Commentary: CRWP plastic recycling program in jeopardy

For three years now, the Copper River Watershed Project has been facilitating plastic recycling events and developing a plan to expand recycling capacity in Cordova. In November 2019, CRWP was awarded a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation for $50,000 to purchase a baler and conveyor belt, which is crucial for effective recycling activities in our town. Our future baler will enable us to diversify our recycling efforts.

However, it may come as a surprise to many Cordovans that after much research and consideration, the plastic recycling program is in jeopardy due to serious global-wide concerns that recycling plastic is doing more environmental harm than good. We are in a state of crisis in managing our plastic waste in North America. This realization has not been easy, especially when the Copper River Watershed Project had worked so hard towards keeping plastic recycling efforts moving forward.

The reality is that for quite some time, and unbeknownst to most environmentally conscious Americans, the majority of all plastic sent from the United States to Asia for recycling under lax environmental regulations, has not been actually recycled. In fact, plastic is quite possibly a major contributor to the marine debris problem we now face.

In the wake of China’s National Sword policy, plastic that was being sent to China for recycling is either being sent to landfills in the US or it is being sent to developing Southeast Asian countries where it is likely being “recycled” in illegal recycling facilities. These illegal recycling facilities do not follow any environmental regulations and often end up dumping plastic or burning it when their facilities become overwhelmed or when governmental authorities get wind of the illegal facility.

However, even before China’s National Sword policy went into effect, waste plastic has been finding its way into other SE Asian countries for the past 20 years. For example, if the plastic was of such low quality that a recycler in China wouldn’t buy it, there were and still are potential buyers in communities in Indonesia that use the material as a source of fuel in Tofu-making operations because plastic waste is often times the cheapest burnable resource available.

Being the host organization for plastic recycling in Cordova, we understand the seriousness of this responsibility if we offer a plastic recycling program. The citizens of Cordova are trusting us to make sure that your recyclables are recycled so that they reduce your environmental impact.

As an organization that advocates for healthy waterways, we cannot turn a blind eye to the hard truths being uncovered and advertised across international news media about the fraught recycling system in the United States and the real global implications.

Research efforts into determining exact pathways and termination points of plastics baled and recycled have uncovered troubling issues with our Nationwide plastic “recycling.” By continuing to recycle plastic, evidence strongly suggests we as a nation may actually do more harm than good because we are simply passing the problem onto countries less fortunate than ours and we are avoiding the inevitable changes society will need to make if we really want to do what is best for the environment.

To be clear, CRWP has no intention of abandoning our commitment to reducing waste in the Copper River watershed. If and when there is infrastructure in the US to support a circular economy for plastic recycling under strict environmental guidelines, CRWP will have the equipment in place for plastic recycling. In the meantime, we will use the baler to recycle aluminum, possibly steel cans, and to significantly expand our fishing web recycling program. We have identified buyers with whom we are confident will recycle the material under protocols we can be proud of.

To help Cordovans reduce dependence on plastic, CRWP will be developing programs that help residents of the watershed reduce their consumption of single-use plastics and to investigate options for using “recyclable” resources locally, but we need your help! We understand that as a community not connected to the road system, we face some challenges ahead, but we hope that collectively we can share ideas and options to reduce our dependence on plastic and have a truly positive impact.

My hope is that by the time my generation has grandkids, single-use plastic packaging will be as obsolete as cord telephones, VHS tapes and floppy disks are now. What a time it will be when we are making funny videos (if cell phone cameras are even still a thing!) of kids when they see a 20-year-old single-use plastic relic and marvel at the strange material that created the great marine debris crisis of the 21st century!

Please stay tuned for future communications as we are developing our recycling program with our incoming baler and please reach out with any ideas on what things we can do as a community to reduce our single-use plastic consumption in Cordova.

For questions or concerns, please contact Shae Bowman at the Copper River Watershed Project at 424-3334 or shae@copperriver.org.