Too much plastic, so what do we do?

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When The Best of the Animals cassette finally begins to drag and garble, what is a music lover to do with the tired old companion? The actual cassette unit holding the tape and the case it came in are both plastic and not recyclable around here. Thrown in the trash and thence to a landfill, the tape that served you well for so long would probably disintegrate first. The cassette and its case will eventually shatter and crumble, but the shards might outlast democracy as we know it. Left to natural processes, they will lie there for centuries heaped in a lonely landfill with thousands of toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, Styrofoam take-out boxes and plastic bags because they do not naturally biodegrade.

Our world is awash with used plastic. Once our mid-20th Century industries figured out the usefulness of plastic, they manufactured tons of products and wrapping to package them in because it was easy. For years, we applauded ourselves for our plastic ingenuity, but we have learned we got a step ahead of ourselves. Lincoln Logs will decompose, but a plastic toy tugboat from the ‘50s or a Lego spaceship from the ‘90s will not.

Our excess necessitated new industries to find new uses for our excess. Over time, communities in most parts of the country established recycling centers and began collecting some plastic items along with weekly trash pickups.

Entrepreneurs figured out how to clean and chip plastic items into pellets, which could then be re-melted and spun into new products such as trays and dustpans, engineering components, clothes hangers, flowerpots, park benches and even clothing. A company in Waco makes plastic composite railroad ties, and one in Springdale combines certain plastics with leftover wood fiber to make durable composite lumber products. A researcher in India figured out how to combine plastic, asphalt and aggregate for surfacing roads.

These innovations will make a critical difference in reducing the flow of plastics into the waste stream. Nevertheless, an obstacle for these researchers and entrepreneurs is the nature of polymers. Plastics are synthetic polymers, which are, according to Live Science, “materials made of long, repeating chains of molecules. The materials have unique properties, depending on the type of molecules being bonded and how they are bonded.”

Different polymers behave differently, and when different plastics are melted together, their distinct polymers separate like oil and water. Therefore, not all plastic items are attractive for end users who fabricate products from our recycled plastics, and that means a local recycler such Carroll County Solid Waste Authority must have a market for the plastic it collects.

Clever manufacturers are at work resolving this chemical dilemma, but in the meantime, some recyclers, such as those in our corner of Arkansas, do not have a nearby market for any plastic items except #1s and #2s.

Many products we take home from our markets are in #4 or #5 plastic containers, so unless they are reused they go in the trash. We send to the landfill tubs for yogurt, miso and sour cream, little plastic fruit cups, tubes for toothpaste and shampoo, bags for bird seed, potting soil and water softener salt… all thrown into the big pile with old clocks and calculators, CD cases, cheap picture frames, broken toys and enough one-use straws to circle the globe.