Beginning in the mid-1970’s, a handful of city and town governments throughout the U.S. decided to implement programs in which people could separate their household paper, glass, aluminum and some plastics from the rest of their household garbage. The city’s sanitation departments would collect the recyclable materials separately from household garbage.

Throughout the course of the 1980’s and the 1990’s, more and more cities, towns and counties throughout the U.S. implemented similar programs, and today, almost every city in the U.S. operates programs in which residents, as well as businesses, can separate recyclable materials from their garbage.

These programs have in fact been very successful, billions of tons of paper, glass, aluminum and plastics have been kept out of landfills and are being recycled every year.  The garbage which cannot be recycled continues to be burned or sent to landfills, and the materials which can be recycled are sent to paper, glass, metal and plastic recycling companies.


Specifically, the recycling programs that most towns, cities, and counties operate have become very successful at recycling paper, glass, aluminum, polyethylene terephthalate (PETE/ resin code # 1) plastics and high-density polyethylene (HDPE/ resin code # 2) plastics.

The processes of recycling polyvinyl chloride (PVC/ resin code # 3)low-density polyethylene (LDPE/ resin code # 4)polypropylene (PP/ resin code # 5)polystyrene (PS/ resin code # 6)polycarbonate, acrylic, nylonpolylactic acid (PLA/ coded as resin code # 7), polyamide (coded as “PA”), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (coded as “ABS”) are more complex and costlier than recycling PET and HDPE plastics, so fewer cities and towns include plastics #’s 3 through 7, PA and ABS in their recycling programs.

In recent years, an increasing number of towns have been accepting plastics numbers 3 through 7, but in many counties, cities, and towns in many states, plastics #’s 3 through 7, as well as PA and ABS plastics from households as well as businesses, are not accepted in the municipal recycling, and millions of tons of products which are made from those plastics continue to end up in our landfills.

In some cities, counties, and towns, the city governments directly operate the local departments of sanitation, while in other municipalities, the city, town or county governments contract with private carting and recycling companies.

It is always the legislators within the local governments who decide what items are to be included in local recycling programs, and this decision will remain in the hands of local governments until the Federal government decides to consider enacting legislation that would require that all forms of plastics be included in recycling programs throughout the entire U.S.

As long as there are no requirements from our Federal government or from the state governments in many states for individual counties, cities, and towns to include all forms of plastics in their municipal recycling programs, the legislatures with the individual county, city and town governments have very few reasons at all to expand their municipal recycling programs to include more materials such as plastics #’s 3 through 7, so we’re likely to continue to see plastics ending up in landfills throughout the country.

I just want to say one word to you

There are a number of ways that this can work.  Ultimately, I’m hoping that the Federal EPA will enact legislation that would require that all recyclable plastics need be recycled and that they’ll include a realistic timeline for counties, cities, and towns to comply, however, this issue seems to be of notably low priority for the Trump Administration.

If our Federal government is going to drag their heels with regard to enacting legislation that would require more comprehensive recycling requirements, then I’m hoping that our town, village, city, county and state governments will do so.

The economics of municipal recycling is complex.  In some instances, the cities’ and towns’ departments of sanitation have to pay recycling companies to recycle the materials (glass, aluminum, plastics, paper, etc.) that they are bringing to them each week.  In other instances, the recycling facilities actually pay the local departments of sanitation because the recycling companies end up profiting from recycling household waste into new products.

The process of recycling plastics  3 through 7 is costly, but recycling produces its own economic advantages, insofar as millions of tons of materials are now being recycled into new products rather than ending up dumped into landfills.  We also have to think about the costs of continuing to not recycle plastics 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, PA and ABS plastics.

We use hundreds of products that are made from these plastics so frequently that few of us probably even realize the full extent to which these products are involved in almost everything we use in our daily routines.

When products that are made from these forms of plastics end up landfills, they decompose slowly over the course of many decades.  During the process of decomposition, numerous chemicals are released; the lighter chemicals float up into our air, the heavier chemicals seep into the soil, and rain and snow carry these chemicals into streams, rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes, bays, harbors and ultimately into the oceans.  Once these chemicals enter into our water supply, they permeate almost every aspect of various ecosystems- including microbes, plants that absorb these chemicals through their roots, animals that are dependent upon the plants, and ultimately, humans who breath air which has been contaminated with industrial chemicals and these same chemicals can find their way into our water supply too.

The processes by which industrial pollutants and chemicals from landfills gradually permeate into various ecosystems is very well understood by scientists throughout the world today, and scientists are continuing to research numerous topics relating to how to balance modern industries with the preservation of naturally occurring ecosystems throughout the world.

In the U.S., we still don’t know how we’re going to be able to clean up many of the superfund sites that have resulted from industrial contamination from the 20th century.  We won’t be able to solve all of the problems relating to balancing the interests of modern industrialization, the needs of the growing population of the 21st century and the preservation of delicate ecosystems throughout the world overnight, but proposing, discussing and ultimately hopefully enacting legislation that will require that all forms of plastics be recycled throughout the U.S. is one issue that can be very easily solved because the technologies that will be needed to implement this have all been well understood since the 1980’s.

European recycling programs have been largely successful

By contrast, since the 1990’s, the governments in many of the countries in Europe have enacted legislation which requires that more forms of plastics be recycled.  Most of the European programs have been largely successful; there are still quite a few problems related to toxic industrial contaminants throughout Europe, but chemicals which are directly related to plastics #’s 3 through 7 have been reduced since the recycling programs have been implemented.  More goods are being manufactured from recycled plastics throughout Europe, and the recycling industry has become quite lucrative now.  The

More goods are being manufactured from recycled plastics throughout Europe, and the recycling industry has become quite lucrative now.  The Plastics 2020 program in the U.K. is an example of a program in which numerous industries cooperated together to find uses for the various forms of recyclable plastics.

One of the easiest way to prevent the need for more superfund sites in future decades is simply to write to your candidates for elections in the upcoming years and let them know that while cleaning up the existing superfund sites and the cumulative industrial contaminants from the previous century are notably complex issues with no easy solutions, enacting legislation that would require that the municipal recycling programs in all counties, cities, and towns throughout the U.S. be expanded to include plastics #’s 3 through 7 as well as PA and ABS plastics is very easily solvable because the technologies that are needed to recycle these materials have all existed since the 1990’s.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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