Earth Day 2019: Recycling: ‘The whole nine yards’

Earth Day, which is just around the corner, is a time for celebrating Earth. One day during the year is designated for doing just that, this day being April 22nd.

Every year here at the Air Quality Matters blog since 2013, a post (or two) has been devoted to this day. Ditto for 2019. In fact, in keeping the tradition going and with regard to keeping Earth’s well-being in mind, the main thrust of today’s post has to do with recycling.

But, this isn’t just about recycling. It’s also about what the industry is going through right now. The outlook doesn’t look particularly encouraging – the industry seems to be in a state of retreat, suffering from withdrawal symptoms if you will – as we shall see as detailed in what is depicted below.

Person amidst washed-up-on-shore-debris, Hawaii

The nitty gritty

Recycling, no doubt, resulted from the impetus to reduce the amount of waste ending up in landfills and from our collective caring for – and our growing concern over – the environment, the latter in more ways than one not only in terms of reducing the quantity of landfill waste itself but also decreasing the amount of methane released into the atmosphere from said waste.

As to the landfill-produced methane gas released, methods at controlling or capturing the CH4 are getting better all the time. In fact, landfill-produced methane capture or recovery efficiency, according to information in the California Greenhouse Gas Emissions for 2000 to 2016: Trends of Emissions and Other Indicators (aka 2018 Edition, California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory: 2000 – 2016) report from the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board, is estimated to be 75 percent in California, a number consistent with national trends.1

All that glitters is not gold

Landfill, Perth, Western Australia

Meanwhile, and also according to data in the same report, the amount of solid waste in California ending up in landfills is once again on the rise2, this after years of positive progress made (meaning the direction of the trend had been negative) in this regard, such rise beginning in 2012, with such being roughly 38 million tons in 2000, climbing to 45 million tons (a peak) in 2005, falling to 30 million tons in 2012 and then reversing course and reaching and surpassing the 35 million tons mark in 2016.

Partly attributing to this is the fact that China, apparently, has stopped accepting all recyclable material from the U.S., the recyclable items accordingly receiving additional processing. China, up until only recently, had accepted vast quantities of America’s recyclable waste product.

In response, some discards destined for recycling get redirected to incinerators and end up being burned instead or, as would be expected, is trashed and finds its way to landfills.

Insourcing?

But, it is at this juncture that the question that needs to be asked – a most important question – is: The recyclable refuse that was being exported to China for further handling and processing, whatever the amount the Asian nation accepted and whatever steps were involved in the handling thereof and in processing, what rhyme, reason or rule could there possibly be to prevent all of this from being done here at home? What is being referred to here is the notion of insourcing.

The point is raised because there is every reason to believe that the appropriate handling and processing of this material could be insourced, meaning being handled and processed domestically.

Furthermore, some of the material, plastics in particular, can be converted for other uses. For more on this see: “CATS [Clean Air Technologies Series]: Turning plastics into petrol a far-fetched idea … not!” here.

Biodegradable plastics

The best of all possible worlds is designing and engineering in the ability for manufactured material to break down (degrade) over time in the environment. Where plastics are concerned, this is extremely apropos.

Rest assured research is being conducted at this time with this in mind. One solution, taking plant material and transforming it into plastic was highlighted on the network television show 60 Minutes on Jan. 6, 2019.

For plastics, the trick is to find suitable ingredients for use in the manufacture of such, ingredients that enable such material to decompose in a non-toxic way in the environment, neither harming the Earth nor the people that inhabit it – us. For more related to this, see: “SAPS [Sustainable Agricultural Practices Series]: Stanford scientists use novel approach to get ‘green’ plastics from CO2, ag-waste mix” here.

No better time

And, what better time is there than Earth Day 2019 to bring all of this (the whole nine yards) to the fore and into sharp focus?!

Notes

  1. Notes (or addendum) to the “Recycling and Waste” subsection, 2018 Edition, California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory: 2000 – 2016, from the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board, p. 15
  2. Ibid, “Figure 18. Landfill Waste,” p. 15
Montgomery County, Maryland, Municipal recycling facility

Images: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (top); Ashley Felton (middle); USEPA (bottom)

As originally stated above, Earth Day was misstated as being on April 20th. This post has now been updated and includes the correct information and was last revised on Apr. 4, 2019 @ 7:18 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

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