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The Message in the Bottles

August 09, 2003

Those ubiquitous plastic water bottles are just the tip of the landfill.

As noted in a recent state report, Californians have a dismal record when it comes to properly disposing of the water bottles they can't leave home without, recycling just 16% of them. Three million bottles a day get tossed in the trash. That's 1 billion bottles a year that could have been turned into fibers and used to weave carpet, stuff ski jackets and make bristles for paint brushes, instead of taking up valuable space in rapidly filling city and county dumps.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the most troubling matter in the California Integrated Waste Management Board report. More vexing is how to dispose of all the other types of plastic that aren't easily or economically remade into marketable goods.

The use of plastics exploded in the 1960s, around the time a cinematic Los Angeles businessman dispensed his now famous advice to Dustin Hoffman's befuddled college graduate: "Just one word -- 'plastics.' " By 1979, the amount of plastic manufactured surpassed that of steel. Of course its presence in landfills also burgeoned. In 1960, plastic made up just 0.5% of the nation's solid waste stream; by 1999, despite two decades of recycling, it was 13.8%.

Leo Baekeland's 1907 invention made the list of the top 100 news stories of the 20th century for good reason. Without plastics there would be no revolutionary heart valves, computer chips or fighter planes, no Saran wrap, nylon stockings or Silly Putty. Featherweight plastics have, in fact, replaced bulkier containers and packaging that would have taken up even more space in landfills. But plastic's durable strengths are also its weaknesses. When thrown away, it does not break down. Most of the plastic that goes into the landfill -- or on roadsides, in storm drains and in the ocean -- stays there. Because petroleum-based plastic is so cheap to produce, recycling has historically been less economical than with steel, aluminum, glass and even paper.

The plastics in water and soda bottles (coded PET, PETE or 1) and in milk and detergent bottles (HDPE or 2) are recycling success stories -- when they make it into the blue bins. But plastic wrap and rigid plastic trays, to name two examples, are often too soiled to be cheaply recycled or have too limited a market to make the cost worthwhile. California, according to the state waste board's report, does not have a plan for dealing with their ever-growing volume.

Putting more recycling bins in city parks and offices would make recycling water bottles as convenient for joggers and workers as curbside pickup has made it at home. But that's just part of the answer. To keep plastic out of landfills, today's sage would have not just one word of advice but three for elected officials, businesses and consumers alike. Recycle, yes, but also reduce and reuse.

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