non-recyclable plastics and the dilemma of organic lettuce

In early May, I discovered my recycling efforts were not as good as I thought. Ontario's Peel Region, a leader in waste management, does not accept clear plastics for recycling.

This does not include, for example, ketchup or juice bottles. That kind of heavy plastic is recyclable. But lightweight clear plastic, the kind that is often seen in clamshell form - containing berries, for example - is not recycled.

I was very disturbed by this. It means that my non-recyclable household trash has just increased enormously.

As I said in the earlier post, we immediately switched from the President's Choice Omega-3 Eggs, packaged in massive amounts of plastic, back to the regular old eggs packed in cardboard that my generation grew up on. That was easy - but it still leaves me with a lot of non-recyclable clear plastic.

I decided to investigate further. And it didn't get any better.

On its website, the Region of Peel suggests:
The Government of Ontario has jurisdiction over packaging. The Region of Peel has passed Council resolutions requesting the Province of Ontario to require brand owners and retailers to only use plastic packaging that is recyclable in municipal Blue Box programs.

If you are concerned about the amount of non-recyclable plastic packaging in the marketplace, the Region encourages you to contact your Member of Provincial Parliament, local grocer or retailer and make your views known.

I wrote to my MPP; haven't heard back yet. If I don't hear back, I will follow up.

I wrote to Loblaws, the supermarket that markets itself as the greenest (while packaging eggs in plastic). I don't expect to hear anything, but I do believe they should hear from consumers, so I'm glad to do that.

I also wrote to Peel. Here's their answer.

Their response also addresses the question of why local recycling guides don't simply use the numbers on the plastic instead of examples of types of packaging. Also note that the reference to York Region is in response to something I wrote. A wmtc reader suggested that clear plastics are accepted for recycling in York, but that turned out to be incorrect.
Ms. Kaminker:

Thank you for your email. On behalf of Norman Lee, Director Region of Peel Waste Management I will take this opportunity to explain about the Region of Peel's stance on non-recyclable plastics.

The clear plastic containers may have a resin code within the chasing arrows symbol with a number in the centre - however, that doesn't mean it's recyclable. Other jurisdictions may collect it but that doesn't mean it was ever recycled. Non-recyclable materials collected at the curb increase the cost of collection and processing, as these products are culled or left in the residue stream for disposal.

This is a plastic industry and Provincial & Federal packaging regulator's concern. The Region of Peel (taxpayers) have incurred the cost of collection and sorting plastics on behalf of the plastic packaging industry who are not paying their fair share for handling these products.

The Region of Peel along with other municipal peers, including the Region of York, across the Province has been informing our residents since August 2007 that this specific packaging is not recyclable. The intent is to have plastic resin manufacturers utilize a standardized resin for all plastic containers and provide an equitable cost sharing for the public service of collection and processing their containers. I refer you to the attached web pages where we do go into detail about non-recyclable packaging:


Please see also the Region of York's webpage on blue box materials which is very similar to the Region of Peel in that we have most of the same acceptable materials:


In regards to sorting non-recyclable materials such as a clam shell package of fresh berries - the container may be the same shape but the resin type changes over time depending on the cost of the resin used to manufacture it. Sorting staff cannot identify specific plastic resins such as these when travelling on a conveyor belt.

Incompatible resins in a bale of plastic can be rejected by a buyer and not only have we expended time and money on sorting, baling and transportation to get it to market - we now have to bring the rejected bales (or whole truck load) back for either resorting or disposal. The revenue margins for the material does not allow for sorting errors.

We as a municipality are being up front with our residents and telling them that this particular packaging is not recyclable and our Regional Council has passed a Resolution calling on manufacturers to use a standardized resin type so we can identify and recycle it or request that they pay for the expensive optical sorters that can differentiate between their resins.

You as a consumer have the purchasing power to demand change - call the 1-800 customer service numbers on products you buy and demand packaging materials that are standardized resins and truly recyclable.

Sincerely, etc.

Now what?

On one hand, the Peel representative is correct. We can use our power as consumers to demand change.

On the other hand, is the produce industry - which exploits migrant labour, and poisons the water supply with pesticides, and has enormous shipping costs - going to change packaging materials because a few industrious consumers make a phone call?

And frankly, the idea of calling every company that uses this packaging exhausts me. Is this a project I can take on?

One thing I will do is investigate what's already being done on this issue. Are environmental groups and consumer groups already on it? If so, I can add my voice to the fight. I will look into it, but if you know anything offhand, please share.

* * * *

The clear-plastic recycling issue is the tip of a much larger dilemma that defies easy resolution. It's answering this environmental question: "Which is better?"

Organic, pre-washed lettuce is the perfect example of the "which is better" problem. Michael Pollan devotes a section of The Omnivore's Dilemma to Earthbound Farms' pre-washed, organically grown lettuce production. This is the category of food production he didn't realize existed until he researched the book, which he dubbed "industrial organic".

Producing this organic, pre-washed lettuce and getting it to the consumer requires an enormous amount of fossil-fuel energy. The lettuce has to be kept cold throughout the entire process, it's packaged in special plastic, and it's shipped in refrigerated trucks from California. (That's a very cursory summary.) And now, in addition to all that, I discover the damn plastic packaging isn't even recyclable in my community!

So there are a lot of reasons not to buy this lettuce, especially living nowhere near its source.

But it's not that simple.

Organically grown lettuce is absolutely less polluting to the water supply. It is absolutely better for your health than conventionally grown lettuce, especially if you eat a lettuce-based salad almost every day, as I do. It is absolutely better for farm labourers, who are not exposed to pesticides (and who, in the case of Earthbound Farms, have better working conditions).

So, which is better? Pollan suggests we must ask in return, "Better for whom? Better for what?" It depends on our goals.

Another example of this dilemma in my life - which will horrify serious locavores - is asparagus from Peru. Eating asparagus shipped from South America in the winter certainly supports a fossil-fuel-intensive food chain. Not good.

But Peruvian farmers use traditional, earth-friendly methods. (They have to.) The asparagus is grown on small, cooperatively owned farms. The farmers of Peru, living a substinence existence, have painstakingly developed this new crop with North American consumers in mind. If the asparagus sells well in the US and Canada, their lives will be improved in a very real way.

And, because a few years ago I met some of the people who grow this asparagus and learned something about their lives, I feel a connection to them. I want to support their worthy efforts.

When Ontario asparagus is in season, we buy it. But when it's not, we buy from Peru.

Back to the lettuce. Up until now, I've been satisfied to buy the organic lettuce from California, and (I thought) recycle the plastic packaging. Learning the box goes into landfill tips the balance - but no one solution feels right just yet.

We can buy conventional lettuce, not packaged in plastics, and ingest more pesticides. I'd rather not.

We can stop relying on green salads as a major part of our diet. Without going into great detail about our eating habits, I'll just say there are many reasons why that will be difficult, perhaps impossible.

We can't buy organic lettuce from farmer's markets. Where we live, and with our schedules, farmer's markets are all but useless.

And that's just the lettuce. We buy organic strawberries, blueberries, grape tomatoes, and other vegetables. (In case you're not aware, berries are heavily sprayed with harmful pesticides. If you're only beginning to buy organic produce, berries are a good place to start.) But organic or conventional, these all come in plastic clamshells.

What to do?

* * * *

If you read this blog regularly, you may remember that last year, heavily influenced by the writing of Michael Pollan, I stopped buying and eating industrially-raised meat (meaning meat of all kind). We switched to local, organically, ethically raised meat. This was a big lifestyle change - a change in shopping, cooking and eating habits, and a very big change to our budget. We do still eat meat products in restaurants that must be industrially raised - although buying this expensive meat, we have much less money to eat out now! So it's not a perfect system, but it's much better.

It took me a long time to work out a solution to the meat dilemma. On the one hand, I've been a vegetarian; it doesn't work for me, and I don't feel it's necessary for good health or ethics*. On the other hand, I learned too much about factory farming - the cruelty to animals, the environmental degradation, the poisons to our bodies - and I couldn't un-learn it. But a solution didn't effortlessly appear. I had to dig it out, and I had to rearrange a portion of our lives to implement it.

I expect that's what solving the clear-plastic dilemma will entail.

I need all the help I can get.

* I'm not opposed to your vegetarianism. I applaud you for it. It is simply not for me. Please hold your fire.

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