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Hey Wal-Mart, pay for your own recycling!

Why should taxpayers foot the bill for major corporations' increasingly wasteful use of plastics?

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Over the past 11 years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has helped plant hundreds of thousands of trees in New York City, reduced indoor air pollution by banning smoking in restaurants and bars, and created more than 350 miles of bike lanes in the five boroughs—all boons to the environment. But he’s never done all that much to reduce the quantity of waste that the city sends to landfills. Until this past spring, that is, when the outgoing mayor (he steps down on January 1) announced a major expansion of the types of plastics New Yorkers can toss into their recycling bins. Yesterday it was only narrow-necked bottles; today it’s any rigid plastics, including clamshell-type containers, clothes hangers, even toys. Hallelujah.

Compared with other American metropolises, New York’s recycling rate has been pretty anemic. At last check, the city was recovering only 15 percent of all the potentially recyclable material in its waste stream; the national average is 34.7 percent. That’s why so many of us were pleased by the mayor’s announcement. With a stroke of the pen, Bloomberg assured that an additional 50,000 tons of plastics would be delivered to recycling companies annually. Moreover, the simplicity of the city’s larger recycling message—“Just throw everything into the bin”—seemed likely to foster a greater degree of compliance, netting plastics processors even more of the materials they covet most: those narrow-necked bottles that are typically made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

But then my not-so-inner skeptic started to pipe up. Wasn’t it possible, I wondered, that this expansion would encourage even more consumption of single-use throwaway plastics? Would consumers who might once have felt a guilty pang when tipping their takeout containers into the trash now feel that by recycling those containers, they were somehow solving our plastics problem? Plastic, after all, is made out of nonrenewable resources—oil and natural gas—extracted at high cost to human and environmental health. Globally, the plastics packaging industry grew an average of 7.2 percent a year between 2001 and 2010, with most of that growth taking place in developing nations.

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