Buried in Plastic
An escalating problem calls for collaboration and creative solutions
This article appears in the spring issue of University of Denver Magazine. Visit the magazine website for bonus content and to read this and other articles in their original format.
At GFL Environmental in Denver, paper, plastic, aluminum and miscellaneous items zip past workers on a recycling conveyor belt. The goal is simple, or so it seems: Grab the items that don’t belong.
There are plenty of them, and too many of them are made of plastic. Nonbiodegradable plastic.
Since 2020, the world has generated more than 8 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste, with over 25,000 tons winding up in oceans, reports the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Before the pandemic exacerbated the problem, the tonnage was already enough to clang alarm bells. In 2019, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes, global plastic-waste generation hit 353 million tons.
While China leads the world in CO2 emissions, the United States has the dubious distinction of leading in plastic waste. Americans produce a whopping 287 pounds per person annually, says a 2021 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
To the consternation of the state’s environmentalists, Colorado is among the 20 most wasteful states. That’s according to Eco-Cycle and CoPIRG, two groups interested in resource conservation. In 2020, Colorado’s recycling and composting rate was 15.3%—meaning 84.7% of the state’s waste went to landfills.
Meanwhile, the University of Denver’s diversion rate—the waste not sent to a landfill—stands at 21%, better than the state as a whole but under the national average of 32%. (In 2020, DU’s overall waste dropped dramatically because so few people were on campus during the first year of the pandemic.)
As Chancellor Jeremy Haefner sees it, the University can do better. He has been interested in a single-use plastic ban since before the pandemic and is now encouraging cross-campus collaboration to make it happen—the same kind of collaboration propelling the institution’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030.
Enter DU’s Center for Sustainability, started in 2012. It will convene those efforts, encapsulated in a #BreakFreeFromPlastic Campus Pledge that, among other things, calls for a task force of students, faculty and staff to develop a roadmap to significantly reduce plastic waste, and a procurement and purchasing policy that replaces single-use plastics with reusable or compostable items.
In her job as assistant director of sustainability programming, Emily Schosid works to push the University toward a more sustainable future. The Center for Sustainability does not buy plastic, but it does oversee 24 DU programs involving waste, energy, mobility, food, outdoor education and events.
An individual unit or person can say no to single-use plastics fairly easily, but a large institution faces significant challenges. The complex web of waste producers makes management especially tricky, Schosid says.
Consider: For a single-use plastics ban to be implemented on campus, contracted dining service Sodexo needs to be on board. While it has expressed support for the initiative, challenges remain. For example, Sodexo contracts with franchises such as Starbucks and Einstein Bros. Bagels, so each franchise also would have to eliminate single-use plastic.
“Some of the major players who need to be at the table, who have the decision-making abilities, the budget, the contracts, are all going through lots of challenges. It has to be a collaborative effort,” Schosid says.
A campus-wide ban also requires finding a good replacement for single-use plastic. Whether compostable or reusable, the solution must not cause more damage than the problem.
Despite these challenges, Schosid is optimistic the University can realize its goals, staking her career on the conviction that individual actions by departments and people matter.
“We will not meet any of our goals if it’s just my office. We will do a lot of stuff. We will make a difference,” she says. “But it has to be something that everybody on this campus cares about and takes personal responsibility.”
Even as DU is pursuing its goals, the City and County of Denver has implemented initiatives to cut single-use plastics. Since July 1, 2021, the city’s Bring Your Own Bag program has required retail stores to charge 10 cents per plastic or paper bag. Among the exceptions: bags to package bulk items, produce, meat or fish. People in state or federal food assistance programs also are not subject to the fee.
Tay Dunklee (BS ’11) is an administrator for Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. Although the city gets revenue from bag fees, she doesn’t see that as success.
“The intent is that the fee is just a little bit of a deterrent,” Dunklee says. “And so therefore, it’s going to encourage the correct behavior or the behavior we want to see, which is people bringing their own bags.”
The city also implemented a Skip the Stuff ordinance, so restaurants only provide single-use plastic cutlery and straws upon request. It doesn’t keep customers from asking, but it shifts the paradigm, Dunklee says. Most customers who order takeout likely have reusable silverware at home. And those plastic items can’t be recycled.
“It’s a cost savings to businesses too. They don’t have to buy all this material that people don’t want anyway. So we look to that as sort of a win-win,” she says.
Denver isn’t the first Colorado community to implement such policies. And each community refines them as they go, Dunklee says.
At the state level, the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act was signed into law last July. Single-use plastic bags and containers made from polystyrene—Styrofoam—will be banned at large retail stores and restaurants in 2024. And beginning in 2023, stores statewide must charge a 10-cent fee for each paper and plastic bag.
When it comes to recycling plastics, rules vary from city to city due to size and market differences. Even the most conscientious and determined recyclers have grown accustomed to following a frustrating rule: When in doubt, throw it out. That will avoid what industry experts call wishcycling.
“If for some reason you throw something in that shouldn’t be recycled, it ends up as residual,” Dunklee says.
The residual rate in Denver is about 10%, meaning 90% of submitted waste gets recycled.
Whether they’re too big, too small or simply not recyclable, problematic plastics—everything from shopping bags to candy bar wrappers—can harm the recycling process, clogging machinery and costing the facility expensive down time.
Companies such as Ridwell, a Seattle-based firm that recently expanded to Denver, hope to fill the gaps by collecting hard-to-recycle items, many of them plastic.
At GFL Environmental, meanwhile, waste leaves in giant, compressed cubes wrapped in steel baling wire. They are shipped to factories to be processed into new materials and hit the commodities market. Then supply and demand take over.
“It’s really important there is demand for that recycled material. And that’s where purchasing recycled content items helps drive that demand,” Dunklee says.
Jack Buffington, supply chain program director at the Daniels College of Business, knows a few things about the supply and demand of plastics. He’s the author of “Peak Plastic: The Rise or Fall of Our Synthetic World” (Praeger, 2019) and “The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment (Praeger, 2015).
Until a couple of years ago, Buffington also was responsible for warehousing and fulfillment for MillerCoors, now MolsonCoors. There, he discovered that his interests in the supply chain and sustainability intersect. And while there, he pursued a PhD in Sweden, a country lauded for its recycling programs. After doing research in the Scandinavian country, he realized Sweden has the same problems as the U.S.
They do a better job of mitigating waste, but they don’t necessarily do a better job of solving it,” he says. “The big problem with plastic has to do with the design of the material more so than people’s willingness or unwillingness to recycle.”
In other words, materials need to be redesigned with reuse and recycling in mind.
Buffington argues that supply chain innovation represents our best hope for addressing the plastics problem without sacrificing the many benefits plastics bring. And, he maintains, solving
the global plastics problem must be not only good for the environment, but also for the economy. If they aren’t mutually beneficial, the economy always trumps the environment, he says.
“If everybody said they’re willing to pay 20 to 25% more for a plastic bottle that’s 100% recyclable, in reality, Coke and Pepsi would modify their business models accordingly. The problem is that people say one thing and do another.”
Buffington says the best model would be a closed-loop system, where one plastic bottle becomes another plastic bottle. This would avoid downcycling, in which materials are recycled into lower-grade materials. Eventually, those materials cannot be recycled, so the plastic ultimately ends up in the landfill.
“The market for downcycled materials is not the same as the existing single-use plastic market. You’ll never downcycle your way to 100 or 90%,” he says.
So far, Denver has closed the loop on paper cups and glass bottles. Glass bottles get recycled in as few as 30 days.
But since the start of the pandemic, Denver’s residential tonnage waste, with plastic clogging the stream, has increased, indicating there is still work to do.
Progress will only be made with a collective mental shift about waste and where it goes, Dunklee says.
“Next time you throw something away, remember ‘away’ is most definitely a place.”