IRC eyes fix for recycling woes
Member: GACTC students could spark innovation to solve plastics problem
A member of the organization that coordinates recycling for the three central Blair County municipalities mandated to operate curbside programs wants to recruit young local talent to solve a problem that has frustrated recycling efforts.
The problem is “miscellaneous” plastics — most plastic packaging, except for bottles, which the IRC accepts at curbside, and film, which supermarkets accept in containers in their lobbies.
The rest — including the ubiquitous “clamshells” that hold cookies, pastries, berries and self-serve salads and the packaging that holds many small items from flashlights to scissors — are no longer accepted at the IRC’s compost facility at the Buckhorn. Since several Asian countries stopped accepting the plastics in early 2018 because of rampant contamination, it’s been hard to market.
IRC member Jim Patterson wants the IRC to encourage the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center to look into fixing the problem — perhaps by figuring out new uses for the hard-to-recycle plastics that now go into the trash in most homes.
Maybe GACTC can launch a pilot program for students inclined to study environmental issues — with topics that could include not only plastics recycling but also solar and wind power, Patterson said.
Miscellaneous plastics could be used in place of rocks in gabion baskets for shoring up streambanks, as an extender for asphalt or as building material in some form, Patterson suggested.
“There are a lot of bright kids over there,” Patterson said. “Give them a challenge.”
“Young minds respond to challenges,” IRC member Erik Cagle said.
Patterson’s overall idea is excellent, although the technical difficulties — coupled with environmental realities — make the problem of finding uses for miscellaneous plastics more difficult than it might seem, said IRC Executive Director John Frederick.
One issue with the idea of using it in gabion baskets or asphalt is the risk of it dissolving in the weather, running off with stormwater and adding to the microplastics pollution in the oceans, Frederick said.
Frederick places responsibility for a solution — and responsibility for having created the problem — on the plastics industry, which has made things worse since recycling took hold in the 1990s.
The problem is the numerous types of plastics that are incompatible for being recycled together. What’s needed is simplification, so consumers and recyclers can keep separate plastics and remanufacturers can get “the purity you need,” Frederick said.
Clamshells with No. 1 plastic, which is PolyEthylene Terephthalate (PET), and No. 6, which is polystyrene, not only look alike, the numbers that distinguish them within the familiar recycling triangle composed of arrows are small and hard to read.
No. 1 and No, 6 plastics have different melting points and can’t be recycled together, Frederick said.
PET tends to be used for items like cookies and berries and polystyrene for items like self-serve salads.
It would be better if clamshells were made of the same material, Frederick said.
Eggs are among the products that sometimes are in different kinds of plastic, Frederick indicated.
Worst of all are the “goofy” practices that include barrier layers and “sparkly wrappers” included in packages that are otherwise made of different, incompatible materials, he said.
Such hybrids are difficult to process, starting with the “picking” operation, if that is done by machine, he said.
“Meanwhile, the plastics packaging industry is making ungodly amounts of money, while the recycling industry tries to keep its head above water,” Frederick said.
There is a Design for Recyclability Guide, but the industry hasn’t used it wisely, according to Frederick. “There has to be some consideration for recyclability when designing.”
“The whole industry needs a reboot,” said IRC member Marla Marcinko. “I’m frustrated about what I can’t put into the (recycling) bin.”
The domestic recycling of miscellaneous plastic may be nowhere close to where it needs to be, but things are improving, said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, speaking to the Mirror several months ago.
The goal is to recover 100 percent of plastic packaging by 2040, Christman said.
The shutoff by Asian countries could help spur the innovation necessary, he predicted.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.