Let us now consider the plastic hanger.
Wal-Mart uses millions of them a year uses them just once and then has to figure out what to do with them, along with the mountains of plastic film, shrink-wrap, shipping pallets, cardboard boxes, trailer tags and other behind-the-scenes detritus of the American shopping experience. Not too long ago, Wal-Mart employees just threw most of that stuff away.
And then along came Jeff Ashby, a hyperactive man who in the early 1990s drove a garbage truck and is now national accounts manager for Rocky Mountain Recycling in Salt Lake City.
Ashby has a neighbor who is a Wal-Mart employee whose job it is to take the filmy plastic wrap off each piece of clothing that comes into the store. One day a few years ago, the neighbor wondered aloud why all that plastic was thrown away rather than recycled. So Ashby came up with an idea he calls the "Super Sandwich Bale," a seemingly obvious innovation whose patent paperwork is a foot thick.
For nearly two years now, Wal-Marts everywhere in America have been using the Super Sandwich Bale which means they now recycle more than 25 percent of what once was tossed into the trash compactor, Ashby said. Plastic clothes hangers currently account for a third of this volume.
The Super Sandwich Bale "has changed the recycling industry as we knew it," says Lesley Heikkila, a recycling specialist at Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas.
Now other retailers are also looking into using the process, as is the U.S. military. And 40 other material recovery facilities (MRFs or "murfs," in recycling lingo) in the country are under license from Rocky Mountain Recycling to use the Super Sandwich Bale technology. All of which means less junk ending up in the country's landfills, plus big money for Rocky Mountain Recycling. It also helps illuminate why the green mantra, "reduce-reuse-recycle" is often more complicated that it sounds.
For example: wouldn't it be better for the environment to reuse all those plastic clothes hangers? The problem, says Ashby, is not only the cost of labor to sort the different kinds of hangers once they've been used, but the cost in fuel to ship them back to the individual clothing manufacturers. It's better for the environment, he argues, to send the hangers in bulk to a facility that melts down the plastic into resin that gets turned into more hangers and other plastic objects. According to Ashby, it's actually almost twice as expensive to make a product like decking out of virgin polyethylene resin than from recycled plastic.
When you're trying to get to the bottom of what's green and what isn't, sometimes the solutions are counterintuitive. And often the answers are vague.
Ask the federal Environmental Protection Agency, for example, to resolve the "paper or plastic" debate once and for all which one uses the most energy and creates the most pollution to produce and recycle? and you get an e-mail like this one: "EPA is currently performing a literature review/data search on paper and plastic and then we plan to make that information available to the public so citizens can reach their own conclusion. We don't have an anticipated time frame of when the literature search will be ready we are still looking for the data," wrote the EPA's Roxanne Smith to the Deseret News recently.
That doesn't stop people on both sides of the paper-plastic debate from quoting outdated data to prove that their favorite kind of shopping bag is more environmentally friendly. Ashby weighs in on the side of plastic.
Plastic bags have become the poster child for consumption and waste, from Africa to Anchorage. At the Web site reusablebags.com, the digital tally of worldwide plastic shopping bag consumption ticks away at a dizzying rate: about 100,000 bags every 10 seconds.
According to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, more than 1 million birds and more than 100,000 sea mammals, amphibians and fish are killed annually by plastic rubbish, including plastic bags, through entanglement, suffocation and starvation after ingesting plastic a phenomenon that Salt Lake artist Carol Sogard represented in her art piece "Bagging Birds" earlier this year. Scientists worry that chemicals from all that ingested plastic then gets into the food chain, perhaps causing havoc with animal and human endocrine systems.
Some grocery store chains are encouraging their customers to bring reusable bags. Whole Foods Markets no longer uses any petroleum-based plastic shopping bags, but does use biodegradable plastic bags, which can be composted.
Ashby audibly sighs at the mention of biodegradable bags, which sometimes end up being recycled by mistake. "They do not play very well with the other polymers," he says. They don't melt at the same temperature, and the corn-based polymers, if mixed with other plastic bags, have a tendency to catch fire. "And they fall apart. So now you have millions of little pieces of plastic. ... I know there's a place for it and it makes us feel better because it's made from a renewable resource, but it's messing up a pretty good recycling program."
The Super Sandwich Bale (which Ashby developed with colleagues John Sasine, Chuck Jongert, Marvin Acey) works like this: separate recyclable items from Wal-Marts all over the country are put in big plastic bags that are then wired together in bales at each Wal-Mart store. These bags are then trucked to an MRF, where they are re-baled bales containing just hangers, for example and sent off by train to plants that then turn those items into decking or carpet or agricultural film used on farms as far away as China. At Rocky Mountain Recycling's facility on 900 South and 2900 West, the bales are stacked 18 feet high and are a microcosm of consumption: empty boxes of Rice Krispie Treats and laxatives, reams of shredded paper, plastic bags full of other plastic bags.
Rocky Mountain Recycling also has another facility on 900 West and 3100 South, where trucks dump off the "curbside recycling" trash produced by Salt Lake households. The place smells sweet, the result of all those tiny drops of leftover soda in the tens of thousands of pop bottles that pass through the facility each week. All the recyclable trash gets put into separate bales to be sent somewhere to be made into something else.
Amid the constant hum of the baler's conveyer belt, the facilities operate two shifts six days a week, because, first of all, the world keeps producing more and more stuff, and second, there's big money in recycling these days. Plastic wrapping brings 20 cents a pound, and there are tons of it. Ashby has made a good living off all this. These days, he drives a Porsche.
His favorite book among the 1,800 books in his home library is "The Secret," the aggressively upbeat best-selling book and DVD that postulates, as Ashby puts it "you inevitably experience what you consistently expect." Ashby is such a fan of the book and its philosophy that he has handed out some 250 of the DVDs to people he meets on his business travels. And he travels all the time: 138 nights in motel beds last year, traveling to Wal-Marts and recycling manufacturers across the globe.Ashby's hope is that "as we drill further into the waste stream, pretty much everything can be recycled."