On May 15, I got an up-close look at America's plastics litter problem.
I took part in a cleanup project on that date in my town of Wickliffe, Ohio. The event was organized by Keep Wickliffe Beautiful — I'm a board member of the group — and was part of Keep America Beautiful's Great American Cleanup for 2021.
A group of seven of us spent two hours picking up trash on two highway ramps off Interstate 90. In that time, we filled 25 bags of trash.
Going into the event, I expected to see quite a bit of plastic. But the amount of plastic unfortunately exceeded my expectations. At least 75 percent of the trash we picked up was plastic.
The most common type of plastic we picked up was beverage bottles, followed by plastic bags. There also were some food containers, cups, polystyrene foam and other random items, including a plastic cooler. Yes, there were some used diapers as well.
One of the more interesting plastic items was a clear blue bottle of cheap vodka. On the glass side, we found an empty bottle of Wild Irish Rose, a bottom-shelf alcohol that some people might recall from their high school or college days.
The most unusual item I found was a plastic bottle of hand sanitizer. I would think if you're diligent enough to be using hand sanitizer during a pandemic, you wouldn't be tossing it out of your car window.
In the days since the cleanup, I've been trying to make sense in my head of the overwhelming amount of plastic trash that we picked up. Was there so much because plastic has been so successful in replacing other materials? If we had done a cleanup 20 years ago, would we have found the same amount of trash but less plastic?
The trash bags we gathered were picked up by the Ohio Department of Transportation. Unfortunately, ODOT doesn't have the resources to sort and separate the trash from the cleanups for recycling. So those 25 bags we filled are going to end up in a landfill somewhere in our state.
I don't entirely buy into the concept that litter is a people problem and not an industry problem. I've always felt that approach absolved the industry of any responsibility. And anti-littering messages have been taught in U.S. grade schools for 50 years. The famous "Crying Indian" TV commercial — made by Keep America Beautiful — first aired in 1971. I don't think the message is getting through.
And I know there are statistics out there that show that plastics overall are a relatively small part of the global waste stream. But, believe me, it doesn't feel that way when you're picking up trash on a highway ramp in Ohio on a sunny day in May.
At the same time, I don't know how the volume of plastic trash we saw could have been reduced. Using biodegradable materials would be an option, since quite a bit of the paper we saw already was decomposing and might have been gone after a good rain. But biodegradable plastics historically have been more expensive than standard plastics and don't always perform as well.
The fact that the trash we picked up wasn't going to be recycled was almost as disappointing to me as the sheer volume of trash was. It shows how little value recycled material has in the current materials economy.
I really wish I had a more clear takeaway from my plastic trash experience. But like many complicated subjects, answers sometimes lead to more questions.
Frank Esposito is a Plastics News senior reporter. Follow him on Twitter @fesposito22.
Plastics News editorial cartoon by Rich Williams. Cartoons are available for purchase at www.plasticsnews.com/data-lists/cartoons