Editorial: What we need is a war on trash

Published: 5/16/2019 12:05:24 AM

A growing number of New Hampshire communities, among them Bow, Franklin and Laconia, have dumped recycling. It’s easy to see why. China once bought roughly half of America’s recyclables. It buys comparatively little today for several reasons. Single-stream recycling increased participation, but it didn’t change human nature. Bales of recyclables were often too contaminated with greasy pizza boxes, Styrofoam, plastic bags, etc., to reprocess. Then the Chinese discovered that the lax pollution laws that allowed them to process recyclables poisoned their landscape and harmed the health of nearby residents.

So, where are we now? Only a few materials are currently worth reprocessing: aluminum, tin, steel and sometimes cardboard, but not glass and newsprint. There is no “away” to throw things.

Viewing the current recycling dilemma as a short-term problem that can be fixed with better laws, technology and improved human behavior is misguided. The solution for a world awash in waste lies in producing far less stuff that needs to be recycled. Efforts to do that are underway, though they are strenuously opposed by industries dependent on a throw-away society.

In the meantime, every effort helps, from banning plastic bags and straws and composting food waste to actually sorting rather than guessing which types of plastic, based on the number impressed into them, are recyclable and which aren’t.

New Hampshire lags behind neighboring states in what should be a war on trash. Maine has banned the white Styrofoam clamshell containers used by fast food outlets, and some of its communities have banned single-use plastic bags, as have California and Hawaii. Many communities in Massachusetts and Vermont have done likewise. State bans are likely to follow, as is the imposition of per-bag fees. When England imposed a charge on every single-use bag, usage dropped by 80%.

New Hampshire should ignore industry lobbying and enact a bottle deposit bill. Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and seven other states already do. According to an article in Scientific American, states with bottle bills have a 60% recovery rate compared to 24% in states without one.

Such efforts, however, given the scale of the problem, are virtuous window dressing. To shrink the waste stream will take enacting 21st-century, environmental and climate-friendly laws governing packaging. Like coal-fired power plants and other polluting industries, manufacturers and the packaging industry have been allowed to dump their external costs on local taxpayers. When a manufacturer encloses a product in a package many sizes larger than necessary or in a package that defies recycling, it shifts the cost of disposal to taxpayers.

Cereal rarely fills more than two-thirds of a box. A little bottle of pills comes in a cardboard container three or four times its size. Some pasta comes in boxes with a plastic window, which means that unlike a box with a picture of pasta, it can’t be recycled. Blister and clamshell packs reduce theft but cause, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, millions of injuries each year, including some that have led to amputation. The packaging can’t be recycled. Its use should be severely restricted.

Making packaging recyclable isn’t enough. Soda bottles that become carpeting, fake lumber and clothing eventually wind up in landfills because they cannot be recycled again. Efforts on many fronts are being made to create containers that compost in weeks or months and edible containers, straws, utensils and packaging.

Consumers who care about the future of the planet should demand packaging that doesn’t end up in a landfill. The solution to recycling lies in making it unnecessary.




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