The other day, my brother Ed asked me about a proposal for a new recycling program in our city of Ottawa Canada. He really wants to know what I think. The new program, which apparently increases the responsibility of businesses and has them pay for the costs of recycling the packaging they produce. The program seems to have lots of support. Even the local green party member is tacitly supporting it (he says they should move faster with implementation). Since, I actually worked at a plastic recycling facility in Ottawa, and have been researching and thinking about the related issues, this question has personal significance to me!
On the surface it look like a great idea. Canadians are proud of their green tech and are genuinely and deeply passionate about ‘saving the environment’ and ‘going green’. Perhaps the most compelling part of the idea is that consumers can keep consuming, governments can keep operating their same programs, and industry can innovate and keep doing what it is doing.
Our Dad is a historian. Our basement is full of history books and growing up we learned all sorts of stories from him about long ago battles and politics. The funny thing was how those long ago battles were so much like the ones we have today.
It good to take a look at the history of recycling and about industrial solutions to plastic (and pollution in general). Industry and government has been presiding over solutions for plastic for the last few decades. The results, as measured by scientists, are pretty clear: absolute massive failure. The most broad meta-study of what has happened to our plastic over the last fifty years an estimated 8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced worldwide; 9% of which have been recycled, 12% were incinerated and 79% have accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.1
11% of a test of effectiveness is pretty dismal.
But there’s something worse. The concept of recycling, as developed and delivered to us by industry, systematically decrease our collective ecological awareness over the decades.
When my family and I consumed plastic back in the 80’s in Whitehorse and threw it away, we knew exactly where it was going. In fact often we would bring it to the local dump ourselves. Today, no one has any idea where the plastic they use goes. I worked at the local Ottawa recycling facility, and would ask my foreman where they various bales were going “India, China, Pakistan” were his answers. That was the foreman of the plant, and that’s the most he knew. I didn’t bother to ask what purpose or where after that.
Up until 2017, most of the folks in the UK who happily assumed that their council and industry were taking care of their plastic– until David Attenborough and other investigative journalist showed them pictures of their UK plastic (often still their town’s labelled recycling bag) kicking around in vast south east asian dump sites.
Will increasing the efficiency of Ottawa recycling make it work? Will imposing responsibilities on plastic producers make them more responsible? Will having business invest more in recycling and plastic technology save the day? While these may sound fantastic, its good to remember similar proposals and promises over the last thirty years and compare them to the results. Sure it will help… a little.
According to the scientist who wrote the plastic survey study, Roland Geyer if we keep going, with just little amendments to our direction, we’re still effectively headed in to the same place. Tthe guy behind the first study I quoted of all the plastic generate dand dumped since 1950 writes “Without a sea change in industrial habits, this is our lasting legacy”.
So what to do back in Ottawa? Sorry Ed, but I am going to avoid directly answering your question. Over the last decade, I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times about all sorts of different recycling technologies. Is this type of reycling good? Is plastic to oil a solution? Is making roads a solution? What strikes me first and foremost is that the folks making the decision about the recycling in Ottawa, for all their good intentions, are missing an adequate framework to make a proper evaluation of their plastic management options.
Since, my background is in philosophy, with a love ethics, this is where I think I can best assist. That green party candidate, his top priority is surely ecological concerns, yet his evaluation of the reycling options falls into relatively simplisitic critirea: “How much plastic can we divert from landfill?” “How much of the funding can be taken in by industry rather than the government?” “How can responsibility can we put on manufacturing?”
From these limited questions, all sorts of consequences are overlooked– that I think we actually want to consider. We don’t want to
My friend Pak Har, who is the CEO of a large Indonesian juice corporation, is extremely conscious of his company’s plastic production. His company sells packaged juice products which produces over 2000 tons of non-recyclable plastic which go loose into the Indonesian biosphere every year. He told the story of attending a family wedding of the owner of the company that supplies him the plastic for his products. At the wedding, Pak Har bumped into the owners suppliers– executives from big oil corporations. Pak Har tries his absolute best to reduce and take responsibilty for his plastic. But between the consumer demand for his product, the government packaging regulations, and the perfect combination of cheap and useful plastic, even his large company is constrained by the current economy.
There is another consideration to plastic management that wasn’t thought of thirty years ago. As all this plastic moves from company to company, industry to industry, much energy is expended along the way. The CO2 emissions of managing, moving and recycling plastic have become more and more significant. In addition, by 2030, CO2 emissions from the production, processing and disposal of plastic could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.4
This production trend is set to continue and increase from 2019 on: according to the American Chemistry Council, since 2010 $186bn dollars is being invested in 318 new projects to fuel a 40% increase in plastic production over the next decade2. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.3
2Matthew Taylor, ‘$180bn investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge‘, (theguardian.com, 26 Dec 2017)
4Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, Center for International Environmental Law, Executive Summary, May 2019
So, its become pretty clear that many of things we though we’re good for the planet are not. I remember when I was a kid and learned the important of recycling to ‘save the environment’. Alas, thirty years later, it is clear that not only was recycling a massive failure at saving the environment, it actually was worse– it harmed the environment. Of all the plastic produced, 89% of arrived in the biosphere. But worse the plastic that was recycled ending up in the environment. Worse, citizens were de-engaged from ecological participation– they simply handIn particular the industrial means we’ve been using to recycle, incinerate and dump plastic. Some cal it green washing– implying a kind of deception. However, I feel that this isn’t fair. Beneath these attempts and enterprise is a genuine ecological concern. It’s just that it hasn’t really worked out.