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By 2015, the world had produced 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste. Of that, the 2017 study notes that only about 9 percent has been recycled.
More than 90% of the plastic waste has been buried in landfills, burned in incinerators or ended up littering lands, rivers and oceans.
Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have found that it takes from about 10 to 600 years for plastic objects to biodegrade in the environment.
Recycling has always been considered a part of the solution to the problem of plastic pollution. But American recycling is facing a crisis since China in January 2018 announced it would sharply limit plastic imports. The move sparks questions about what actually can be recycled and how plastic waste is handled in Allegheny County.
These bottles and jugs in the dairy section at Giant Eagle Market District on Centre Avenue are still collected by the recyclers in Allegheny County — as long as they aren’t larger than 3 gallons. But their lids and tabs are not.
Emily Palmer, the zero waste events manager of the Pennsylvania Resources Council [PRC], shows a brochure advocating the use of reusable products instead of paper-coated cups, plastic products and mylar bags.
PRC favors reusable products because many non-reusable products end up in the environment. Palmer is at ReuseFest, held April 20 on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Plastic products and other waste dumped on 40th Street in Lawrenceville. Plastic bags and sheets like these are not recyclable. There’s no market for them as raw materials, and they clog up the sorting machines in recycling facilities.
Plastic water bottles like this one on 40th Street can be recycled and should be dropped in the recycle bin. However, the PRC advocates replacing disposable bottles with those that can be refilled.
A mixture of tree branches, plastic products and other waste stuck behind a mooring cell for coal barges in the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh’s Hot Metal Bridge.
Plastic can remain in the environment for hundreds of years. Eventually it will break down into microplastics that can enter the food chain. Animals, and eventually people, can ingest microplastics that might be coated with harmful chemicals.
Melissa Mason uses a garbage picker to grab a discarded plastic bag during a Millvale street cleanup with volunteers on Earth Day. Plastic bags like this one can’t be recycled.
Volunteer Taylor Erickson fishes a piece of polystyrene foam from a garbage patch that is stuck behind a mooring cell in the Monongahela River. She’s riding on the Rachel Carson, a pontoon boat used by Allegheny CleanWays to remove garbage from the river.
Evan Clark is trying to grab a plastic barrel that is stuck in a garbage patch near the Hot Metal Bridge. Clark is a boat captain at Allegheny CleanWays and has made hundreds of cleanup trips. He estimates that about 75 percent of the waste the project recovers is plastic.
A woman drops off some hard-to-recycle products at ReuseFest on April 20 on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Four volunteers participating in a Millvale street cleanup on April 20. From left to right: Melissa Mason, Millvale Mayor Brian Spoales, Lisa Bradley and Donna Pearson.
A man throws a plastic water bottle in a recycling container at a collection point for the City of Pittsburgh at Construction Junction. From here, trucks take the recyclables to a material recycling facility in Hazelwood where the glass, plastics and cans have to be separated.
A truck from the City of Pittsburgh collecting recyclables from blue bins in an alley in Bloomfield. These recyclables are taken to a material recycling facility in Hazelwood.
Recycling programs favor the blue bins over the blue plastic bags that are not recyclable and clog up sorting machines.
A truck from Waste Management dumps a load of recyclables – cardboard, plastics, paper, cans and shattered glass — on the tipping floor of the company’s Materials Recovery Facility at Neville Island.
Waste Management collects recyclables in many communities in the North Hills and South Hills.
According to the most recent South Hills contracts, Waste Management no longer collects glass and mixed plastics.
Plastic bags, including the blue recycling bags, are the first objects that need to be separated from the recycling stream at Waste Management’s facility on Neville Island.
Erika Deyarmin-Young, spokesperson for Waste Management, stands in front of a freshly dumped pile of recyclables at the tipping floor of the recycling facility at Neville Island. This is the result of single-stream recycling, where materials are mixed together and need to be separated in a labor-intensive process.
Before the mid-1990s plastics, glass and paper were usually collected separately. This simplified the process at the recycling facilities and made it easier to resell the collected materials.
Single stream became the norm as China was willing to import the resulting mix of recyclables. But China’s 2018 policy change sharply limited the ability of recycling companies to export plastics there.
Bales of plastic No. 2 are piled on top of each other at the recycling facility at Neville Island.
Waste Management says it has identified domestic customers who buy and reuse these plastics to make new products.
Deyarmin-Young stands in front of a pile of bales containing plastic No. 1 at the recycling facility at Neville Island.
Waste Management now sells the bales domestically.
A recycling container in Construction Junction’s drop-off lot in North Point Breeze. The poster shows the bottles, cans, tubs, jugs and jars that can be recycled in the City of Pittsburgh.
This piece of art — depicting a baby raccoon — was made from discarded plastic objects by the Portuguese artist Bordalo II. It is attached to the building occupied by Construction Junction. The organization promotes conservation through reuse of building materials.
Text and photos by Teake Zuidema.
Fact-checked by Harinee Suthakar.
Design & development by Natasha Vicens.
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