September 26, 2022 Submitted by Cleaner Greener Hingham
While you know that Hingham requires recycling, do you know what happens to your plastic when it is recycled? According to a recent article in The Atlantic, no matter how good a job we do as a town, the plastic recycling system is irreparably broken. As evidence, the authors cite the United States’ dismal 5% rate of recycled post-consumer plastic. They argue that plastic recycling is a complicated, toxic, and dangerous process that often isn’t cost-effective. As Hingham residents, we like to think that the recyclables that we so diligently clean, sort, and carry are being, well, recycled. Surely our rate must be higher than 5%? Our water bottles and takeout containers will go on to live a new life as useful materials. Right? The answer is…it’s complicated.
First, let’s talk about how much plastic moves through Hingham’s Transfer Station. For fiscal year 2022, Hingham sent 190 tons of plastics for recycling! That’s the equivalent of a Great Blue whale, a medium-sized house, or a locomotive engine.
But wait, that number doesn't include bulky rigid plastics (like lawn chairs and large toys), plastic shopping bags, or Styrofoam (another 25 tons). It also doesn’t consider the many residents whose recycling is handled by a private hauler. Since plastics are very light weight, you can imagine the space all this would take up.
Where does all that plastic go? The Hingham Transfer Station recycles plastics #1 - #7. These plastics are then bailed together and sent to a private recycling company. Loads that are clean will be accepted for recycling. Loads that are contaminated will be rejected. So, while we know how many loads were accepted and rejected, we don’t know how much of our plastic is truly being recycled.
Hingham plastics that are recycled may find new life as carpeting or construction materials. But many of these processes involve adding in “virgin plastic,” (newly created and not made from recycled plastics) which means more fossil fuel consumption. Rejected plastics will be landfilled or incinerated, which also leads to emissions.
However, there is a larger complicating factor. Hingham PAYS for plastic disposal. Recycling is a commodities business and prices change regularly. As of early June 2022, Hingham is paying $5-10/ton - plus $100 shipping per load - to dispose of plastic. While that amount is still less far than the $95/ton to dispose of the equivalent amount of trash, is all that plastic really necessary?
Given the environmental and economic costs of single-use plastics, it makes sense to reduce your consumption wherever you can. For example:
- Reject single use drink bottles and opt to bring your own reusable container
- Favor aluminum, glass, or paper packaging
- Frequent restaurants that provide paper or compostable take-out containers
- Pass along old items to be re-used or pickup items from the swap vs. purchasing new (kid’s toys, etc.)
190 tons is a lot of plastic. We can all do our part to bring that number down.