EDITORIAL: What’s it made of?

THIS WEEK MARKS the season’s last great migration of holiday trash to the curb. Garbage bags huddle beside the tall recycling bins that line county sidewalks and roadsides. The bins await the embrace of robot arms that toss their waste into hauling truck hoppers. Will China change this?

Last month the Chinese government said it would no longer accept foreign trash. This is not an idle threat. China is the world’s largest recycler, and the U.S. exports millions of tons of plastics and electronics waste, among other trash, to Chinese recycling factories. The Chinese public doesn’t like all the pollution that comes from those “recyclables” we send them. Makes you wonder where our unwanted plastics will go if not there.

We have a busy public recycling program here in Columbia County. If you don’t want to use a private hauling company, you can take your recyclables to one of the waste transfer stations operated around the county by the Columbia County Solid Waste Department.

Right now residents aren’t charged for recycling at county facilities. But if China closes its borders to our emigrant recyclables, our free ride might end. One of the options for the solid waste industry is burning plastics to make energy. It’s a great idea except that burning plastics releases chemicals called dioxins and furans, which are some of the most toxic chemicals ever created. Older readers might remember a chemical compound with dioxins used by the U.S. in Vietnam called Agent Orange.

The topic of burning plastics came up in the last couple of weeks when Hartford, CT, officials were looking to send municipal waste, including plastic, to an out-of-state incinerator. Included on the list of possible incinerators prepared by a consultant was the furnace used to heat the kiln at the LaFargeHolcim cement plant in Ravena in southern Albany County.

From a practical point of view think of how cheap it would be for Columbia County to float our recyclables from the Town of Stuyvesant, which lies across the Hudson River from Ravena, to the cement plant. Too bad the wind blows from west to east, which means we’d get the type of pollution in our backyards that the Chinese don’t want in theirs.

LaFargeHolcim ran a large ad in the Times Union newspaper last week stating that the company has no plans to burn municipal waste at its Ravena plant and did not agree to have its plant named as a possible garbage incineration site. The Times Union confirmed that the company has not asked the state for changes that would allow the plant to burn garbage.

That’s a relief but those of us who use plastics are still responsible for what happens to these synthetic materials when we’re done with them. That’s everybody’s job. The object of accepting that responsibility is not to rid our lives or our planet of plastics. That’s not practical or desirable. And any set of conditions that would cause plastics to disappear on their own would most likely remove human beings from the picture too.

We all can pat ourselves on the back for diverting more than ever from landfills and sending the stuff instead to wherever the trucks take it or to the dumpsters at transfer stations. But that’s a poor way to measure progress toward leaving the county a little less messy than the way we found it. The real success will come from using less to begin with.

In Chatham last summer there was an effort to raise awareness about the glut of plastics. It was called the Plastic Purge Campaign and ran in conjunction with the Chatham Real Food Co-Op. The organizers even offered to analyze people’s garbage. It was a good start but it serves as a reminder that we can’t depend on others to restrain our desire for more plastic. We have to do that ourselves.

It might be as simple as a belated New Year’s resolution to take bags with you when you shop. (Guys, I know you can do this.) It might also be part of decisions about what you buy: like pausing to consider the kind of packaging used and what the product itself is made of.

Don’t think of this as saving the world. Think of it as exercising the power you have as a consumer. The companies that bring us a world of plastic things don’t care about your politics or your values. They track what you buy and they desperately want to know why you buy something and why you don’t.

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