August 5, 2023
By David Goldstein
In an online banner, the Plastic Free Foundation claims over 100 million people were inspired by the organization’s Plastic Free July events, challenges and pledges last month. Locally, Ventura County’s sustainability division awarded prizes such as reusable metal straws to participants in a waste reduction challenge event.
Simultaneously, July was notable for less a propitious local development in the resource responsible reckoning of plastics.
Astrofoam Molding, the only polystyrene recycling option in Ventura County, officially stopped accepting community drop-offs. Polystyrene is typically known by one of its manufacturer’s brandnames, Styrofoam. For decades, Astrofoam incorporated small amounts of recycled plastic, dropped off by the public, into packages the company manufactures for the shipping of wine bottles, medical devices and other items.
Astrofoam’s discontinuation of polystyrene acceptance began on a temporary basis more than three months ago as the company undertook a major remodeling project, but the decision not to reopen the drop-off recycling program occurred in July.
At first, workers posted temporary signs saying “No drop-off of foam” and “Not accepting recycling.” Then, workers posted additional and larger signs as determined recyclers kept coming. “About three people per day kept coming, getting in the way of construction workers, and when we did not physically stop them, they dropped off foam anyway,” a manager, who asked not to be named, told me. The company already has more material than it can use, he said, and it took too long to sort through the foam as only about one in five pieces had the proper density for reuse. The harder pieces can damage Astrofoam’s regrinders, he said, and people were bringing items such as meat coolers with blood residue.
Alastair Coyne, a long-time Ojai-based environmental activist and conservation director of Keep Sespe Wild, shared a perspective indicating these two news stories of plastic in July are not countervailing currents. Rather, they are two streams of events flowing into the same river of progress. “The plastics industry is not going to regulate itself any time soon,” he said. “Government action, such as SB 54, will be required to reduce the overall use of plastics and to encourage the development of plastics that are not harmful to the environment.”
Coyne’s mention of Senate Bill 54 refers to California legislation adopted last year, the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act, to be administered by the California Department of Resources Recovery and Recycling, commonly referred to as CalRecycle. This new law requires 100% of packaging sold in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. More significantly, it also requires at least 65% to be recycled or composted and 25% to be source reduced by the same deadline.
While the law sets out mandates and enforcement mechanisms, much of the responsibility for determining the most practical and cost-effective ways to reach these benchmarks depends on the plastics industry. Most likely, costs will be borne by consumers, roughly in proportion to the amount of hard-to-recycle or redesign plastics they consume.
The “recycled or composted” part of the mandate, and the “source reduction” standard, requiring a reduction in the amount of plastic used in products, will require not just environmental commitment but also engineering innovation. Raul Kottler, a retired mechanical engineer living in Oak View, sent me articles about plastic pollution and provided an educated perspective. “I am disturbed by what I’ve learned about the impact of plastics on the eco-system,” he began. He admitted he is “not optimistic that the unanticipated negative effects (of plastic) can be reversed.” However, after reviewing efforts to address the problem, he concluded, “I hope I’m wrong, and that emphasis on STEM in the schools will grow the technically creative minds necessary to develop the remedy.”
David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can
be reached at 805-658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.