The unstoppable scourge of plastic

Every day our newspaper is delivered to the driveway wrapped in a thin film of plastic to keep it dry in wet weather. The papers are recycled, but every day the plastic goes to the bin – because landfill is the only disposal option.

It wasn’t always that way. For some years we squashed the newspaper wrapper into a huge bag along with other soft plastic scraps, at intervals dropping it into a depository in our supermarket. Along with other customers we had been led to believe that chemical wizardry could make our waste into something someone wanted. 

All seemed well – until the supermarket chains sheepishly admitted their contractors’ warehouses were overflowing with plastic waste. They abruptly terminated the scheme and we were back where we started. We’re still there.

The news is now filtering out that since different plastics have different chemistry, recycling unsorted mountains of plastic is very complex, and therefore expensive. We used to send our discarded plastic to Asian countries, presumably thinking they had the means to sort it, until they too started drowning in the stuff and told us to keep it.

Recycling plastic turns out to be a serious health hazard. Last November a plan for a global plastics treaty formulated by the Plastic Health Council, an international expert group studying its health impacts, included a demand for an end to all chemical recycling.

Promoting chemical recycling would be “the worst outcome” of any kind of plastics treaty, the scientists wrote. Said Swedish chemist Bethanie Carney Almroth, toxic chemicals in plastics complicate their reuse, including processing in closed-loop recycling systems.

The Plastic Health Council also called for an end to subsidies to plastic manufacturers, banning the sale of all products with unnecessary plastic by 2030, and making dramatic cuts to production of single use plastic by half within a decade and the manufacture of virgin, or unrecycled, plastic by 70 per cent this year.

This is a controversial position for any body of experts to take. Some of the world’s biggest and most influential corporations manufacture virgin plastics using chemicals derived from fossil fuels (oil or gas). They can be made to meet almost any need and, under present cost regimes, are markedly cheaper than recycled plastic. Most telling of all, they make up about 99 per cent of all plastics. 

Collecting, sorting, processing and moving plastics for recycling requires more time, labor, and equipment than making virgin plastic from fossil fuels, and results in a lower grade product – less bang for the buyer’s buck. Against that, governments pay billions to support extraction and processing of fossil fuels, a level of subsidy that will always put recycling at a profound economic disadvantage.

Authorities around the world have come to realise that recycling plastic is a mug’s game. “The Fraud of Plastic Recycling”, a detailed study released last month by the Washington-based Center for Climate Integrity, points out that the only current markets for recycled plastics are for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles and jugs. The rest is low-grade junk.

Other plastics collected in kerbside recycling are incinerated or sent to landfill. Even in the near-impossible event that they get sorted into their different chemical types, the huge range of colourants or other additives in use prevents their recycling. 

Recycling (or as the report more accurately describes the process, “downcycling”) can usually happen only once, rarely twice and never more often. The quality of plastic degrades as it is recycled, reducing the usability of recycled plastic. This degradation continues with more recycling, making recycled resins unsuitable for most purposes. This is especially the case for food packaging because of the tendency of recycled plastic to leach toxins.

Where does this leave plastic recycling? Except for a tiny proportion of particular kinds of plastic, it won’t work, hence the supermarket chains’ undignified retreat from their soft plastics program. The truth of the matter is that recycling any plastics, including plastic bottles, is a hit-and-miss affair, and more likely the latter.

Last year Tasmanian Environment Minister Roger Jaensch spruiked the long-awaited Container Refund Scheme “to improve waste management and resource recovery”, but neither Liberal nor Labor have made recycling plastics an election issue. 

The Greens’ policy to “ban all single-use plastics” is clearly the way to go – except that it can’t be done on a local, state or even national scale. World commerce dictates that only a universal prohibition will do – a prohibition on any plastic that for all practical purposes cannot be recycled. That is, pretty well all of it.

How’s that for a political challenge?

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