Dyer: The mess that is plastic recycling

Kristy Dyer is a columnist for Black Press Media who writes about the environment

Note: If you are fighting climate change, plastic recycling is a lousy place to start. B.C.’s total carbon generation is dominated by industrial processes and freight.

Even if you only consider your household carbon footprint, recycling has less impact than washing your clothes in cold water.

With China refusing North American plastic, and oil company records being released, it’s time to take a new look at recycling plastic. Let’s face the facts.

Plastic is not actually being recycled.

The actual “recycling process” doesn’t happen when you rinse a soda bottle and place it into a blue bin. It happens when the used bottle becomes part of a new bottle. Deloitte estimates that of all the plastic generated between 1950 and 2015, only 9 percent was recycled (this was before China shut down).

READ MORE: Three Okanagan businesses recognized for recycling oil

Plastic is not actually recyclable.

Glass and aluminium can be easily separated from contaminates (labels and adhesives or food) and melted down and reused. You can continue this cycle indefinitely. The materials are just as useful the 100th time as the first and 100% of a new glass bottle can come from recycled bottles. Plastics are made up of polymer chains that shorten during the recycling processing. This means plastic degrades with each re-cycle, becoming more brittle and less transparent. Effectively, #1 and #2 plastic can be added to virgin plastic once, and then it’s landfill.

The end fate of all of the plastic made between 1950-2013 measured in million tons. Image used by :Our World In Data

Only 20% of plastic can be reused at all.

#1 PET (soda bottles) and #2 HPED (milk jugs) can be added to virgin polymers to make new containers. The rest is garbage. Even this 20% has issues:

  • The “value” of PET and HPED is related to the price of oil. When the price of oil drops, PET and HPED aren’t worth enough to transport to recycling facilities or run the complex recycling process. And now, in 2020, we are entering an era of low oil prices.

The value of PET and HPED depends on the price of oil — and we are entering an era of low oil prices

  • Small amounts of contaminants (remember that plastics #3-7 make up 80 percent of plastic waste) can damage the quality of a batch of resin, making it worthless.

We believe that properly sorting and rinsing your recycling plastics makes a difference to the planet. We believe this because a multibillion dollar marketing plan taught us plastic was valuable as a recycled material and all plastic was going to be recyclable in the near future. This plan was paid for by the oil and plastics industry, while simultaneously company reports admitted that plastic recycling was never going to be financially worthwhile and would be technically difficult if not impossible for most plastics. This misinformation campaign actually dates back to 1969.

Allowing oil companies to sponsor Earth Day was exactly like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Earth Day activities were channeled into examination of conscience. It became a day of self-analysis, thinking how you might individually change your behavior to better the planet, while oil companies promoted greenwash projects and planned on selling more plastics.

Oil companies (some of the most politically powerful businesses on the planet) are very interested in promoting virgin material plastic. There are two reasons for this. First, changes in transportation, electricity generation, and energy efficiency threatened to reduce the market for oil. Second, just like wine is a value-added product which earns the farmer more than selling grapes, plastics are a value-added product for oil companies. The plan was to replace low profit margin sales of petroleum with higher profit margin sales from petrochemicals.

READ MORE: Big recycling changes coming to South Okanagan residents starting next summer

The fiction that plastic was being recycled was supported up till 2017 by goods the world purchased from China. We purchased Chinese goods delivered by container ships. The ships normally would return empty. Instead we used the free return shipping to send contaminated and mixed plastic recycling to China. (It’s worth pointing out that China can’t deal with its own plastic waste which is six times the volume of the waste it was exporting). The public believed we were making plastic recycling financially possible by using China’s low wages to leverage the cost of human sorting.

Sending plastic to be recycled in China took advantage of the country’s low standards for worker’s health and the environment

What we were really doing was taking advantage of a country with low standards for workers’ health and the environment. There are no accurate records but it is estimated that most plastics were dumped, put in Chinese landfills, or incinerated without scrubbers, releasing dioxins, one of the most toxic, powerful, and persistent poisons.

Is plastic evil? I don’t think so. In fact it’s a miracle of modern science that reduces carbon. In my next column, I’ll talk about effective responses to the problem of unrecyclable plastics.

Missed last week’s column?

Dont get too smug about B.C.’s hydroelectric

About Kristy Dyer:

Kristy Dyer has a background in art and physics and consulted for Silicon Valley clean energy firms before moving (happily!) to sunny Penticton. Comments to Kristy.Dyer+BP@gmail.com

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