5th July 2020
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Just as plastic cannot be collected from the oceans and deserts for composting, it cannot be collected for recycling. Recycling does not therefore address the principal concern about plastics – how to deal with the plastic which has escaped into the open environment.
Whilst almost all pre-consumer waste (eg factory offcuts) is recycled or reused, almost all post-consumer waste plastic is not. There are reasons for this, one of which is that a great deal of water is needed to wash post-consumer waste to make it useable, so the amount of waste-water generated is enormous. Moreover, this process leaves large quantities of dirty solid waste, including biological waste that is hazardous and highly undesirable.
The recycling charity RECOUP says (“Recyclability by Design”) that “where plastic products are particularly lightweight and contaminated with other materials, the energy and resources used in a recycling process may be more than those required for producing new plastics. In such cases recycling may not be the most environmentally sound option.”
It is too costly in financial and environmental terms to collect it, transport it, sort it, bail it, store it, and then reprocess it, and that is why it was being dumped in the forests in Asia.
By contrast, PET bottles are worth collecting for recycling, and oxo-bio technology is not suitable for use in their manufacture.
Most of the plastic that does get reprocessed is larger items e.g. plastic drinks bottles have a 56% rate. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-03/WWF_Plastics_Consumption_Report_Final.pdf
Minimal amounts of plastic bags (or “film”) are processed, and RECOUP data shows that the collection rate for household plastic film is only 5%. https://www.plastikmedia.co.uk/recoup-household-plastics-collection-survey/ , PDF version
According to US National Public Radio (March 31, 2020) “For decades, Americans have been sorting their trash believing that most plastic could be recycled, but the truth is, the vast majority of all plastic produced can’t be or won’t be recycled. In a joint investigation, NPR and the PBS series “Frontline” found that oil and gas companies — the makers of plastic — have known that fact all along, even as they were telling the American public the opposite.
Starting in the late 1980s, the plastics industry spent tens of millions of dollars promoting recycling through ads, recycling projects and public relations, telling people plastic could be and should be recycled. But their own internal records dating back to the 1970s show that industry officials long knew that recycling plastic on a large scale was unlikely to ever be economically viable.
A top official, who led SPI for more than a decade, says the strategy to push recycling was simple: “The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire, we had to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products,” he says. “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.”
The plastics industry was under attack by environmentalists for one main reason – that if plastics get into the open environment they can lie or float around for decades.
They could have solved this problem by making the plastic products with oxo-biodegradable technology so that they would become biodegradable and would be recycled back into nature by bacteria and fungi. Instead they ignored (and even opposed) this technology, which has been proven since the 1970s, and they spent millions of dollars trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the consumers.
The Guardian (UK) reported on 17th August 2019 that recycling was “really a complete myth” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish , PDF Version
In Tennessee USA https://theintercept.com/2019/07/20/plastics-industry-plastic-recycling/ , PDF Version “The reality of plastics recycling? It’s pretty much already dead. In 2015, the U.S. recycled about 9 percent of its plastic waste, and since then the number has dropped even lower.
The best way to deal with contaminated post-consumer waste plastic is to send it to modern, non-polluting, thermal recycling facilities and to use the energy released from the plastic to generate electricity, instead of wasting it by sending to landfill.
Recycling is sometimes used as an objection to biodegradable plastic, on the basis that it would contaminate a post-consumer waste stream, but this is clearly inapplicable if the relevant waste plastic is not going to be mechanically recycled.
A March 2020 Report by the Institute of Environmental Engineering, Zurich, for the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment found that:
“Conventional plastics may contain pro-oxidant additives that were added for different intended functionalities. Moura et al. (1997) described that colorants in general can act as pro-oxidants. If they partake in the creation of radicals or reactive oxygen species, such as singlet oxygen (1Δg), they can trigger photo-degradation of the polymer matrix.” “Conventional plastic products (n = 23) were found to regularly contain Fe, Ba, Ti, Zn, Cu and V. Some individual conventional plastic bag samples also contained Cr and Pb” “Thus, a potentially much higher number of plastics on the market may match the current legal definition of oxo-degradable plastics without being advertised or intended as such, i.e. unintentional ODP.”
Users of recyclate cannot therefore assume that the recyclate does not contain pro-oxidants, but this does not matter if the recyclate is to be used for short-life products such as carrier bags, garbage sacks, or general packaging, where biodegradability is actually desirable.
With regard to long-life products, the Austrian specialist laboratory TCKT said in para. 1 of its March 2016 report. http://www.biodeg.org/TCKT%20Report%2017.3.16(1).pdf that “long-life films should be made with virgin polymer, or be stabilized to deal with loss of properties caused by the recycling process, whether or not any pro-degradant additive is present. Such stabilization would effectively neutralize the effect of any pro-degradant additive.”
Although oxo-biodegradable plastic is used for low-value items which are not worth recycling, the experts in Austria (TCKT Report para. 4) and South Africa (Roediger Report May 2012 page 3 https://www.biodeg.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/ROEDIGER-REPORT-21-May-2012.pdf ) have confirmed that if anyone wished to recycle them, they may be recycled without any significant detriment to the newly formed recycled product.
See also the 2011 Study by Jakubowicz and Enebro (97 Polymer Degradation & Stability (2012) 316-321).
This accords with the experience of OPA members who have recycled many thousands of tons of oxo-biodegradable plastic over the past 20 years without any adverse effects.
The experts also found that bio-based plastics are not recyclable in a conventional plastic waste-stream. This is well known, but is seldom heard as an objection to that type of plastic.
Having considered all the issues mentioned above policymakers have to decide whether recycling is a sufficient reason to continue to allow ordinary plastic to be used for short-life packaging which could get into the open environment and lie or float around for many decades.