Garbage. It’s a story ripe with complexity. The Independent is dumpster diving into the subject to better understand where the Outer Cape’s garbage goes. In this first installment, we look at plastics, especially what’s recycled and what’s not.
You order take-out dinner from a favorite restaurant. The food arrives in aluminum to-go containers with plastic lids. As an all-around do-gooder, you’re relieved the container is aluminum, one of the more recyclable materials. You rinse the container and toss it in the recycling bin. But what about the plastic lid?
You remember that Recycle Smart, an initiative of Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection (D.E.P.) has a handy Recyclopedia. You type in “clear plastic take-out lid” and the answer is “You can recycle the whole thing!” Then, your partner points to the recycle triangle on the lid, which reads #6. Another quick search online tells you that polystyrene — a.k.a. #6 — is not recyclable in your community. In fact, polystyrene is banned from use in Provincetown restaurants.
You toss the plastic lid in the trash and wonder whether recycling really works.
At town meetings this fall, Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham (along with five other Cape Cod towns) adopted bylaws banning the sale of noncarbonated, nonflavored water in single-use plastic bottles under one gallon. These new bylaws join a growing list of other single-use plastic bans being adopted.
But plastics are still everywhere — from the packaging on our online orders to our daily cups of hot coffee. This week, Science Advances reported that the U.S. produces more plastic waste per individual that any other country, and may also be the third largest contributor to marine plastic pollution.
Over the past five years, the Center for Coastal Studies Marine Debris and Plastics Program collected over 48,252 pieces of debris — from balloons, to rope, to hunks of Styrofoam packaging — during beach clean-ups at Long Point and Herring Cove beaches in Provincetown.
How much is getting recycled? Not a lot. It turns out that very few plastics are actually recyclable.
The EPA estimates that in 2017 only 8.4 percent of all plastics were recycled. There are several reasons for that, said Kari Parcell, Barnstable County’s regional waste reduction coordinator. A lot, she said, “depends on where you live and what infrastructure is in place.”
Recycling is handled differently in each town. Where it goes, how much it costs, and even which plastics are accepted vary by municipality.
A Market Shift
Provincetown, Truro, and, temporarily, due to Covid-19, Wellfleet, all have single-stream recycling programs, which means recyclable paper, cardboard, glass, metal cans, and plastic are comingled. They are transported to various Massachusetts-based materials recovery facilities (MRFs), where they are sorted, separated, and shipped in bales to various markets. This approach increases overall recycling.
In Eastham (and pre-Covid, in Wellfleet), recycling is dual stream. These programs require residents to separate their materials on site. The recyclable materials are then sold to recyclers directly at a market rate. This approach is cheaper and introduces less contamination into the system.
In both scenarios, the plastics are separated from our trash, which may reduce pollution. But the towns still must pay tipping fees to have the recycling removed.
Up until two years ago, the majority of recycling from Eastern Massachusetts and nearly a third of recycling in the U.S. was exported to China. In 2018, the Chinese government announced a ban on imports containing more than 0.5 percent contaminants. According to Mass. DEP, the contamination rate at MRFs is about 15 percent. Suddenly, there were bales of recycling sitting at MRFs with nowhere to go.
“The simplest message,” says Wellfleet Transfer Station Foreman Michael Cicale, in regard to recycling and solid waste, “is that your waste is a product now — someone has to want it.”
Without the option of exporting to cheap international markets, the supply of recyclable materials is much higher than the demand. Since China’s ban went into effect, the cost per ton of recycling has more than doubled in most towns. Provincetown paid Casella Waste Systems $35 per ton of single-stream recyclables until June 2019; now, the town pays $100 to $125 per ton.
Are We Wishcycling?
Contamination is often the result of “wishcycling” — the act of tossing items into the recycling bin when they really can’t be recycled. Truro DPW Director Jarrod Cabral said the biggest contamination problem he sees is food scraps on plastic containers. “We would like to remind folks to clean their recycling,” he said.
At the Wellfleet transfer station, white and blue plastic Amazon shipping envelopes are a common example of wishcycling, says Mike Cicale.
Among other plastics that should not be included in your recycling: plastic bags of any kind, black plastic, plastic film or packaging, hot drink cups with plastic coating, plastic lids, straws, bulky rigid plastics, polystyrene or polyethylene foam (Styrofoam #6), containers with solid or liquid remnants, and anything smaller than a smart phone.
As a guide for recyclability, the DEP’s Recycle Smart program and many MRFs go by size and shape rather than plastic resin number. All recycling programs in Massachusetts accept clean plastic bottles, jars, jugs, and tubs (most of which are PET #1, HDPE #2, or PP #5). Ninety to 95 percent of those are getting properly recycled, according to Edmund Coletta, a DEP spokesman.
Forget about that tiny triangle symbol with a number inside, stamped on nearly all plastics. It is called the Resin Identification Code (RIC) and is a tool to identify the plastic polymer. The RIC is “a symbol that big industry petroleum/plastics started using to make people feel better about using their products,” said Parcell.
A September NPR and PBS Frontline investigation found that the industry pushed for the symbols to appear on plastics — even if there was no way to economically recycle them.
With limited markets and rising costs for recycling, calls for reducing use and outright bans are gaining traction.
“Pretend we did recycle 100 percent of plastic,” said Laura Ludwig, the Marine Debris and Plastics Program coordinator at the Center for Coastal Studies. “What would that look like?” The quality of the plastic degrades after it is recycled, she explained, rendering it more likely to break down into micro-plastics.
“Our focus,” said Ludwig, “should be on not making or using single-use plastics in the first place.”