Plastics in Pittsburgh: Recycling is getting more complicated

Recycling has always been considered a part of the solution to the problem of plastic pollution. But American recycling is facing a crisis since China in January 2018 announced it would sharply limit plastic imports. The move sparks questions about what actually can be recycled and how plastic waste is handled in Allegheny County.

Many Pittsburgh-area plastics end up in landfills or the environment. Is recycling a solution or only a patch?

Pittsburgh has its own floating garbage patch. Behind a mooring cell for coal barges, some 400 feet upstream from the Hot Metal Bridge, a soaked mass of debris hugs the northern bank of the Monongahela River. It’s made up of tree branches, tires and a variety of discarded plastic products: water bottles, soccer and basketballs, sneakers, mangled pieces of polystyrene foam, cups, shopping bags and eating utensils. The patch is one destination for plastics in the Pittsburgh region. Other plastics are bound for recycling plants, where in many cases they’re shipped to landfills because they are either too dirty or are one of many types of plastics not recycled locally.

Sarah Baxendell, director of the Hilltop Urban Farm, points to the land set aside for (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

What does Pittsburgh’s Hilltop Urban Farm need to do to mitigate a food desert? Access to healthy food may only be a start.

It was raining nonstop, but that didn’t seem to have any effect on Sarah Baxendell’s enthusiasm as she showed visitors the future site of the Hilltop Urban Farm in Pittsburgh’s St. Clair neighborhood.

The 23-acre farm will grow food to sell, but its creators at the Hilltop Alliance are also planning to teach youth about agriculture and create a new generation of urban farmers. The farm will spin off into a stand-alone organization, and its staff hopes to transform what is now a food desert into an area “abundant with access to healthy food,” according to the farm’s website.

Tyler Mower, 20, has been undergoing training to become a steamfitter at the Steamfitters Local 449 technology training center in Harmony, Pa. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

Will Pittsburgh flourish as a hub of eds and meds or gas and petrochemicals? Can we have it both ways?

Pittsburgh now brands itself as a modern city built on research, robots, universities, advanced manufacturing, green energy — and the high-skilled jobs that come with it all.

But there’s another narrative developing: The plethora of shale gas and natural gas liquids in Southwestern Pennsylvania provide a solid foundation to build a new gas and petrochemical hub in Pittsburgh’s backyard.