The Nature Corner: Recycling

Published 3:06 pm Friday, March 18, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Ernie Marshall

Growing up I never heard the term “recycling.” The main way in which we dealt with the issues recycling purports to solve was to reuse. Soda, milk and at least some beer came in glass bottles that were returned for a deposit and then they were cleaned and refilled to be put back on grocery shelves or in coolers for sale. (As a kid I searched ditches for soda bottles. If I was diligent, I could find enough to cash in at the local country store for a nickel candy bar.)

I took my kids to watch the operation at the Greenville Coca-Cola plant just off Dickinson Avenue. They marveled at seeing empty bottles come in one end of the line and come out full of their favorite beverage. We reused our clothes so I got my brother’s hand-me-downs. My mom could sew, like most mothers, so adjustments and repairs could be made. My dad’s mechanical skills acquired growing up on a farm keep our 1937 Plymouth running for some 15 years. We may not now be able to bring back that era, but there is plenty we can do by way of reusing. Top of my list is to take cloth tote bags with you to the store for carrying your purchases home. The litter in our landscape tells you that much of the plastic bags so liberally provided do not get recycled. Incidentally, each plastic bag costs the store about three cents, a cost that is rolled into the cost to the consumer.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

Recycling seems to have become a cure-all for the environmental crowd. “Recyclables” come with a circular icon that conveys that what the recycling process brings about is what you started with, but it always requires processing, transportation costs, etc., producing a different entity, furniture, car parts, construction material, toys, etc. This is very ingenious but is a complex and energy-consuming process, and depends upon finding buyers for the materials.

Nature on the other hand returns everything to the basic ingredients of soil in order to recreate the cycle of life — everything made from nature’s hand and not man-made.

This disclaimer is important. Nature (if I may anthropomorphize a bit) does not know how to biodegrade plastics, break them down into their basic ingredients and will never learn, because they did not evolve together. I wrote a column a while back about having a compost heap and commented that more and more items persisted rather than composted. Corks were the first I noted. Wine bottles were all going to plastic corks. Bad news for the cork farmers in the Mediterranean.

This leads to three big problems. First, the accumulation of discarded plastic and other things, but mostly more and more plastic, trash and litter along our roadways and everywhere else. Plastics first came into use in 1907 and became widely used by the 1970s and 1980s. Their use has grown by at least 10% every year since. A dramatic illustration of how ubiquitous it has become is what has been called the great Pacific Garbage Patch, a great floating pile of trash (a lot of it plastic since it readily floats) the size of Texas out in the Pacific Ocean.

This may seem more an aesthetic than a moral problem, but what degrades Earth ultimately degrades us. The kindest comparison I can think of is a spoiled child unwilling ever to clean up his room.

Second, the presence of plastic microparticles everywhere, in the air, soil, in our water introduces serious health risks. Tests show that 94% of our drinking water and 93% of our bottled water is contaminated with plastic microparticles. (Being bottled water does not make it safe. That picture on the label of the fresh mountain stream guarantees nothing.) Many of these contaminates are linked with higher rates of cancer, autism, birth defects and other serious health concerns. This, of course, makes no claim to being scientific, but on our current church prayer list of 50 are 17 instances of cancer (and one case of Covid).

Thirdly, culture and politics and the interplay between them make solutions more difficult. Culture is basically our collective habits. Are we willing to change? Plastic is cheap, convenient and adaptable. Are politicians willing to work together for answers, meaningful and creative compromises? Political pressures will come to bear, partly from the “Big Oil” interests. More things are being makes from plastics than ever before. Plastics are made from petroleum. Are oil companies investing more in plastics to protect their markets in case wind and solar begin to become more competitive as an energy supplier?

When it comes to policing the situation, the FDA and EPA – the only sheriff in town – speak of “conflicting findings” and “uncertainties.” Granted, correlations do not prove causal connections. In the toxic cocktail of plastic chemicals who is holding the smoking gun? On the other hand, any synthetic substance introduced into our bodies, being foreign to the history of its cellular metabolism, is suspect as a carcinogen.

To make the inevitable comparison with Covid, it too presents a puzzling and complex array of questions. But there is one big difference. As far as we know, Covid is not man-made. Plastic, however, with all its problems, definitely is.

Madeleine Dale from Kill Devil Hills had an excellent letter – “Used for minutes, lasts for hundreds of years”– in the February 23rd issue of The Coastland Times.

Author’s afterword: I consider myself more an educator than an agitator, but I suppose this essay is an opinion piece.

Ernie Marshall taught at East Carolina College for thirty-two years and had a home in Hyde County near Swan Quarter. He has done extensive volunteer work at the Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Swan Quarter refuges and was chief script writer for wildlife documentaries by STRS Productions on the coastal U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, mostly located on the Outer Banks. Questions or comments? Contact the author at