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EARTHWATCH : No Wasting Away : Instead of sitting in landfills, plastic containers can be made into pier pilings, park benches and other products.

March 07, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Next time you're on the freeway and boxed in between a couple of semitrailer trucks from the grocery chains, here is a way to take your mind off your claustrophobia for a moment.

Just imagine they are taking their cargoes to the dump. Well, if they're carrying soft drinks, milk, peanut butter--anything in plastic containers--they are. After a pause at the grocery store and a few seconds of being emptied at your house, that entire volume of "stuff" is off to the landfill. Almost a third of the waste we're paying a fortune to dump or incinerate is plastic containers.

But now I have a happy end for your little freeway meditation. Imagine you're fishing from a pier at Point Hueneme or Santa Barbara. Imagine lolling on a park bench in Ventura enjoying the sun, or in Pasadena watching the Rose Parade pass by. Even though you don't notice it, the plastic containers are still there. They've been recycled. One semitrailer's cargo of milk containers equals one park bench. And the food and drink containers in the other trucks blocking your view have become the pier pilings where you're fishing.

But back to reality and the freeway. Off at the next exit and into the office, the mall or home. The fantasies about leisure activities have vanished but the items made of recycled plastic remain.

Take those recycling bins at the office or supermarket--they're recycled plastic items themselves. And the newer makes of garbage bags. TV cassettes aren't specially marked, nor is the hairdo on the kid's doll, the distributor on your car or the insulation in your walls, but all are made from recycled plastic.

So here's a little something to think about while you're collecting your soda bottles for "California redemption" or bundling milk containers off to the recycling center. In this country we use a billion barrels of oil annually to make plastics. If we didn't, we could cut oil imports in half, by the way. By recycling any plastic we reduce dependence on foreign sources.

And the very thing that makes plastic such a problem is what appeals most to the people who run Port Hueneme or Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. Plastic pilings last. Plastic is the ultimate good news/bad news story. When it goes into the landfill it's there forever. When it goes into the pier or the park bench it's there forever.

Last fall, Ventura parks department people saw some plastic benches in San Diego and bought a few to test their durability. Pasadena did this a few years ago and now has 50. They are graffiti-proof (it just takes soap and water) and virtually indestructible. But they look just like wood. I was amazed.

Last month a new law went into effect, mandating increased use of recycled plastic in our state. This and other laws have gotten California into the lead in the nation in making packagers and bag makers use "post consumer" (rescued from going into the landfill) plastic. So we're getting near 40% savings of beverage containers and going for 30% on grocery and trash bags in the next four years.

The big grocery chains, by the way, are now buying bags from manufacturers who use recycled products. Read the print on the bag next time. Don't settle for "biodegradable." That's turned out to be a non-starter (not even hot dogs degrade in a landfill). Ask about "made of recycled plastic."

But it's important for all of us to start making the distinction between things made of new plastic and recycled plastic. Recycled is better for us all.

* FYI

* Retailers interested in using recycled plastic bags can call Bags Again, (415) 571-5511, or Envirothene, (213) 859-7874, or Plascopress, (213) 969-1545.

* Benches (wholesale) from Coast Turf and Utility (714) 976-6330. The city of Ventura has installed plastic benches at Belaire Linear Park at the corner of Petit Avenue and Halifax Street and at Arroyo Verde Park at Foothill and Day roads.

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