An image of empty blue space comes to mind when considering the 2,467 mile distance between the coast of California and the Hawaiian islands — likely very similar to the space seen on a Google map, a standard globe or the distant view from an airplane window.
In 2003, Natural History Magazine published an article challenging the idea of empty ocean space.
The article contained a firsthand account from Captain Charles Moore, describing his sailing in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the coast of California. Moore decided to take a shortcut on his way back to California, cutting through an area known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre — a rarely traversed high-pressure system of circulating water in the Pacific.
Moore explained he was expecting to see an empty, blue ocean surface as his chosen course crossed through an area of ocean most sailors avoid. Instead, the ocean he saw was far from what he expected.
“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic,” Moore wrote.
Moore described debris and waste scattered across the ocean, spanning an area roughly the size of Texas. This area, which continues to grow today, is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it highlights a global waste crisis.
Utah State University professor Roslynn McCann said many Utahns have a difficult time understanding the environmental impact of their plastic use and waste. As a landlocked state, the consequences are different from those a state like California faces, but still concerning, she said.
“The most direct environmental impact that we’ll see in our state is the prevalence of plastic. A plastic bag stuck in a tree, plastic bottles on the side of a trail. Plastic blow-away waste has a major impact on our wildlife,” McCann said. “In our state, people think, ‘Oh well, the ocean is so far away, so why does it matter if I use a plastic bag?’ But when a plastic bag is airborne, it can travel really far, and communities end up footing the bill for specialized cleanup.”
According to a Wallet Hub study, Utah ranks 39th out of all 50 states for eco-friendliness. The study looked at metrics like air, water and soil quality, energy consumption and percent of recycled municipal solid waste. Utah ranked 49th for recycled waste, beating out only Louisiana.
Obstacles to recycling
McCann said poor communication is one major reason Utah is so bad at recycling. She explained that standard communication is largely ineffective, and it’s not enough to simply share statistics or information.
“Much of what has been communicated about sustainable behaviors has been communicated the wrong way. It tends to be a very negative message,” she said. “It’s really not effective to communicate the ‘give up this; don’t do this’ message. There’s a lot to be gained, not lost, by living a sustainable lifestyle.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some benefits of sustainable living and recycling include conserved natural resources, lower pollution rates and more efficient energy use.
McCann said the lack of access to recycling bins and inconsistent or poor presentation severely hinders recycling efforts. She said studies have shown recycling increases when bins are labeled clearly and consistently and are made to look more attractive.
“I even suggest labeling the trash bin landfill, as opposed to trash, in order to give a direct visual association of the behavioral consequence of throwing away an item that potentially could be recycled,” she said. “It doesn’t just go away as the word trash kind of implies.”
According to a 2015 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, the use of landfills far outweighed recycling or any other method of waste disposal. The report showed 52.5% of waste nationwide was sent to landfills.
Ryan Smith, founder and CEO of Recyclops — a recycling company that provides recycling opportunities to underserved areas — said he first recognized Utah’s lack of available recycling opportunities while studying at BYU.
“I grew up recycling with my family, but then I came to BYU and moved into an apartment complex in Provo and suddenly couldn’t recycle. I was just super surprised by it,” he said.
After looking into the issue, Smith discovered the lack of recycling at his apartment was not just an issue in Provo — it was an issue with multi-family housing, such as apartments, around the country. He found the issue at multi-family housing stems from a lot of different underlying causes.
Recycling bins take up the equivalent of two parking spaces, according to Smith. Those parking spaces are a valuable commodity, and some apartment complexes can’t afford to lose them because they are legally required to have a certain number of stalls. However, Smith said, the greatest deterrent to recycling is the commercial mentality of apartment building owners.
“The big overarching issue is that apartments are commercial dwellings. This precedent has been set that apartments aren’t very good at recycling, and because of that, there isn’t a lot of pressure to start doing it. Nobody’s doing it,” Smith said. “For apartment buildings, sometimes recycling can save them a little money, or it can cost them a little money. It just depends. But no matter what, it complicates things, so they don’t see it as a necessity.”
Smith also said contamination of recycling is an additional hurdle.
According to Smith, apartments see about 30–40% contamination of recycling, meaning 30–40% of the content in apartment recycling bins is actually trash, and the entirety of the bin has to be sent to a landfill.
Recycle Utah Director of Communications and Outreach Haley Lebsack said this sort of contamination is an issue for any state or community that uses a co-mingled recycling system.
Co-mingled, or single stream, recycling refers to a system where all recyclable materials are mixed in one collection bin rather than being separated and sorted. This can easily lead to contamination as many people don’t know what is and is not recyclable.
Volunteers and employees at Recycle Utah in Park City sort through hundreds of pounds of waste every day in an effort to combat this issue of contamination.
Lebsack said Recycle Utah diverts 3.5 million pounds of recycling each year, ensuring recyclable material doesn’t end up in a landfill. Recently, however, Lebsack said she has noticed a change in recycling trends.
Impact of Chinese plastic policy
In 2017, China passed a policy banning the import of plastic waste. Previously the U.S. would send plastic waste to China to be processed overseas.
“An estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030,” according to a study from the University of Georgia.
Lebsack said she has seen the direct results of this policy with an increase in incoming waste at Recycle Utah.
According to Lebsack, lower quality plastic items like plastic bags were the main exports to China because they’re difficult to recycle. With the policy change, Lebsack said people have become more concerned about their recycling.
“People are now understanding the value of separating their recycling. It’s not enough to just collect the waste, we have to make sure that waste is being turned into a reusable product, and that’s where the sorting comes in,” she said.
Along with the new Chinese policy, Lebsack said the current political climate surrounding environmental issues in the U.S. has also generated change. She explained that a presidency that is less concerned with environmental issues might be a good thing in the sense that it forces people to have more personal accountability.
“Our current political climate has actually encouraged people, I feel like, to really focus on what they can do in their home and what they can do in their community,” Lebsack said. “I’ve seen in the last year a lot of people taking ownership and accountability for what their actions are and looking at how their lifestyle impacts future generations.”
As the political climate continues to change, Lebsack said it’s important to remember that decisions people make now regarding environmental issues have lasting consequences.
“I encourage people to look at their kids and decide what kind of earth you want to leave them,” she said. “Then figure out if the choices you’re making day to day are helping or hurting what you ultimately want for your kids.”