Plastic Surgin’

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We take a deeper dive into the growing problem of global plastic pollution as we search for ways to reduce our own plastic use.

As we reported in Wood&Steel (2021, Issue 2), Taylor Guitars has started taking a good, hard look at our use of plastics, and the more we learn, the more daunting the problem appears to be. Frankly, it’s a journey we’ve really just begun, but we wanted to take the opportunity to explain where we are, what we’ve learned so far, and what we’re trying to do about it.

It all started last year when Bob Thorp from our Facilities team learned that the bales of used stretch wrap we create were no longer being recycled as we had assumed, but were instead now being landfilled. I’m referring to the plastic film we use to secure pallets of stacked guitars (in their cases) being transported, or to wrap wood we move around the factory on pallets. Walk into a warehouse almost anywhere in the world and you’ll see stretch wrap securing pallets. Buy a new couch, it’s likely covered in it. Rent a moving truck, and they sell it along with boxes and moving blankets to protect your possessions.

Anyway, one day, Bob Thorp, Bob Taylor and I stood in a small corner of the Taylor campus, the final destination for our trash before it’s hauled away. We were looking at several bales of stretch wrap that we had just learned were destined to be landfilled. After a few minutes, Bob Taylor gave the word to cancel pickup and removal until we figured out a more responsible solution. We all agreed that until we did, Bob Thorp would move the bales and stack them up in the most visible place we could find: smack dab in the middle of a parking lot on campus. I loved the idea, but as the months went by and I watched the pile grow from my office window, I confess that I started to worry. You see, the more we tried to understand the problem, the more we looked for solutions, the more confusing (and depressing) the situation appeared.

The Global Plastic Problem

In the film classic The Graduate, Mr. McGuire had just one word for Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a recent college graduate with little direction in life. “Plastics,” he suggested. “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” The future of plastics indeed looked bright in 1967 — the lightweight synthetic or semi-synthetic material could be molded into a variety of useful products. Today, a mere five decades since Benjamin ignored Mr. McGuire’s counsel, the planet is drowning in plastic pollution.

According to the UN, in the 1990s, plastic waste more than tripled over the previous two decades, and in the early 2000s, global output of plastic waste rose more than it had in the previous 40 years. There is no value or market for the vast majority of our plastic waste, so about 90 percent of it is landfilled, burned or shipped overseas. Ultimately, a lot ends up in the oceans in what are commonly referred to as massive garbage patches that collect in one of five planetary gyre, gigantic circular oceanic current systems, where it floats and degrades.

The Recycling Myth

Until recently, much of the world was largely oblivious to the true reality of our plastic problem. We slept comfortably under the impression that robust recycling programs turned our plastic waste into useful recyclable products that we bought, used ever so briefly, and recycled again just like the system’s iconic Möbius loop symbol suggested. If you didn’t think about it too much, it all made sense. In reality, the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan don’t recycle much of their plastic waste but instead ship it overseas. Out of sight, out of mind.

A warning shot of reality was fired in 2017, when the Government of China notified the World Trade Organization that it would no longer import much of the world’s plastic waste. Few in the general public noticed, but the fact is that there are no good answers for what to do with the staggering volumes of plastic we now consume. As a consumer, living a plastics-free life is surprisingly difficult, as so much of what we interface with on a daily basis comes in plastic.

According to the World Economic Forum, 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up littering the environment somewhere in the world.

In reality, most plastic we consume and dispose of has a negative economic value, meaning it costs more to sort and process than it does to make new virgin plastic products. In the U.S., only a small percentage of higher-value plastics, such as PET or HDPE bottles and jugs, are recycled domestically. The vast majority of plastic we consume never reaches a recycling facility.

According to Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, an NGO established to end plastic pollution, only about 9 percent of plastic waste is even collected for recycling, and until 2017, about half of that was being sent to China, where the material was sorted, largely by hand. Much of the plastic shipped to China still ended up being dumped or burned, just far from sight of the people who purchased, used and discarded it. According to the World Economic Forum, 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up littering the environment somewhere in the world, largely finding its way to our oceans, rivers, and coastlines, and floating in the air. Another 40 percent is landfilled, and 14 percent incinerated.

To oversimplify, for decades, while global consumption of plastics skyrocketed, the system functioned because the West imports containers full of products from China but exports little in return. As a result, shipping rates to China are far lower than from China. Once in China, thanks in part to low labor costs, it was profitable for a few Chinese companies to sort and turn some of the material into pellets for resale. The percentage that was too useless to turn a profit was landfilled or incinerated. For decades, this is how much of the global “recycling” infrastructure worked, but eventually, the Chinese Government came to realize the external cost associated with the trade, such as human health and pollution, so in 2017, they informed the World Trade Organization that the game was over. Of course, plastic waste is still shipped regularly to places like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and India, where the material is sorted and cleaned, largely by hand, to be recycled, with the percentage deemed to have negative value there dumped or burned. People in every country consume and dispose of plastic products at an alarming rate, but most purchase what they want/need/can afford, often with few options to avoid the plastic products and packaging that are so aggressively marketed to them. Producers and manufacturers are rarely assigned any responsibility for the treatment or disposal of their products post-consumer.

Meanwhile, Back at Taylor Guitars

For several months, I looked out my office window and watched the cube of plastic stretch wrap grow. We posted a picture on social media, wrote about it in our company newsletter, read reports, contacted other companies, and consulted with environmental experts such as John Hocevar at Greenpeace and Jan Dell at The Last Beach Cleanup. We also started looking at other examples of plastic usage at the factory. As we tried to separate fact from fiction and better understand several apparent contradictions, a funny thing happened. Apparently, the giant cube of plastic, that nuisance to anyone looking for a parking spot, spurred a lot of conversations across the Taylor campus, leading to the implementation of several solutions to use less plastic and to find alternatives. For example, pallets of guitar neck parts routinely moved by forklift from building to building here in El Cajon or shipped between El Cajon and our factory in Tecate, Mexico, once secured by stretch wrap, are now secured using cardboard shoulders with metal bindings. The same thing goes for multiple container bins filled with various guitar parts that are shipped back and forth. We’re also exploring packaging design changes to our ebony guitar slide to move away from the plastic blister pack, and we’re trying to use paper to protect our TaylorWare items (T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, etc.) when shipped for delivery. Sure, you can say we should have done this years ago, and you’re right.

Whatever Happened to the Big Plastic Cube?

As we talked with various companies looking for the most responsible way to dispose of our stretch wrap (some said we needed to pay to have it removed; others said they would pay us), we asked a set of questions. For example: What are you going to do with it? Would you sell it, landfill it, burn it, recycle it? If recycled, into what? How far would it be transported? Will it be exported? We weren’t looking for specific predetermined answers. We were just trying to understand the situation, and we held the basic belief that recycling is obviously better than a landfill, and that transporting it to a closer destination was better than one farther away. Whether we paid or got paid wasn’t a factor, as it wasn’t a lot of money either way.

Of all the plastic that ever existed, more than half was produced in the last 15 years.

Taylor is now working with a company called PreZero, which has a recycling facility a little over 100 miles north of us in Jurupa Valley, California. PreZero recycles our stretch wrap into pellets, which are shipped up to their facility in Oroville, California. The Oroville facility uses the pellets to make polybags for many name-brand stores you might see at shopping malls. PreZero’s Oroville factory is one of the few facilities we could find that makes polybags with recycled material. (As I’ll explain in a minute, we use polybags in conjunction with shipping guitars.)

For months, many of the experts we consulted about our stretch wrap problem encouraged us, if we have to buy plastics, to buy plastics with recycled content because we need to drive the recycled market. Again, the cold truth is that virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled, and as a result, the infrastructure to recycle plastic is pathetically small.

The Truth About the Polybags Taylor Uses

As longtime readers of Wood&Steel know, we have long maintained that the single greatest cause of damage to solid-wood acoustic guitars results from overly dry or humid conditions. We feel so strongly about humidity control that not only is every guitar and wooden guitar case that we produce built in a humidity-controlled environment, but before our encased guitars are boxed in our shipping warehouse, the case (or gig bag) is placed inside a polybag to further protect the instrument on its journey across the country or around the world.

When a guitar leaves our factory, it is in ideal condition, but its journey to you can be an arduous one. It will likely travel on a semi-trailer truck, and maybe it will be loaded into a metal container and placed on an ocean-going cargo ship. Before you ever touch your guitar, it may have been warehoused and, depending on the time of year, traveled across regions with significantly different climates and humidity levels. Exposure to significant changes in temperature and humidity, especially low humidity, can cause wood to shrink (or swell in high humidity), negatively impacting sound and playability and potentially leading to damage to the instrument. That said, a fine-quality guitar that’s properly cared for will last generations.

Until recently, our polybags were made with 100-percent virgin resin, but now, thanks to that giant cube of plastic that once haunted me outside my office window, we’re transitioning to bags with 60-percent recycled content (that I hope will soon become 80 percent).

So, to summarize, our discarded plastic stretch wrap (which we’re using less of) is now recycled into pellets in Jurupa Valley, California, which are shipped to Oroville, California, where they are made into polybags. We now buy these same polybags to help protect our guitars, replacing the virgin fiber polybags previously used. It’s not a perfect solution. But it’s better than what was happening. This is an example of why we try to avoid claiming we are a sustainable company or that our guitars are sustainable because (a) when you look at the entire manufacturing process, we’re/they’re not, and (b) sustainability must be seen as a never-ending journey.

And just to clarify, the intent of sharing what we’re doing isn’t to score a pat on the back. We’ve got more plastic issues to deal with. Honestly, we’ve only recently starting looking at it comprehensively. And I apologize for that. We’re simply trying to be transparent about where we are and what we’re trying to do about it. And we have a long way to go. In fact, we’re lucky to have found PreZero, a reasonably local recycler for our plastic film, and we’re lucky that it is clean, industrial plastic waste of one type. It also is in a decent quality and quantity to pick up in bales.

So, here we are. Of all the plastic that ever existed, more than half was produced in the last 15 years. As individual consumers, we can focus on reducing plastic waste generation, consume less and consume with more discretion, but, honestly, the best thing we can do is hold companies accountable, vote, pass legislation and call out greenwashing when we see it. And that includes at Taylor Guitars, so please address your concerns directly to me. We’ve already got a list going. The recent steps we’ve taken at Taylor with our stretch wrap and polybags are good, of course, but right now are more mitigation than solution. There is much more that we can all do to clean up our own house. Remember, sustainability is an ongoing journey, and we need to pick up the pace.