Plastics Could Be The End of the Future

Mr. McGuire summed up the future in a single word for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1967. “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” Fifty years after “The Graduate’ won director Mike Nichols an Academy Award, there’s no debating that future.

Now we’re seeing the end of that future. Prognosticators from both ends of the political spectrum have been warning about this for years, but it’s about to reach the curb outside your door.

Plastics had a good run for fifty years. Democratic and individual freedoms have been expanding for almost twice that long But now it’s clear they represent colliding forces. As our mothers scolded us, “If you can’t put away your stuff, don’t expect to get more.”

The world has more plastic than it knows what to do with. China has been buying West Coast plastic for decades, but they are beginning to refuse it for three reasons.

Plastic is made from petroleum. As petroleum prices plummet, making new plastic is becoming cheaper than processing old plastic. Their consumer economy is growing, making more used plastic available from nearby. Our plastic too often has been arriving with food and other contaminants that foul their recycling processes.

Simply put, China is getting fed up with our habits. They call it carelessness. We call it freedom.

When recycling began, everything was sorted by us. Cans were opened on both ends and flattened, with the paper labels removed. Glass containers were sorted into green, brown and clear. Office paper was separated from newsprint, not including the glossy ads.

When we switched formats for the Comic News in the 1990s, we worried that our newsprint magazine was joined with two staples in the center. Our supplier couldn’t stitch them with string — we asked. Life wasn’t so simple back then, but we were purer.

If anyone didn’t recycle something correctly, they heard about it. Their hauler left them a note, or a neighbor pointed out what they saw. But now the collection is “streamlined” — which sounds good, unless you’re the stream for which it’s bound.

We’ve automated our quality control and China is giving our efforts a failing grade. Large companies use large machines — some of which are made in Eugene — to sort the recyclables collected from our curbside containers. Paper, glass, metal, and plastic each requires its own recycling path.

Over a decade ago, the ubiquitous plastic bags used by grocery stores were found to be clogging these massive sorting machines. Stores began collecting them to be recycled separately. Phonebook publishers did the same. Recycling services, trash haulers, and others tried to educate consumers about what must go where.

Too many of us have stopped educating ourselves about what’s allowable and what is not. Did you know that a clean paper towel or facial tissue cannot be recycled? Whatever process has been used to make those sheets soft to your touch have stripped them of the fibers that allow paper to be reconstituted into more paper.

Bottle caps can be a culprit. So can a thousand other things. Precious few of us take time to study up on the latest contaminants to the municipal waste stream. Master Recyclers who have taken up the cause, but when was the last time you invited one to a party? Did you ask them to rifle through your trash? Probably not.

We buy an awful lot of plastic from China. We always assumed they’d buy it back from us after we were done with it. If we can’t sell our plastic, the piper must be paid.

Our political freedom got commingled with our buying habits, and China is poised to sort it out for us. Rising to meet China’s standards won’t be easy for us. We won’t get perfect, but we must get better.

Friends who read an early draft of this essay begged me to find an upbeat note for the ending. I’m sorry, but I can’t. Automated efficiency and consumer convenience are trashing our effort to reduce our trash.

Individual responsibility has been scrubbed from the recycling process, which is more than can be said about that cottage cheese container.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.