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Plan II Honors

2019 Worthington Essay Contest

2019 Contest Winners:

Mia Goldstein, Grand Prize - link to essay
Andrew Zhang, First-Year Prize - link to essay
Eve Dauber, Second Place Prize - link to essay

2019 Essay Prompt: Recycling & Sustainability Solutions

You are a newly-elected city council member in the gulf coast city of Myrmidon, Texas. Your precinct, which includes a large demographic of young adults, supported your campaign emphasis on sustainability and environmentally-responsible programs. Recently, your office has received many calls from concerned constituents who learned, through a local TV broadcast, that much of the recyclable material they’ve been putting out each week in blue collection bins has ended up in landfills, along with their trash.

With help from your staff, you’ve learned these details:

• The city’s trash collection and recycling collection are both operated by a privately-owned contractor, Dalworth Disposal Systems. DDS also manages trash collection from several neighboring communities and owns landfills in your county.

• In the past, DDS has sold recyclable materials to third-party buyers in China and Thailand, who process the paper, plastic and metal for remanufacture. Chinese and Thai regulators stopped most of these sales over the past year or two, because much of the recyclable material was contaminated. (Buyers in other countries have continued to accept some of the recyclable materials, but will pay less to purchase them, and have also been raising concerns about contamination.)

• Contamination is mainly a result of city residents putting non-recyclable materials into their recycling bins—things like pizza boxes, single-use plastic bags, disposable cups and disposable diapers.

• The city sends all residents annual mailers about what and what not to recycle, and DDS maintains a website about recycling dos and don’ts. Despite these efforts, the level of contamination in collections from Myrmidon has been trending upward since single-stream recycling was first introduced in the community in 2004.

• Because recycling has become less profitable, DDS has been charging the city more for trash collection services. Utility bills have been higher.

Your city is hardly alone in facing this problem. Other communities in the U.S. have responded to changes in the recycling market in various ways—by cancelling their recycling programs altogether; by implementing new incentives and/or fines for residents, based on their recycling habits; by passing regulations that limit the use or sale of certain materials (such as plastic bags*) that commonly cause contamination; by creating their own infrastructure for processing recyclable materials; by switching from single-stream recycling to dual-stream or source-separation recycling; or by incinerating recyclable materials and using the heat to create energy for the local electrical grid. Some communities have even elected to continue going through the motions of recycling—even though the recyclable materials go straight into landfills—in order to preserve the “culture” of recycling until market forces provide a better solution.

Based on your campaign platform and constituent feedback, you have a mandate to address the city’s collapsing recycling program. The initiative you propose may emphasize a regulatory solution, a technological solution, or something else. But it must be actionable. In 2000 words or fewer, write a proposal to present to the city council.

*In 2019, the Texas State Legislature passed a bill, now signed into law by the governor, preempting local regulation of plastic bags. It is no longer legal for a municipal governments to ban the use of disposable plastic bags in supermarkets or other retail outlets.

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