End Plastics

A plastic cup, a glass bottle and an aluminum can walk into a bar…

It’s gameday, and I’m at a bar with crowds of thirsty fans. As an avid Cleveland Browns fan, a beer seems appropriate, even necessary, to hurl myself into another disappointing Sunday.

I order a beer from the bartender, and he responds, “Bottle, can or draft?” I see a cooler under the bar, filled with aluminum cans and glass bottles. Next to it are stacks of plastic cups.

To my surprise, a plastic cup jumps up and says, “I’m cheap, I’m flexible and I‘m unbreakable. Better yet, I’m recyclable. Order a draft and drink out of me.”

“What’s that number on your back?” says another voice, this one coming from the cooler. It’s a glass bottle, rolling across the ice.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” says Plastic Cup.

“It’s a ‘six,’” says a new voice. It’s an aluminum can, his metal top peeking out of the mound of ice.

Quite the party down here.

The “six,” of course, refers to the resin number imprinted on the bottom of containers to identify the type of plastic. “Six” is polyurethane, which isn’t recyclable in most places despite the cup’s stubborn protest.

“Hush, throw me in the recycling bin after you’re done,” says Plastic Cup, turning to me. “You’ll be fine.”

“Don’t trust him!” says Glass Bottle, nearly falling out of the cooler. “That’s called wishcycling, and it’s just as bad as not recycling at all. This one plastic cup could even contaminate a whole load of otherwise recyclable materials.”

“Don’t pay attention to him,” says Plastic Cup. “You can recycle me… kind of,” it mumbles. “Well, here. Just look at your local municipality’s website. There are probably specific instructions about how to recycle me there. Just Google — ”

“No, it’s okay,” I say. Growing impatient and thirstier, I decide against the plastic cup, which seems too problematic anyway. Dejected, Plastic Cup joins its untouched comrades in the stack. I move onto the next choice: glass or aluminum?

“Glass, on the other hand is completely recyclable,” says Glass Bottle.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” says Aluminum Can.

“Please, glass is infinitely recyclable,” says Glass Bottle. “Just keep melting me down and building me up. I’m even made of recycled glass. How do you explain that?”

“Sure, you are,” says Aluminum Can, rolling not-so-gracefully across the other cans. “But you’re one of the lucky ones. Only about a third of glass gets recycled here in the U.S. Meanwhile, 75 percent of all aluminum is still in use today, a testament to our durability,” he says, flexing his tab. “If you didn’t know, aluminum is the most recyclable of all materials.”

The game has officially started and I’m still without a beer or a proper container in which to consume it.

“That doesn’t seem right…” says Glass Bottle, a little wavering.

“To be recycled, glass usually has to be separated by color,” says Aluminum Can, getting more brash now. “But when glass breaks, those different colors get mixed.

“But, but — ”

“Plus, that metal bottlecap you think is so great isn’t even recyclable!” the Aluminum Can, a bit of a bully, yells. “YOUR WHOLE EXISTENCE IS A LIE.”

Defeated, Glass Bottle finally disappears under the ice.

“Did I mention, aluminum is the most profitable of all recyclable products?” says Aluminum Can, turning toward me now. “Some third parties pay as much as $800 a bale — money that goes directly to your local economy. Plastic fetches far less, and glass is lucky if it will sell for anything.”

All this is true, though I could do with less arrogance and more beer.

“So, what will it be?” says the bartender. Having just witnessed a lunchroom battle between three inanimate options, I’m speechless.

“Ah, they got you all confused, huh?” says the bartender. “Listen, you may be surprised to find out how many of the products we use every day are very difficult to recycle. We should push our local governments to make it easier for us to recycle products from a wider range of materials. And we should push producers to use recycled material in their products, so the waste we do recycle has a place to go.”

Perhaps sensing my confusion, my oddly knowledgeable, deus ex machina of a bartender grabs a pint glass and pours a beer.

“Don’t blame yourself,” he continues, placing a full glass in front of me. “Recycling is just one of the many facets of America’s waste management problem — we should also consider the ways to produce less waste in the first place.”

Here’s to finding ways to forgo recycling — which is, at best, an inefficient and expensive, if well-intentioned, journey for our materials. And here’s to another disappointing game.