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Where are our plastics really going?

By Scott Mechura EBS COLUMNIST

Everyone knew a kid growing up that was a little weird. Or maybe something about their house or family was weird.

Well, in an odd sort of way, I was a weird kid.

This was the late 1970s and my friends would come over and rally me to  get out my bike or my bat and glove to head to baseball. Along the side of my garage were several brown grocery bags and cardboard boxes.

In them were aluminum cans, glass bottles, newspapers and other paper such as magazines and junk mail, all lined up and separated.

“Why do you have all this trash in your garage?” my friends would ask. 

“It’s recycling,” I’d say.

And them: “What’s that?”

My mother was a green pioneer and the practice of recycling has been so ingrained in my psyche that to this day it’s difficult to simply toss one of these materials in the garbage.

But I’ve been asking this question more and more the last decade: How do we know they really recycle? 

According to a 2017 Science Advances paper entitled “Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made,” only around 9 percent of all plastic wastes had been recycled. The overwhelming majority of plastic produced globally ends up in landfills in poorer countries by way of wealthier countries paying them to take it off our hands—or it ends up in the ocean.

Also in 2017, China quit taking plastics back for recycling. So how much less of our plastic is actually recycled than the 9 percent we arrived at in 2017? 

It makes us feel good, but in the end it could just be a pyric victory. 

In the American neighborhood, what we’ve done is create a second bin to keep on our properties to hold more and more plastics that can’t be recycled. And that bin is made out of plastic. Another example of the irony of man’s folly.

Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, we were encouraged (I remember it more like pressured, actually) to move from those awful, tree-killing brown bags, to the beautiful, sleek, white plastic bags of the future. Something tells me some plastic manufacturing conglomerates spent some money in Washington for a little added push. 

Some restaurants I’ve worked in recycle and others have not, and it always felt good when we did but was also an immense hassle. It requires additional bins—large bins—that need to fit somewhere and in general adds more procedures to an already busy kitchen. And much of the empty containers that go into the recycling bins are very dirty. And dirty containers just get sent to the trash at recycling facilities anyway.

It’s a forward-facing practice that looks good to guests, but is simultaneously hypocritical. For instance, at one property I worked at, we couldn’t have Keurigs because the pods were wasteful and weren’t part of our “brand.” Yet the amount of everything that we simply threw away far exceeded any brand value of guests poo-pooing disposable Keurig cups.

There is much more to be written on this subject and I intend to.

A very memorable line from the 1967 film “The Graduate” seemed to peer into our present-day reality: “There’s a great future in plastics. You think about it.”

Well, I have thought about it a great deal and they are our future, just not the way they were intended.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry as well as a former certified beer judge. 

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