Letter: We're not as good at recycling plastics as we think


Over the past 65 years, the world’s appetite for plastics has increased dramatically. In 2015, it is estimated 322 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally according to the World Economic Forum.

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This number does not include synthetic fibres that are used to produce fabrics and carpets. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastichas been generated around the world. Much of that plastic has polluted our natural environment. In fact, over 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans annually. Plastics used for packaging and textiles make up a growing component of landfills. The average North American generates over 90 pounds of textile wasteeach year. The world's plastic waste crisis has won the attention of Britain's Royal Statistical Society, which chose 90.5 percent— the proportion of global plastic waste that has never been recycled — as its international statistic of the year for 2018. Sadly, it is estimated that an additional 12 billion tonnes of plastic will be lost to disposal by 2050.   

Despite what we may believe, we are not very good at recycling plastic. Nationally, Canadians produce between 2 and 2.7 kilograms of waste each day. In fact, almost 25 billion kilogramsof “non-hazardous waste” went to waste disposal facilities in 2016 in Canada. About 11 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW) is plastic. According to a Canadian Geographic article, the “waste produced annually by every Canadian is about twice what is produced per capita in Japan, and as much as 10 times what is produced by a half-dozen countries in Africa.” In 2016, at least 325.0 million kilograms of postconsumer (including commercial) plastic material in Canada was collected for recycling. That means the plastic we recycle represents less than one percent of all the waste we generate!

Plastic Beach
Source: Thinkstock photo

According to onestudyfrom Columbia University, plastics represent about 11% of the total MSW generated in the U.S in 2011. Less than seven-tenths of one percent of plastics were actually recycled, and 3.9 million tons were converted to energy in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants while 0.27 million tons were used as alternative fuel in cement production. Nearly 83 percent of all plastics in MSW remained in the landfill.89 percent of our plastics are landfilled or incinerated.

Locally, Metro Vancouver generated 3.3 million tonnes of waste in 2016. Just over 1.252 billion kilograms of wastewas sent to Metro Vancouver disposal facilities, which include landfills and the waste-to-energy site in Burnaby. Metro Vancouver estimateseach of us contributed 369 kg of household garbage to our landfills in 2015. Approximately 16 percent of that garbage was non-recycled plastic. The total amount of waste generated per person in the region has improved slightly— we generated 1.37 tonnes of waste per person in 2016, or 3.75 kg per day. That’s about 1 kilogram more than the national average.

How much is recycled locally? In Metro Vancouver, over 2 million tonnes of material from residents, businesses and industry were recycled or diverted from disposal in Metro Vancouver in 2016, which is 62 per cent of the waste material generated in the region. Recyclables included everything from asphalt to yard and food waste.

(About) 4,583 tonnes of household plastics were dutifully recycled by Metro Vancouver residents. Overall, the plastics we recycle in the region represent only about 15% of all the plastics that we generate here, with the rest ending up in landfills, incinerators or the environment.

What happens to the plastic we actually recycle?

If it is a plastic bottle, chances are it will be recycled. Bottles make up about 60 percent of plastic recyclables. What happens to the other plastics? The other 40 percent of non-bottle rigid plastic, films and foam can be used in automotive components, crates, garden products, pipe, various consumer and household products, lumber and decking, and fence posts. However, there is a strong likelihood it was baled and shipped out of the country or incinerated. At the beginning of 2018, China restricted importation of plastics. Now, bales of Canadian recyclables are being divertedto landfills or shipped to other regions of Asia for disposal.

What are the costs of not recycling or reusing plastics?  An estimated 95% of the material value of plastic packaging, or between $100 and $150 billion dollars annually, is lost to the global economy after only a single use.

greenpeace plastic
Image: Greenpeace Canada / Twitter

Additionally, plastics are largely made from fossil fuels, so our dependency not only takes up landfill space but also promotes additional resource extraction which degrades the environment. Between 4 and 5 percent of either oil or natural gasproduced each year is employed to generate plastics.

Incineration or waste to energy may reduce the bulk of some of the plastics, but combustion also introduces CO2 and other harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. For typical Swedish and European conditions, incineration of plastics has net emissions of greenhouse gases. These emissions are also in general higher for incineration than for landfill disposal.

Clearly we face a growing problem, but what is the solution? Integrating reuse and recycling considerations into the design of plastic products is necessary to reduce the costs of bringing recycled materials back into the economy. We must expand, modernize and harmonize collection systems across the region. We must limit and responsibly use single-use plastic products. Our recycling infrastructure needs to expand significantly. Businesses and governments can drive markets recycled materials through the creation of standards, regulations, fees, procurement policies and specifications that support refurbished and recycled content. Product stewardship, extended producer responsibility and deposit-refund programs play an important role. We must monitor our actions and develop better capture and clean-up methods.

As consumers we can make the choice to use less plastic. Avoid single-use plastic products, buy products that are more durable and use them longer before discarding them. Use alternatives to plastic if they are available. Continue to reduce, reuse and recycle. Demand better environmental leadership and accountability from businesses and politicians.

Reducing plastic waste is a daunting task, and we cannot do it alone. However, we can each take a leadership role locally and inspire others to do better. Too often we wait until it is too late before we take the actions that are needed.

Rick McGowan, Burnaby


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