Wake up: Plastic is washing up on our shores and recycling isn’t necessarily helping. Here’s why

The young osprey was euthanized after its left wing was injured in its Gloucester Point nest by a plastic fishing line. (WYDaily/ Courtesy David Malmquist)
This young osprey was euthanized after its left wing was injured in its Gloucester Point nest by a plastic fishing line. (Southside Daily/ Courtesy David Malmquist)

Carl Thomas has been surfing for more than 50 years, but his time at the beach has changed recently as a 20-minute walk in the sand has led him to start collecting pockets full of bottle caps.

“We’ve made a mess of it,” he said. “Plastics were a great thing but now it’s coming back in many ways to threaten not only the environment but our well-being as part of our planet.”

Thomas, a senior environmental specialist for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in the Tidewater Regional Office, has become more concerned each year as greater amounts of plastic float into Virginia waterways. But now this concern has become even greater as China, previously the largest recycling manufacturer for the nation, has stopped accepting America’s plastic, Thomas said.

Why? Because it’s dirty.

“China didn’t want to become America’s trash can,” Thomas said. “Things like pizza boxes, with impurities that will ruin entire units of recyclables, can’t be recycled because when they’re broken down they will have that oil and grease in it.”

Thomas said each locality has lists online of what can and can’t be recycled. But many of those lists are contradictory to what the recycling plants list as being appropriate for recycling, which can lead to confusion for residents.

Often people are throwing items into their recycling bins, putting them out on the curb and thinking their job is done, he said.

But there’s much more to the story.

“Some of the challenges occur before people even put them on the step to be picked up,” said Calandra Waters Lake, director of sustainability at William and Mary. “You have to follow what providers say that they can take. If too many people put what they don’t know can be recycled into the bins, then it puts a strain on the recycling company.”

Odd items that might not be recyclable include peanut butter jars and egg cartons and even bottle caps if they’re not attached to the bottles. But each provider has different regulations and residents’ lack of awareness could start to cause an even bigger problem as less is shipped to China and more stays at home.

“We have to be better steward of our households to ensure that whatever we put in the blue bins is going to fit in the requirements,” Thomas said.

Recyclers receive a lot of plastic but they only want what can be marketable, Thomas said. This means recyclables that can be used to make new items.

(Southside daily file photo/Courtesy of Pixabay)
(Southside daily file photo/Courtesy of Pixabay)

But a large portion of plastic they receive are classified in categories three through seven, meaning they are a hard plastic. These are plastics like yogurt containers or styrofoam cups.

So when these items are tossed into the bin and taken to the recycling center, they can either cause issues with manufacturing equipment or cause greater amounts of sorting time, Thomas said.

That’s part of the reason China didn’t want to accept waste from the United States anymore and it now puts the problem back onto our own shores, of which Virginia has many.

“In a community that is really tied to water we are seeing greater impact of our waste and our plastics especially,” she said. “So now when we are throwing out our items, we really have to stop and think—what happens to that item when we’re done with it?”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.