Finding ways to keep waste local

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    Ed Byrne manages Peninsula Packaging in Exeter, Calif.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Ed Byrne makes plastic clamshell packaging for fruits and vegetables almost entirely out of ground-up plastic flakes from recycled water and soda bottles. Since there are few U.S. companies that produce the flakes, he has to buy them from as far away as China.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    The cleaned and chopped up flakes are pressed into giant rolls of plastic sheeting.

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    Plastic sheeting is pressed into containers.

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    The Peninsula Packaging plant, which employs 230 people, derives half of its electricity from nearby solar panels.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Recycling proponents say money from an economic stimulus package should be invested in domestic recycling infrastructure that would create more "green" jobs like these.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Peninsula Packaging's finished product contains about 70 percent recycled bottles. Ed Byrne, the company's owner, hopes to get that number to 100 percent.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Peninsula Packaging is using state grants to build its own plastic bottle flaking facility, which would provide a steady stream of material for its factory.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Peninsula Packaging's owner says he is able to compete with China on the price of plastic containers because he's closer to his customers.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Peninsula Packaging's proximity to its customers reduces the environmental impacts and the shipping costs of getting its product to market.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace


Steve Chiotakis: You're probably not buying much of anything these days. Spending is way down. But you know what's way up? The amount of used paper, glass and cans in warehouses across the country. Some say it could be a "green" opportunity, if Congress and President-elect Obama would take a look at it. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, here's Sam Eaton.

Sam Eaton: Ed Byrne manages Peninsula Packaging in California's central valley. His company makes all those clamshell packages berries and lettuce come in. But instead of making them out of petroleum like his competitors, Byrne prefers to use shredded water bottles.

Ed Byrne: It's mother's milk for us, although it's garbage to anybody else.

And you'd think Byrne would be awash in the stuff, given that Americans throw away an estimated 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. The problem is most of the facilities that clean and shred those bottles into plastic flakes are overseas.

Byrne: We're buying some from China and we have some coming in from South America, and we're still using a lot more virgin resin than we'd like to because we can't get enough flake.

Byrne says his goal is to use 100 percent recycled plastic to make his product. But Alex Helou with the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation says the economics of the global supply chain have worked against him.

Alex Helou: When the oil market was at all-time high, it was cheaper for us to take a ton of recyclables from the Port of Los Angeles, ship it all the way to China, verses to take one ton of recyclables from the Port of Los Angeles and ship it to Riverside.

Even though Riverside is only 60 miles away. But with the Chinese market for recyclables now in the dumps, Helou says places like Riverside are starting to look more promising.

Helou: We need to find markets in California, in the United States, where a lot of these products could be recycled locally and put money back into the local economy.

And this is where President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus package comes in.

Gerry Powell is with the industry magazine Resource Recycling. He says with a little federal help, all of that recyclable material stacking up in warehouses could be put to use.

When you land in an airplane at the Phoenix airport, you're landing on cement made with rubber tires. In Baltimore, there's miles and miles of streets that have glass in the asphalt replacing rock.

Powell says true recycling isn't what happens at the bin, it's what happens at the mill where the things we recycle are made anew. And he says infrastructure projects like these would ensure more of those mills, and the jobs they create, are located here in the U.S.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.


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