Oct 11 2010

Pique the Geek 20101010: Sustainability: Evil Plastic Bottles

Welcome to the third to last xx/xx/xx year in our lifetimes  Only next year and 2012 until we wait another 88 years for one.

Now that I have gotten your attention, actually MOST plastic bottles are not evil from a health and safety perspective, but the way that we use them certainly is evil.  I did say MOST, since by far the greatest number of plastic containers are made of polyethylene (PE, recycle code 2), polypropylene (PP, recycle code 5), or polyethylene terephthalate, (PET or PETE, recycle code 1).  These materials are not very apt to leach harmful materials into the contents.

Some plastics, notably polycarbonate (PC, recycle code 7 [7 is a catch all for “other”]) are apt to leach out harmful materials, particularly bisphenol A, strongly suspected as being an endocrine system disruptor because of its potential to mimic estrogen.  Polycarbonate containers are clear and usually thick, while PE and PP are translucent.  PETE is also clear, but usually quite a bit thinner than PC.  Just look at the recycle codes on the bottom.

This is not the topic for this evening.  As a matter of fact, I wrote a long post about the various plastics a year or more ago, and it is in the Big Orange archives somewhere.  The topic for this evening is what I consider to be the misuse of these wonderful materials.  This misuse has to do with them being thrown away and put into landfills in most cases.  There are at least three things wrong with this practice.

First, and this is in common with many other things that we use, such practices encourage a throwaway society where we use something once, then discard it.  That is in general a waste of resources.  Second, plastic containers, in the dark and anaerobic environment of a landfill, have essentially an infinite lifetime.  They just never go away.  Paper decays and releases methane which can be “mined” as a fuel source, but the plastic bottles just sit there.  This decreases the useful lifetime of a landfill because they always occupy space instead of decaying.  Third, the specific raw materials that go into plastic containers are too valuable to use once and discard.

All plastics are made of petroleum (including natural gas) feedstocks.  Obviously, these are nonrenewable resources, as opposed to paper which is renewable.  However, paper makes a pretty poor carton unless it is heavily impregnated with plastics, and that makes is just about as bad as plastic ones.  Glass is a good choice, since it is made from admittedly nonrenewable resources, but ones that are extremely abundant.  However, making glass is extremely energy intensive.

Plastics are unique in that they combine light weight and resistance to breakage along with ease of fabrication at relatively low temperatures, so they are not as energy intensive as glass, but unlike glass, plastics are essentially made of energy, in that they have a very high fuel value where glass does not.  Thus, a lot of energy we do NOT use to attain the extremely high temperatures to melt the raw materials for glassmaking we DO use as the container itself.  Thus we sort of have a zero sum game.

I am NOT against the sensible use of plastic containers.  However, sensible use does NOT include using a container once and throwing it away.  That makes no sense from a purely scientific viewpoint, but it makes a lot of sense when economics are considered.  Let us look back around 70 years or so.

At that time, you had only a few choices for containers, tin plated steel, glass, and paper products.  Liquid products for bulk consumption, such as soft drinks, milk, and beer all came, with extremely few exceptions, in reusable glass containers.  You would buy the product and pay a deposit for the container.  When you brought the container back, you could either use them for credit for additional containers, or just get your deposit back.  I am just a little young to remember milk bottles in common use, but soft drinks were available in returnable glass bottles.  This saves in energy costs for fabrication of new ones, but merchants always hated dealing with returnable containers.

They had to keep up with them, which requires clerical resources, store them, which requires space, and then someone had to pick them up for reuse, usually the dairy, brewery, or soft drink bottler.  Once the filler of the container received the empties, they had to clean and sterilize them for reuse, adding costs to their operations as well.  No one liked doing that, but it is the right thing to do.  When steel beverage cans were introduced, that was the beginning of the end for the returnable container.  As I recall, that was in the late 1930s and they were made very popular during World War II because they were much cheaper to ship than glass was, and could just be thrown away after draining.

Returnable soda bottles stayed around for quite a while, but, except for some very limited markets, are gone.  The last deposit bottles that I remember were the old returnable glass one liter Coca-Cola bottles, in use until the early 1980s.  Then the two liter, plastic bottle was introduced and returnables were phased out forever pretty much.  Now merchants did not have to devote resources to manage empty containers, and the bottlers no longer had to clean empties.  The same thing happened with beer, but with cheap, thin glass bottles rather than the thicker returnable longnecks (the ones without screw treads, but rather requiring a crimp cap).  I remember when I was a kid, my friend and I would go around my little town and pick up 10 ounce returnable soda bottles for quick cash (I remember deposits going from two cents, to five, and then to ten).  Glass beer bottles were everywhere, but no one bothered to pick them up since they were worthless.

The same thing applied to steel soda and beer cans.  The scrap value of them was less than it would cost to pick them up, so no one bothered.  That changed when the all aluminum can was introduced in the late 1970s, since they were worth the trouble of picking up and saving until you had enough to take to the recycling center.  Now days, you see lots of plastic and nonreturnable glass containers on the side of the road, but precious few aluminum cans because people scavenge them.  I think that we should reconsider for deposit containers.

California has a pretty good system.  Most beverage containers have a deposit (when I lived in Pasadena it was five cents) that you must pay when you buy the item.  Then, instead of burdening the merchant with managing the container, you take it to a recycling center.  Some of them are automated, so you just feed your containers into a chute, and the equipment scans it, segregates metal, glass, and plastic, and gives you a credit slip.  The one that I used was in the Ralph’s parking lot, so I could take my credit slip and Ralph’s would give me cash.  That works pretty well, but does not go far enough.

For one think, five cents is not enough to encourage compliance.  Second, many containers are exempt, for instance canned foods like soup and the like, certain alcoholic beverages, and milk.  I believe that essentially ALL containers should require a rather substantial deposit to encourage folks to recycle.  If we rely on the goodness of people’s hearts, recycling will NEVER realize its full potential.  An economic incentive is the only way for it to work, and during the first year or so, the deposits could be used to construct recycling centers near enough for essentially everyone to use.  This will only work if it implemented on a national scale, however.  If done state by state, states with high deposits will see an influx of containers from no or low deposit states.

As a matter of fact, a few years ago there was a scam where people were loading semi trailers with out of state containers and recycling them in California to get the CRV.  With plastic bottles, their profit, after fuel, was five cents per container.  The margin was not go good for aluminum cans, since they have intrinsic value.  My neighbor, Elmer, collects aluminum cans in a big way.  He tells me that it takes about 24 cans to make a pound, so at 48 cents per pound, he gets about two cents per can.  Thus, at that rate, the margin would only be three cents per can with the scam.  As I recall, those folks went to the big house.

Thus, this would have to implemented on a national level to reduce the frequency of such scams.  I would think that a deposit of around 50 cents to one dollar per container would be reasonable.  If you think about it, the cost to consumers would not really be very great at all, as containers already in their possession could be grandfathered in to they would not such a heavy out of pocket cost since their essentially worthless containers suddenly would be worth a buck.

I realize that this does not cover food wrappers and cups from fast food outlets, but we have to start somewhere.  With enough thought, there should be a way to address this as well.  These days, most of those containers are paper based, which is not nearly as environmentally bad nor as resource intensive as plastic, glass, and metal.  The benefits would be almost immediate.  Just about everyone would think twice before throwing out that empty soda or beer can.  Even when one went out the car window, someone would be there to pick it up, fast.  In California there is practically no litter from CRV eligible containers, because people having hard times will pick them up and get their five cents per item.  Imagine if that incentive were a dollar!

Also, it is much cheaper to recycle plastic, glass, and metal than it is to make new products, both in the energy required and the raw materials used.  Now, glass and plastic may not recycle back to new bottles, but metal will. The problem with plastic and glass is that there are so many different kinds that, without rather extensive and expensive separation efforts, properties that make for good containers can be degraded.  However, waste glass makes and excellent starting material for lots of things, like insulating air filled glass blocks and many other uses.  Since it is already glass, less energy is required to melt it than to melt the raw materials to make new glass.

Plastic is much more flexible.  It can be blended and extruded into plastic “boards” that have outstanding weather resistance and are already used for decking, playground equipment, and the like.  It will burn, and hotter than wood, so I do not see a big use in construction, but then again environmentally sound flame retardants can be added to reduce that hazard.  In addition, those containers can also be burnt directly to generate electricity, but that is sort of waste in my book.  The point is that both glass and plastic can replace other raw materials much more cheaply, especially if a stable and diffuse source can be developed, and this scheme would develop it well.

Metal is completely recyclable, and the energy required to recycle aluminum is just a few per cent of that required to make new aluminum.  Fortunately, much of the aluminum is already being recycled, but lots of steel containers are not yet.

We have limited resources of petroleum and metals, and it makes no sense just to throw a container away after using it once.  The technology for recycling is mature and I would think that quite a number of new jobs would be created if this sort of idea were adopted.  The financial incentive is the key to make it work.  This has a real advantage over curbside recycling, since the financial incentive would be a positive one rather than a negative one.  I know that I would much rather get money in my pocket by taking materials to a nearby recycling center than to get a penalty for not separating things at the curb.

Such programs, when well conceived and conducted, have been demonstrated to work.  For example, when I was a kid, most lead in use was virgin material from mines and smelters.  Now, almost all of lead used is recycled, mostly from old automobile batteries.  Last year I had to replace the battery in my vehicle.  After I had picked out the new one, the counter person asked me if I wanted to keep the old one, or to let them have it.  I asked how much it would cost for them to have it, since I really did not have a use for a bad battery.  He said, “Well, if we take it you get six dollars.”  I did not require much time to make a decision.  Now, I will admit that the demand for lead has declined on a per capita basis due to the reduction of it for plumbing applications, and especially to the reduction of lead to make tetraethyl lead, the antiknock compound in motor fuels that was phased out for the most part in the 1970s, but the fact remains that almost all of our current lead demand is met by recycling.

The time is ready to recycle these consumer products.  Maybe it does not sound like a lot, but with 300 millions of people in the United States, the collective impact will be tremendous after only a couple of years.  Landfill space would be used for things that are truly garbage and would cost more than it is worth to recycle, energy and raw materials would be conserved, and the litter problem would practically vanish if we can figure out what to do with fast food trash.

Well, you have done it again.  You have wasted many einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this trashy post.  And even though Cristine O’Donnell starts doing that nose twitch thing when she reads me say it, I always learn much more than I could ever possibly hope to teach by writing this series, so please keep those comments, questions, and especially corrections coming.  The comments are always the best part of these posts.  Remember, no technical or scientific issue is off topic in the comments.

On a completely different subject, everyone with taxable income is about to take a hit after the first of the year because the Congress did not act on the income tax rates.  It is almost certain that the current rates will be enacted into law, with or without that top income level being included.  The problem is that the new tax rate tables used to calculate withholding are already going out to payroll services and employers, so even if the Congress enacts a law to remain the same, it is likely that your withholding will be increased to the former levels.  There is an easy remedy:  file a new Form W-4 and claim an extra exemption to keep the dollar amount withheld about the same as it is now.  When the Congress enacts the extension and the new tables come out, file another Form W-4 to return to your old status.  Now, the risk is that the Congress will NOT enact an extension, so you will be underwithheld, so you will have to file one to increase your withholding so you do not get a penalty.  Any thoughts of that would be welcome.

Warmest regards,


Crossposted at Dailykos.com. and at Docudharma.com

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