] means recyclable, right?

IF YOU'VE EVER LOOKED ON THE BOTTOM OF YOUR PLASTIC JUICE BOTTLE, detergent bottle or tofu tub, you've seen the little triangle of arrows with a number inside. That symbol -- contrary to popular belief -- does not indicate that a container is recyclable.

Back in 1988, "the trade groups managed to get into law the resin [type of plastic] identification," said Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center. The numbers indicate which category of plastic the container is made from.

"The triangled arrows imply recyclability," Loughmiller said. "The plastic industry denied it was trying to mislead the public and cause confusion." But that's what happened, he said. People regularly come to his center and demand to know why their plastic lawn chair with a number on the bottom can't be recycled.

And why can't it? Because, even in one category, such as plastics labeled with a number 2 (high density polyethylene or HDPE), there are many variations. Milk jugs and yogurt containers, for example, may both be made with HDPE, but because the recycling process requires melting of the old containers, and they melt at different temperatures, they may be incompatible.

Guide to the numbers: 1 = PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate). Soft drink, water, catsup, salad dressing bottles and others. 2 = HDPE (high density polyethylene). Milk, water, juice, shampoo, detergent bottles. 3 = PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Plastic film wrap, clear food and non-food packaging including some juice bottles. 4 = LDPE (low density polyethylene). Dry cleaning bags, squeezable bottles like mustard. 5 = PP (polypropylene). Catsup bottles, yogurt containers and margarine tubs, medicine bottles. 6 = PS (polystyrene). Plastic to-go containers, Styrofoam, CD jackets. 7 = Other, or more than one resin used.

Redway operation turning milk jugs into planters

Not all of Humboldt County's plastics travel hundreds or thousands of miles before they are recycled. Some of them go to R&R Auto Machine in Redway, where Tom Hoffman and John Schwarz make them into planter boxes (when Hoffman is not operating heavy equipment and Schwarz is not repairing motorcycles, that is).

The two entrepreneurs have used more than 800 pounds of plastic milk bottles to make 10,000 planters in the year they've been working on the project.

"We don't make any more money than we would if we just used virgin plastic," Hoffman said, "but we like to recycle. It's part of the future."

Their operation emits no pollution and is not dangerous, Hoffman said. "It's a completely self-contained system."

The planters are available at the Arcata Community Recycling Center and American Hydroponics in Arcata."

Bucket of plastic chips  Tom pouring bucket of chips into machine  square planter box
From the left, recycled plastic from milk jugs after going through the chipper;
Tom Hoffman pours plastic particles into melter and the finished planter box below.





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