Trash Talk: Plastics as Hazardous Waste?

My city, like many others, has us separate certain plastics and other recyclables from other trash. If Chelsea Rochman and colleagues at the University of California Davis and elsewhere have their way, plastics would become hazardous waste. So say those authors in a recent Nature commentary. (Nature 494, 169; 2013) I say it’s a bad idea.

Changing the law would impose more costs but add little extra protection. Part D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act deals with disposal of non-hazardous solid waste. Under current law, landfills for those wastes must already follow standards. Requirements include caps, liners, and leachate recovery systems. (Leachate is contaminated goo that might ooze out of a landfill.)

The article authors also suggest that calling plastics “hazardous waste” would let the government clean up vast amounts of plastic litter in U.S. waters. Don’t hold your breath.

Even if plastics disposal sites became Superfund sites, clean-up wouldn’t be automatic. Costly litigation against “responsible parties” can take years. Sites without obvious litigation targets must compete with others for funding. Determining proper response actions would also pose problems. And legal fees could be huge.

The Nature article does raise good points about the problems that plastics can pose to marine life and other organisms. However, many of those problems come from disposal that is already unlawful. Wouldn’t it be better to use resources to enforce existing laws?

Nations should work together to enforce treaties that forbid improper disposal at sea. Meanwhile, governments at home should strictly enforce laws against littering and other improper disposal. Stiff fines and penalties can recoup some clean-up costs. Punishing wrongdoers could also deter new violations. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers could work to design safer plastics.

Feel free to share your views. I’ve got to take out the trash.

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2 responses to “Trash Talk: Plastics as Hazardous Waste?”

  1. NM.2062Movement says :

    We all have to recognize the importance of plastic in our everyday live. That is no excuse that biodegradable plastic and ecological ways to produce it are not employed.

    • K.M. Kowalski says :

      I agree that the best option is to find environmentally sound ways to produce biodegradable plastic. In the meantime, eliminating unnecessary use, proper disposal under existing laws, and strict enforcement of existing laws and treaties will go a long way towards addressing problems.

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