A wonder material you can't get rid of

To anyone who's truly green at heart, San Francisco's central recycling plant is an exhilarating sight. There, tons and tons of paper, plastic, glass and who-knows-what works its way through a mountain of belts, gears and gizmos. Much of what the city throws away gets separated, classified and bundled for sale.

Recycling is a point of pride to Robert Reed of Norcal Waste Systems. When it comes to giving garbage a second life, no American city does it better.

"We like to say 'life's a mess but we sort it out,'" he told CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. "There's a Safeway bag - it doesn't go through like the rest of the stuff."

But not everything is welcome here. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag.

"Plastic bags -- they're very light and they float around," he said. "They get twisted around things. They're a difficult material. They're one of the most difficult things to recycle. The recycling business, like the garbage business, is all about tonnage. You want so many tons of aluminum cans and so many tons of paper that you can bale. And you can handle."

Put simply, it costs so much more to process the bags than can be earned from selling them that they're simply trucked off to the dump. And while a few flimsy bags don't seem like much, they add up: Americans consume an estimated 100 billion of them every year.

So many bags, they seem to grow on trees, which is why in northern New Jersey, Bill McLelland and Ian Frazier invented the bag-snagger.

"It's annoying to see a bag in a tree. [Investing the bag snagger] was sort of a sport. It was something to do for fun," Frazier said.

And something to do for the environment: plastic bags blowing in the wind have become a litter problem nation-wide.

"You see a bag in a tree," McLelland said. "One bag. And you notice it. And it bugs you. And you can get that bag out of the tree. You suddenly see this tree just kind of come back to life. And you feel like, you know, you've really made a little dent in the problem."

It's a problem that's pretty clear when you see how much we send to the dump. Each of us generates more than 1,600 pounds of garbage every year. That's more trash per person than any other nation on Earth. Much of it comes from plastic bags, plastic water bottles and plastic packaging. As some see it, our love affair with plastic has turned us into a throwaway society. The plastic heads straight to landfills, where it stays for years and years and years.

It wasn't always like this.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it came to trash, practically nothing went to waste. Everything from rags to scrap metal to manure found a second use. Recycling was truly the American way, says Heather Rogers, author of "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage."

"Disposability and the way that we dispose is learned -- a learned behavior," she said. "We've had to be taught how to do that."

Rogers argues that today's attitudes towards trash took root in the postwar boom, when plastics were promoted as a new wonder-material: cheap, versatile and disposable.

"One of the first disposable plastic items was a rigid plastic cup that was dispensed in vending machines that sold coffee and hot chocolate," she said. "And after people consumed their drink, they had this cup left over that they clearly recognized could be re-used. And a discussion erupted in the plastics industry trade press about, 'How do we convince consumers that this product that clearly can be re-used is garbage?'"

In the four decades since "The Graduate" parodied the phony or plastic values of American society, plastics really have taken over. Just look around and try to imagine a world without them.

"The last 40 years have been good for the plastics industry," Greg Babe, chairman of the American Chemistry Council's Plastics Division said. "But the plastics industry has been very good over the last 40 years for society as well."

Recently, the plastics industry has come under pressure to boost the relatively low percentage of plastic recycling. While close to three-quarters of cardboard boxes and nearly half of aluminum cans find new uses, only about a quarter of plastic bottles -- and just 5 percent of plastic bags -- get recycled.

  • Caitlin Johnson

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