The Struggle with Plastic: Why Recycling is not the Reliable Solution

I went to India a few years ago and saw many wonderful things. But this was not one.

Monkeys were being relocated from urban centers to a refuge in the countryside and the area was covered in all kinds of litter.
Towns were also covered in debris, including dry river beds. During monsoon season, all the trash flows into the Indian Ocean.
South Pacific uninhabited island beach
Uninhabited atolls in the Pacific Ocean have trash strewn beaches, all from debris washed to sea. Source: Kolomthota


Dead albatross Midway Atoll
Seabirds as well as ocean creatures are found with plastic trash in their stomachs. Mistaken for food, they obviously die from starvation if not clogged digestive systems. Source:


Croatian national park beach
And in case you think it is only our Pacific Rim neighbors with bad habits, even the  Adriatic Sea has its similar issues when winter currents brings trash to a national park in Croatia. Source: Tourist board of Mljet
WV roadside trash
And we are well aware that not all of our own neighbors practice good trash disposal habits. This photo was taken in West Virginia but it could be almost anywhere here in the United States.


recology truck
Here in McMinnville we have waste removal service that tries to provide the answer. Recology trucks come though our neighborhoods so we can have curbside pickup for items that are recyclable, a separate collection specifically for glass, more for yard waste, and then those items that are destined for the landfill.


And we’ve had it easy. Except for the glass, we are not required to sort our recyclable items. We dump it all in our bins and the trucks take them to the center.


Prior to a recent decision, all these unsorted recyclables were bundled up and sent to China.

However, China recently decided that the mixture they received from us and other areas throughout North America were too contaminated to be useful to them. In other words, that greasy pizza box, those unwashed cans of baked beans, those paper plates from the picnic with the residual potato salad on it all has added up to undesirable trash.

China-map-no recyclables
Source: Packaging Digest

It is time we realize we haven to stop exporting our garbage to China…or anywhere….and take responsibility for it.  So, how do we compare with other nations?

top 25 countries
We can see with this chart that the US is not a leader. However, there are also some discrepancies on how some of these other nations consider their recyclable methods. Some, for example, include metals that are obtained after the incineration process.  Source: World Economic Forum
top 10 countries plastic recycling
So, adjusting to make sure the comparison is the same, we can see that Germany, for example, drops from over 65% to well over 55% , still not shabby behavior on a national level at this time. Source: World Economic Forum

So, how can we here in the United States and more specifically, in McMinnville, improve how we handle our trash?

ttal plastics
The first step is to understand that most of the plastic that was ever produced is still with us.

We have to understand that just because the piece of plastic says it is



Oh sure, there are some items that are recycled from plastic.  Some  toys, some decking and other outdoor furniture all hold up well. But by and large, we are not addressing the manufacturing market on this issue here in the US.

vermont woods furntirue
Vermont Woods Studios‘s colorful Polywood all-weather outdoor furniture is made from over 90% recycled materials!  Source:

Other nations are ahead of us. Perhaps it is poverty that drives creativity.

Recyclable plastics are melted and then reshaped into the bricks. This $6,800 house was built from recycled bricks in just 5 days.  Source: Conceptos Plásticos

Perhaps there are issues with building codes, but it is amazing to see the way people in Mexico and Central America are developing low cost housing options that use plastic, either melted and formed into interlocking bricks or building a frame with wire to hold soda bottles and then stuccoing the exterior!

plastic-bottle-house stucco

When I saw these houses, understanding we have a different climate and building codes, I believe we might have a low cost solution for housing the homeless.  We certainly have plenty of plastic.

Another exciting use of plastic is turning it into a paving medium. Whether is it low-tech like this road in India

plastic road India
Source: Jamshedpur (India) Utility and Services Company

or this higher-tech version being considered in The Netherlands, perhaps potholes could be a thing of the past.

dutch plastic road

It appears that we could take advantage of our 50 year dependence on plastic to build a new industry here in the United States that will improve infrastructure issues.

But now, we also need to REDUCE our use of plastics. This will be the significant step to getting this world wide trash problem under control.

think glocbal act local




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