Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere

4:44 minutes

a pile of food waste including cardboard, coffee cups, apples, and soda cans
Credit: Shutterstock

state of science icon

This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. Original reporting on this story by Erin Ross appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it’s getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown.

The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn’t recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state.

This doesn’t mean that Oregonians aren’t passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult.

“The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said.

It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s a national — even global — issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.

One silver lining: after Oregon raised the deposit on beverage containers covered by the bottle bill, recycling rates of glass, aluminum, and plastic bottles rose dramatically. Still, Oregon is having trouble finding places to purchase and repurpose even those recycled goods. Increasingly, that waste is being burned in “waste-to-energy” facilities.

While the Department of Environmental Quality counts material burned in waste-to-energy facilities among their total amounts of “recovered” waste, Environment Oregon does not. According to the report, that’s because burning a metric ton of recyclables in an incinerator produces 15 times more carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that’s contributing to global warming — than plastic waste in a landfill.

Meiffren-Swango said that means there’s only one way to decrease the amount of weight going into landfills and being burned in “waste-to-energy” facilities: consumers need to stop using it. But that doesn’t seem to be happening: although the amount of waste produced per-person in Oregon dropped dramatically from 2007-09, coinciding with the Great Recession, it has slowly but steadily grown ever since.

But the report says that’s the exact opposite of what it should be doing. With the “recycle” part of “reduce, re-use, recycle” increasingly becoming less viable, Meiffren-Swango said “we need to be focusing on ways we can actually reduce in the first place.”

Segment Guests

Erin Ross

Erin Ross is a science reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. She’s based in Portland, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to check in on The State Of Science.


SPEAKER 1: This is [? KERN ?] News.

SPEAKER 2: For [? WWNO– ?]

SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio.


SPEAKER 5: Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. You know, this time of the year, chances are good that you’ll find the 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s playing somewhere. Remember this prescient prediction?


– We’re listening, Sam.

– Well, look, I have a big deal coming up that’s going to make us all rich. George, do you remember that night in Martini’s bar when you told me you’d read someplace about making plastics out of soybeans?


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, as predicted, plastics became a huge business. But we never foresaw the huge problem of getting rid of them, right? And we all thought, well, we’ll just recycle them. And as we know, it’s not turning out to be that easy. Joining me now to talk about what plastics are doing to waste management in Oregon is Erin Ross, a science writer and researcher at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Welcome.


IRA FLATOW: So tell us. There’s a new report out on Oregon state recycling levels. How is it doing?

ERIN ROSS: Not great. The data is from 2017. That’s the most recent year we have numbers for. And the percent of waste that’s being recycled or composted has declined. It’s down to just about a quarter. About 27% of our waste is recycled. And that’s a little lower than 2016 and almost 5% lower than 2014.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So what what’s causing the drop?

ERIN ROSS: It’s mostly the collapse of international markets. So sorting and cleaning recycling is really expensive. So for a long time, the US would just send bails of plastic to China, where it would sometimes be recycled, and it was a lot cheaper than doing it here.

But near the end of 2017, China stopped accepting these products. It just wasn’t financially viable for them to keep on recycling plastic, which was often contaminated and impure. So other countries started accepting it. And the US just kind of started shipping it to other places.

But like in the case of Malaysia, they just shipped it right back. They didn’t want our contaminated plastic. So now, sometimes it’s burned.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And we know that plastics are a growing component of our waste, right? So there’s more and more of it.

ERIN ROSS: Exactly. And we’re also making more waste. When we came out of– when we were in the recession, our waste production dropped nationally. And then we’re buying more. We’re making more waste.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s not a question of just doing a better job of sorting the things at home– you know, bin for plastic number one and then for number two, stuff like that.

ERIN ROSS: No, unfortunately, and this actually kind of blew my mind when I learned it. But even supposedly pure plastics are contaminated. So two number one soda bottles might not be recyclable together. And since plastics can only be recycled so many times before they lose their value, it’s kind of always been this red herring.

IRA FLATOW: Wait a minute. So I’m not sure. This number one bottle and a second number one bottle may not be the same plastic.

ERIN ROSS: Yeah. Yeah, they might not be the same plastic, which is really wild.

IRA FLATOW: That is wild. And it’s not that the people in Oregon are bad. The state bottle bill has been very successful, right?

ERIN ROSS: Yeah, so Oregon had the first bottle bill in the country, which is where consumers pay a deposit on like glass or aluminum or plastic, and then they get it back when they return the empties to the state. And it’s always been really successful. And in 2017, actually, the year that we have this data from, Oregon raised the deposit. And so now almost all bottle bill eligible materials are recycled.

So that kind of makes this drop in total recycling levels, though, even more of poignant, because we’re doing a lot better at recycling some things. So even with that increase, we’re still losing ground overall. We’re still making more waste.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. So what are they suggesting that people do? Is there anything they can do other than using less stuff?

ERIN ROSS: Unfortunately, there isn’t, really. For a long time, people who study recycling have been warning us that plastic recycling just really wasn’t feasible long term. So reducing is always the best option.

We can also always try to reuse. So if you get, say, a yogurt tub, trying to repurpose that for something, using it for leftovers. It’s getting at least one more life that way.

IRA FLATOW: I found that you can really reuse a big Ziploc bag a few times if it’s not really that dirty, just holding some big things in it sometimes. So that’s my suggestion.

ERIN ROSS: Yeah, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Erin Ross, thank you for taking time to be with us today. Erin Ross, science writer and researcher at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, have a good weekend. We’re going to take a break and when we come back, the strange behaviors of the sun.

There is a Parker Solar Probe, it’s called. And it’s sending back its first data. It’s the closest thing we’ve ever sent to the sun. And some interesting findings that were unexpected are coming back in the data.

So stay with us. We’ll talk with some of the mission scientists after the break. Don’t go away.

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