Friday, March 23, 2012

Plastics - Green Washing Recycling

The increasing media attention to plastic pollution is an encouraging sign.  One by one cities are implementing plastic bag bans or use fees.   The plight of the oceanic garbage patches have reached mainstream media.   But plastic consumption is still rising, one study estimates that by 2015 individual usage in North America and Europe will increase by 40%, in Asia it is closer to 50%.  We already have a major plastics problem, so what are we to do with all this additional plastic?

By now, everyone has heard of the 3 R's, but it seems more attention, even by major environmental groups, is being paid to the third and last R – RECYCLE.  On a recent trip to The National Zoo, I noticed the following “informational” trash can:

Doesn’t it give you the warm fuzzies?  “Look ma, it’s OK to buy plastic water bottles because look at how much energy we are saving by recycling!”  So that got me thinking, aren’t  they just green washing the truth?  Why not tell us how much energy we can save by reusing and NOT buying and recycling a single-use plastic bottle.

I thought this would be an easy task, but after scouring the internet for a few hours, I found only one study that attempted to estimate the energy required to produce plastic (PET) water bottles.   

The 2009 Pacific Institute report, Energy Implications of Bottled Water (, breaks down the energy required for each phase of production.  Their findings show that it takes 5.6 – 10.2 MJ of energy to manufacture, treat, fill, and transport for a single 1 L plastic water bottle.  In comparison, tap water takes 0.005 MJ/L to produce.

Energy intensity (MJth/ L)
Manufacture plastic bottle
Treatment at bottling plant
Fill, label, and seal bottle
Transportation: range from three scenarios

So how does that compare to our sign claiming recycling a single bottle can power a 60-watt bulb for 6 hours?  If we take the average of the energy required from the study, 7.9 MJ/L, and convert that to watt-hours (1 watt-hour = 3600 J), you can power a single 60-watt light bulb for approximately 37 HOURS

Extrapolating by assuming that every American uses 200 plastic bottles/year, that is equal to powering a 60-watt bulb for 308 DAYS

Unlike most of our plastic problems, this solution is easy: bring and refill your own reusable bottle.  So why are we not advocating that little fact more? 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Recycling, So Easy My Mom Can Do It!

I never realized how lucky I was to live in DC with curbside recycling. All I need to do is separate and carry my recyclables a few feet and poof it magically disappear.

According to a 2009 EPA study approximately 9,000 community curbside recycling programs exist in United States, increase over reported 2002 figure of 8,875 That still leaves a lot of people without any means to recycle, so it's no wonder that we are still sending 131 millions tons of trash to landfills each year. (

While recently visiting my parents, I learned that they have to drive up to 7 miles to find the nearest recycling trailer! My parents already started composting their food waste (I did encourage adding in the coffee grounds), but we needed to work on the metal, glass, and plastic waste.

First up, those annoying plastic bags!

I have to hand it to my mom, she is doing good by taking her excess plastic bags (the ones she didn't line the garbage cans with) back to the store to be recycled.  I explained that even if those bags were being recycled (and I'm not convinced they are), wouldn't it be better to simply reuse the bags you already have?  So on her weekly trip to the grocery store, we gathered up her extra bags to reuse at the checkout.  Success!  The trick, of course, will be to make sure she remembers to take the bags or better yet get her enough reusable bags to keep in her car.

Baby steps my friends, baby steps!

Next up: Reducing!