Global Awareness

Our Planet, Our Actions

Written by Heidi Blythe (Class of 2022)   

Photography by Thuy Nguyen (Class of 2022)    

For Chemistry class, the Girls’ School Sophomores spent several weeks researching and presenting information about the different types of plastics. The class of seventeen was divided into seven groups which represented the seven types of plastics. Each group was tasked to retrieve detailed facts of their assigned plastic and introduce it to the class along with a poster as a visual. After the project, the class was offered the chance to go on a trip that would give them first-hand experience on what it was like to manage plastic and waste.

What happens to your plastic after you drop it off at the recycling bin? Most people think that it will be whisked to a management factory where it will be efficiently transformed into something new to buy off the aisle again. But does this really happen? With this question on their minds, the Sophomore Class undertook an adventure into the strange and mysterious land of waste and solutions companies have developed to manage such waste. As the day dawned on January 30th, the students alighted on the grounds of C & S Waste Solutions, and the first thing that greeted them was the smell. No longer did the air smell of trees and fresh mountain air; instead, it smelled foul, and the spring breeze carried the rancid odor of garbage that made the whole group wheeze and sniff.

Before long, the class was dressed in strikingly yellow protective coats. This was followed by a brief introduction of the facility from a guide who led the group around to see the recycling process close-up. The guide first brought the class to enormous stacks of secured and compressed blocks of trash that were ready for transport.

Looking closer, the students realized that the stacks were actually bales of sorted paper, but with numerous candy wrappers and plastic bags that bore messages urging people to recycle them peeking out.

Upon further question, the group was surprised to learn that these bales were headed to Malaysia, one out of the many developing Southeast Asian countries to which the company was exporting for further processing and recycling. The company also operates a large Material Recovery Facility (MRF) on the premises, and as the students walked towards it, they witnessed trucks – full of cardboard, scrap metal, used yogurt cups, juice containers, shampoo bottles, and other kinds of plastic trash – unloading their refuse onto a huge towering mountain that dwarfed even the trucks themselves. Conveyor belts delivered tons of trash every hour, the guide explained, with workers first manually removing mistakenly placed trash, then separating metals with magnets, and last, putting paper into bins for recycling.

Some plastics were also sorted out if they were recyclable milk cartons and bottles, for example. But the rest, like boxes covered in film plastic, plastic bags, or any thin flexible sheets of plastic were not easy to recycle and would often clog the machinery.

“What makes an item recyclable,” the guide stated, as we sat around after the tour for a questionnaire, “is when there are markets willing to buy and remake them. If no one wants to recycle an item, it ends up in the landfills.” 

Through the discussion, the students learned that plastics were generally very difficult to recycle, because unlike aluminum, which can be recycled infinitely, plastic has a limited recycling rate. Combined with contamination and different compositions of polymers, plastics would have to be sorted manually. Thus, Western and European countries find it easier to bale plastic scraps and send them to Asia, with China as the main buyer; China has cheap labor and less environmental restrictions. However, with China banning exported waste, nations have turned to Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, and South Korea, among others, to manage the waste they produce.

“It’s quite shocking because when we put a piece of plastic in the bin, we think it is being recycled, not being shipped to Malaysia, which is my home country, or to Southeast Asia, where it will possibly be incinerated, land-filled, or dumped into the ocean,” one sophomore shared.

Consumerism and pollution are directly related to production. The age of “Buy, Buy, Buy,” needs to change to a more mindful consideration of Mother Earth and the needs of all of her children, in which humans are only one species among countless many.