By Donella Meadows
–November 2, 1989–
Schoolkids from Vermont to Brooklyn are learning a new skill this fall — how to separate polystyrene plates, cups, and cutlery from the rest of their cafeteria garbage, so the plastic can be recycled. The same lesson is being taught to customers at McDonald’s restaurants in New England. Paper napkins and uneaten French fries go in THAT bin. Plastic Big Mac containers go in THAT one over there.
In these first months of shakedown, the second-graders are doing better than the hamburger-eating public, says Karen Hilo, who watches the discarded fastfoodware flow into the Plastics Again plant in Leominster, Massachusetts. As procurement manager she would like no paper, please, no glass, no other kind of plastic. Plastics Again aims to produce clean polystyrene flakes to be melted down and reused.
The Leominster plant can process 3 million pounds of polystyrene per year. So far enough schools and restaurants have signed up to supply about a quarter of that capacity. But the number of recycling institutions is going up fast. It will skyrocket if the McDonald’s experiment is extended throughout the nation. The owners of Plastics Again (the leading producers of polystyrene, including Amoco, Dow, and ARCO) are planning four more plants — in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and northern and southern California. By 1995 they expect to reprocess 250 million pounds of polystyrene per year, about one in every four hot cups, foam trays, and burger boxes used in the food service industry.
Dartmouth College is considering entering the Plastics Again program. Dartmouth already recycles paper, glass, and aluminum. It has been looking for a way to reduce its plastic outflow. It’s wondering whether Plastics Again is the way to go.
Personally I have my doubts. I’m watching this highly publicized venture with very mixed feelings.
It’s certainly better to recycle than to send plastic to landfills and incinerators. It’s great to teach young people to take thought for the environment as they toss away the incredible volume of dross they generate with every cafeteria meal. But as environmental education this program is very limited. As a solution to the nation’s solid waste problem it’s trivial. As recycling it’s hokum.
The citizens of the twenty-first century need to be taught to do more than separate at the moment of discard the materials that flow through their lives. They need to understand the long path that brought those materials into their hands, and the path that will follow after the stuff is deposited in the bin labeled “plastics.”
They should see in every disposable fork an oil well up in the Arctic wilderness, a pipeline crossing a thousand miles of tundra, a tanker threading through the straits of Valdez, a refinery creating toxic wastes on the Gulf coast, a chemical plant polymerizing styrene into long polystyrene chains, a fabricator pressing polystyrene beads into utensils, and a truck delivering crates of plastic to the local school. (Dartmouth’s two main cafes purchase 900,000 polystyrene knives, forks, and spoons a year. Then there are the cups, plates, and salad containers. And the beer cups in the fraternities.)
All that for about ten minutes of active use. Then into the bin and off to Plastics Again.
Not, unfortunately, to come back as another fork or burger box — that WOULD be recycling. For sanitary reasons the Food and Drug Administration does not allow “post-consumer” materials to come into contact with food. So the reclaimed polystyrene will be made into flower pots, yo-yos, in-baskets, tape dispensers, car stops, garbage cans, and bright-colored laminate for the tops of thumbtacks.
There are great educational opportunities in this cradle-to-grave view of cafeteria plastic. For example, here’s an arithmetic question: If the Plastics Again program recycles 250,000 pounds of polystyrene foodware each year, and that’s one-fourth of the total stream, how much is left for cities and towns still to deal with? A harder question that needs some research: What difference will it make to the national trash problem? (Answers: 750,000 pounds of polystyrene foodware will still go to the dump; Plastics Again will relieve the nation of about one percent of all its PLASTIC trash; about 0.07 percent of its TOTAL trash.)
It would also be instructive for students to consider the consequences of a flow of products with 10-minute lifetimes into products with lifetimes of months or years. How long will it take for the relentless stream of fastfoodware to glut the market for flower pots, yo-yos and thumbtacks?
I don’t mean to discourage students or citizens from recycling, nor to make them feel insignificant. Quite the contrary. Public pressure caused the Plastics Again program to be born. Industry is taking this step only because it is scared to death of the citizen boycotts of styrofoam foodware and the rising number of city and state bans on plastic food packaging.
What I’d like students to learn is that they can think through better solutions to the trash problem than the one handed to them by the industry whose survival depends upon the continued use of all that disposable polystyrene.
For example, for about 200 years Dartmouth students ate from washable, reusable dishes. The College abandoned that gracious practice not because of labor cost, but because of pilferage. Students (whose education costs about $20,000 a year) were absconding with somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the cafeteria dishes each term.
Here there are not only environmental lessons, there are moral ones, starting with Thou Shalt Not Steal, and if you do, your College shall not cover over your sin with disposable dishes and assuage your conscience with a gimmicky recycling program. And thou shalt use with care the resources of the earth. And (a rule my household manages to live with) thou shalt clean up thine own dirty dishes, not leave them for someone else to wash, or to truck to the dump, or even to recycle.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989