PLASTIC: HISTORY, WASTE MANAGEMENT, AND INTERVIEW WITH DENISE BARNES OF ROGUE DISPOSAL AND RECYCLING
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
DISCLAIMER: Interviewees are not paid by nor affiliated with Rogue Pouch and do not lay claim to endorsing our products. Interviewees’ comments are based exclusively on specific experience within their industry of focus, like the recycling industry. Interviewees’ comments should not be taken as an endorsement of Rogue Pouch or our products in any way.
Humans have a complicated relationship with plastic. We have enjoyed it for over a century for its convenience and cost effectiveness, but we have also frowned upon it for its tricky and sometimes unclear interactions with our environment and our bodies. I myself have oscillated between willful ignorance and hyper-focused hysteria on the topic, using plastics without thought and then shunning them over the BPA scare. It can be difficult to find a balance with such a complex issue. But it’s important to remember that tools are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong – it’s all about how we use them. Plastic is a tool, and for the foreseeable future, it’s here to stay. So, it’s our duty to figure out how best to use it.
HISTORY OF PLASTIC
Plastic was created in 1869 as a response to the strain on the natural supply of ivory in the world. Billiard balls were in high demand, so John Wesley Hyatt answered the call to find a suitable replacement for ivory. He created the first synthetic polymer by treating cotton fiber-derived cellulose with camphor. This revolutionary invention was well received, and almost immediately praised as the “savior of the elephant and the tortoise [… that] could protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need.”
In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic, called Bakelite. It had practical applications in the booming electrical industry as a durable, heat resistant insulator suited for mass production of cable wire. And this “material of a thousand uses” quickly inspired investors to seek out new polymers.
World War II brought along with it a growing need for plastic, from war materials to lucrative products that contributed to maintaining the U.S. economy. Some estimates state that during WWII, U.S. plastic production increased by up to 300%. And for many years after the war, the inexpensive and highly versatile material enjoyed overwhelmingly positive attention.
But by the 1960’s the first plastic debris was observed in the ocean, and the growing tide of environmentalism changed the collective attitude toward plastics. No longer was it viewed as the answer to so many questions. Now it was starting to be seen as a troubling waste problem.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s plastic’s reputation did not improve as consumers began to understand the implications of plastic use: although many plastics are disposable and reusable, plastic remains in the environment for a very long time. Recycling programs were born in the 1980’s, but from their inception to today these programs have fallen short in terms of solving our plastic problem. In the last decade alone, “plastic production has outpaced recycling 5:1.”
PLASTICS TODAY AND TOMORROW: RECYCLING CHALLENGES
I spoke with Denise Barnes, the Community Outreach Coordinator for Rogue Disposal and Recycling and an expert in the recycling industry with over 30 years under her belt. I asked her to identify some of the main problems faced by recyclers today and her reply was unsurprising: plastics. “Probably the biggest problem that we encounter with plastics is the wrong type of plastics getting put in the cart… “[People] see the triangle on a piece of plastic with a number in it and they think that triangle with the chasing arrows means that it’s recyclable. [But] all those triangles are, with the numbers inside of them, are resin identification codes. They identify the type of chemicals that make up that plastic.”
Most plastics # 3-7 are not recyclable at all, due in part to a lack of demand for these materials. Only a small amount of plastics # 1-2 are recycled, mostly because these plastics are often mixed with other types of plastic, and these contaminated loads must be put in a landfill instead of being recycled. Denise gave me some sage advice about recycling for the average customer: “It’s important to know what your hauler wants. Make sure you’re putting the right thing in your cart. That’s the most important thing a customer can do.”
Denise wishes people knew more about the recycling process, but she knows how tough it can be when we are so disconnected from the waste we create. We put out our carts and the waste disappears overnight. We don’t really have to think about it. But there are at least a few simple steps we can take to increase our consciousness on the issue. Customers can contact their local recycler to find out what goes in the cart and what stays out. We can make use of the nifty stickers recyclers often put on our carts that use words and pictures to notify us of what belongs and what doesn’t. We can even call our local recycling facilities and ask for a tour to learn more.
The resin codes #1-7 help in the sorting of recyclable materials, but they do not even begin to address the thousands of other types of plastics in the world today, including the plastic materials made from mixing different types of plastics together. But the situation isn’t entirely bleak. Multi-layer flexible plastics have received industry attention that has created recyclability innovations:
· Cornell University has created a new additive that melds different types of plastics together, which could help the efficiency of plastic recycling.
· Saperatec, based in Bielfeld, Germany, promotes a micro-emulsion technology that can separate the layers inherent to a multi-layered structure in order to recover each of the individual components.
· DuPont has created a new formula, called Entira EP, which is intended for use in making inherently incompatible polymers compatible. So far DuPont has focused on mixed waste streams containing polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE), and the company is currently developing more formulations to address other polymer mixtures as they move forward.
Even though these innovations come with limitations, most notable of which are high water usage, lack of infrastructure, and lack of consumer education, they just might be a valuable piece in solving our puzzling plastic waste problem. Once again, Denise enlightened me with her industry experience concerning flexible plastic packaging:
“Flex packaging has many positive environmental attributes, even though it is not recyclable at this time… “For example: the flex packaging that coffee comes in, it’s this little pouch, [it has] the lowest energy consumption, the lowest CO2 emissions [to produce it], and the least amount of bulk in municipal solid waste. So that flexible pouch, even though it’s not recyclable [whereas steel coffee cans and plastic coffee containers are], it still beats them out every time when you give that a rating of environmental impacts. It’s still better for the environment even though it can’t be recycled.”
And then my wizened interviewee blew my mind. Denise told me: “Recyclability is poor indicator of environmental impacts.” WHAT?! How is that possible? Like many others, I thought recycling was the best thing to do to support the environment. But it turns out, it’s all about life-cycle assessments. Denise put it this way:
“…We’re learning that sometimes we’re asking the wrong questions… We’re learning that we need to look at the whole life-cycle from extraction to manufacturing, to transportation, to disposal and recycling. We have to look at the whole life-cycle of a product, the environmental impacts along the way, not just what happens to it at the end of its life. We have to start thinking differently.”
So, while it is a great idea to figure out the recycling industry in order to recycle more plastics in general, an even better idea that is currently 100% feasible is to reduce the amount of plastics we use in the first place.
Flexible plastic packaging can be a solution to the issues of environmental impacts, bulk, and storage limitations within the recycling chain. Think about this: a flexible plastic package filled with tuna takes up significantly less space on a transport vehicle, store shelf, or in a landfill than a can of tuna. Plastic isn’t perfect, but it is presently an important and inevitable part of our future.
FLEXIBLE PLASTIC PACKAGING IN THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY
Not all flexible plastic packaging is created equal. In the cannabis industry this fact can lead to waste problems caused by double bagging, single-use of plastic materials, and unnecessary use of multiple containers throughout the supply chain. It all comes down to over-consumption of plastics.
Common plastic packaging films, like clear vacuum-seal bags come on rolls that can be cut to size and heat-sealed with a countertop unit. Likely, we’ve all seen these before. These plastics are often composed of multiple layers, like nylon and polyethylene. But in a test at 0% relative humidity over a 24-hour period, nylon allows for an oxygen transmission rate (OTR) of up to 40, and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) allows for oxygen transmission rates of up to 8500 (units measured as cc/m2/24hr/0%RH).
These numbers are unacceptable at best, and abysmal at worst when it comes to packaging cannabis, as exposure to oxygen is one of the top three reasons why cannabis decays and loses potency. On top of this, the smell is not truly contained.
In comparison, when cannabis producers use multi-layer plastic packaging that contains EVOH (like our Rogue Pouches), the EVOH alone allows for OTR’s that are far less than nylon or LDPE combined. In the same test, EVOH allows for an OTR of just 0.19. You do the math: how many of the traditional, vacuum-seal bags would you have to use to achieve the OTR that EVOH alone provides? Would you be double, triple, or quadruple bagging your product to combat oxygen and contain smell? The answer is, yes. Clearly, these traditional vacuum-seal bags create a waste problem because they are not especially suited for cannabis. Using a superior, high-barrier product would significantly reduce the amount of plastic required for packaging in the first place, thereby reducing the environmental impacts of plastics in general.
Here’s another bonus when considering multi-layer, flexible plastic packaging like our Rogue Pouches – they are reusable! All our pouches are equipped with a zipper, which means you can use them over and over again.
In addition, producers can cure cannabis in these pouches – they can be opened and closed repeatedly to allow for “burping.” And at the end of the curing process, the very same bag can be used to store the cannabis until it is trimmed. It can then be heat-sealed for further storage or transportation of the trimmed bud, and once the heat seal is broken by the consumer, the zipper is still functional for further use. This means that a single Rogue Pouch can be used from curing to consumption and beyond, eliminating the transfer from drum or tote to turkey bag to retail packaging. This significantly reduces the amount of plastic packaging materials required for producing cannabis.
Whether we forge our futures in cannabis or elsewhere, it’s up to each one of us to do our part to ensure the sustainable and environmentally friendly use of plastics. Denise at Rogue Disposal and Recycling may have said it best:
“We’re not going to recycle our way out of our current plastic problem… we have to start thinking differently. You really do have to go back to the basics of reduce, reuse, and then recycle what you can. You have to go back to that, remembering that reducing is higher up on the hierarchy of best environmental practices. Reduction is the key.”
TIPS FOR REDUCING PLASTIC USE ON THE CANNABIS FARM
· Cure, package, and transport your cannabis in a single container – like our Rogue Pouches. Using high-barrier films also prevents the need for two-way humidity packs.
· Buy products such as mulch and compost in bulk and shop as local as possible to avoid using plastic bags or bags lined with plastic.
· Instead of purchasing new rolls of plastic trellis material, do a DIY project and make your own. Tie the plastic rings from six packs of soda cans together to make a trellis. Or simply wash and reuse the trellis material you already have.
· Consider switching to “dry farming.” Use only the water that nature provides and eliminate the need for PVC or other plastic-based irrigation systems.
· If your farm offers a break room for employees, make it a reduced-plastic zone. Provide metal utensils, ceramic mugs, plates, and bowls; switch from single-use coffee filters and pods to reusable filters and bulk grounds (go big by providing fair-trade or local coffee); install a water filter on the faucet to eliminate the need for a water cooler or plastic bottles. Get creative in your farm's eating space.
· Line trash cans with re-used paper bags instead of plastic garbage bags.
· Use rechargeable batteries. The fewer batteries you buy, the less plastic packaging you consume.