Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Waste and Recycling- Turning Problems into Opportunities

April 9, 2019

Patricia DeMarco statement to Allegheny County Council

As a fellow elected Official from the Borough of Forest Hills, I recognize the obligation we have to plan for the needs of our community, for both the current and future citizens. We in the local government level are closest to the needs of people, and have the best opportunity to engage in enlightened change.  We are facing twin existential crises in our time in global warming and global pollution, especially from plastics.  Changes in federal trade policies and in China’s restrictions on accepting waste with less than 1% contamination have created a looming crisis in trash management as municipalities across the country face significant changes in the rules. Most material collected through single stream recycling becomes cross-contaminated and increasingly ends up in landfills.

The 139 communities in Allegheny County are each struggling to understand options and cost impact of the changes in recycling rules.  People want to recycle, but “aspirational recycling” leads to inappropriate mixing of materials that are not accepted. The change in the rules of recycling present an opportunity for us to work together collectively to find a better solution. 

  1. Better metrics.  We do not have a good understanding of the components of the entire waste stream. The last comprehensive study was published by the EPA in 2009, and updates are not available to date. That study indicates that Municipal Solid Waste is a small part of the overall waste problem. There may be significant regional and local variations in the components of the waste stream that will be important to understand. The US produces around 236 million tons of municipal waste each year, but numbers for industrial waste are less clear, with some estimates as high as 7.6 billion tons per year. Plastic packaging represents about 65% of household trash. is important to know what we are dealing with both in amounts and sources. 
  • Restrict single-use plastics. Several communities have enacted bans on the use of single-use plastics such as shopping bags, plastic straws and stirrers, and Styrofoam containers. Over 95 pieces of legislation have been enacted in 2019 addressing recycling and single-use plastics ranging from the Maine requirement to provide receptacles for convenient return of plastic bags to California where several restrictions passed by referendum. Models of actions taken at all levels of government are available, and options tailored to the waste stream of this area can be developed.
  • Increase fines for litter.A huge amount of plastic materials litter the streets and are washed into the rivers. We have seen the graphic and tragic results of ocean creatures harmed and killed by ingesting plastic material. Plastics that will endure for hundreds of years are used for short-term, single purpose objects like plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic or Styrofoam containers. The material has not been suited to the function intended. So much material ends up on the edges of roads, streets, yards, blowing around to be caught in tree branches.  If we raise the fines for littering to $1000 per incident and enforce the law by making offenders clean up litter, we can raise awareness of the harm from throwing material into public spaces.
  • Create economic opportunities for circular material management. Less than 0.1% of recycled material is returned to a useful product. Fossil resources from natural gas liquids or petroleum distillates are manufactured into products designed for a single use, and then become trash. There is an ethical component of this business model that uses plastics – a material that will last for hundreds of years in the environment- for products designed to be used for minutes. As the frantic build-out of the ethane cracker plant complex in western PA and Ohio and West Virginia continues its slog through the regulatory process, we who have responsibility to the citizens’ health and well-being must ask the questions about designing these products to be re-used, re-purposed or re-claimed. Does the output need to be feedstock for further single-use packaging material? Can we intervene in this process and require accountability for the design so the end result is not an additional billion tons per year of material designed to be trash?
  • Reclaim and re-use.If we can separate and collect materials such as glass and certain parts of the plastics stream, there are opportunities for new business development.  Pittsburgh was once a center for glass manufacture and has a long legacy of innovation in materials management.  Pittsburgh has nine EPA Green Chemistry Award winners in both academic and private sector categories. Can we develop a materials industry that does not rely on fossil feed stocks? Can we use some waste plastics to fabricate feed for 3-D printing? Are there other industries that can emerge around a circular materials management system?  We need to explore these ideas as a way to generate economic opportunities drawn from what is now a growing problem.

Clearly a matter of such complexity will not be resolved by any municipality acting alone.  I would like to ask the Allegheny County Council to establish a Special Task Force to investigate the best ways to address the waste issue, both from the perspective of source reduction and from the perspective of creating a path to reuse and repurposing materials.  We must address both industrial and municipal wastes. And we must create a culture of care among the public to stop the wanton discard of trash. The 29 CONNECT municipalities surrounding Pittsburgh have established a new Working Group on Economic Development and the Environment to begin addressing these issues together.  I hope the Allegheny County Council can establish leadership in addressing this issue.

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