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                       What Happens To All That "Recycled" Plastic?


By Terri Chu

Staring at the City of Toronto recycling poster on the subway, my partner asked, “Why can’t they take black plastic?”  The ad helpfully reminds Torontonians what goes in which bin and all black plastics are relegated to municipal solid waste.  I didn’t have an answer. 

Turns out, black plastic isn’t very valuable.  It isn’t accepted into recycling because it is difficult to sort and once dyed black, it can’t be turned back into clear plastic.  In short, it would cost the city more to accept black plastics than they would get for them.  So black plastics in this city are relegated to the landfill. 

Every time I research more into plastic recycling, I am convinced we should rid ourselves of these programs altogether.  Perhaps if people weren’t fooled into thinking plastic was “recycled” then consumption of them would actually go down.  Make no mistake: the plastic industry spends a lot of money on “recycling” ads for a reason.  Not for one minute do they want you to second-guess your purchasing decision. 

What still burns me up (no pun intended) is the city and province’s refusal to even put the idea of recovering energy from waste on the table.  After the Oakville gas plant fiasco, I fully understand the power of NIMBYism, but landfilling tons of high energy plastic a year, and worse, allowing it to eventually make its way into our oceans, is an absolute disgrace. 

Few things made me more embarrassed than when former Premier McGuinty stood in front of a microphone and described the decision to locate the power plant in Oakville a “mistake”.  While cheers of joy sounded in the West end, my ears only heard “politics now trumps science, professional advice, and efficiency”.  For this was only a gas plant, a fuel source that is already in virtually every home in Oakville.  The media focused a lot on the political fallout, but few stories have been written about whether or not siting the plant there was the right decision.  From an environment and efficiency standpoint, absolutely it was.  Cancelling it was the mistake we will be seeing in the future. 

Premier Wynne has promised a new era of politics.  Recovering energy from waste will be highly politically unpopular but a necessary part of our waste management strategy.  Europe, Asia and the Middle East have been recovering energy from waste for decades now.  While there are emissions associated with it, in the long term it emits far less pollution than low level smolders.  One landfill fire (low temperature burn) will more than justify recovering the plastic waste.  New technologies are becoming available all the time, allowing for very clean and efficient recovery.  It would mean less imported natural gas and it would also mean less plastic finding its way into our oceans. 

Over 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating somewhere in the oceans.  That number is going up every day.  Animals often get ensnarled in our plastic waste, leading to devastating consequences.  The ocean is only so big and can only be our waste-bin for so long.  Until we get our plastic consumption down to zero, we need at least to be responsible for breaking it back down into smaller, less harmful parts. 

While there are many valid arguments against recovering energy from waste (cost, the process encourages more waste, etc.), there are many valid reasons to start using it as part of our overall environmental stewardship solutions.  How many more turtles like the one pictured here do we have to see before we start accepting that maybe sending our “recycled” plastics onto boats bound for China maybe isn’t the greatest of ideas?  Sorry, that’s the reality of what happens to much of the blue box. And shipping containers are notorious for getting lost at sea.  It doesn’t take much of a rogue wave to slosh a few containers overboard.  I have very little doubt that some of the plastic waste is from what we thought was bound for recycling. 

When I was living in Ghana, we regularly went to the beach.  While the waters were warm they was littered with plastic bags.  If more facilities existed that recovered energy from various plastics, perhaps rather than finding them on the beach, the plastic bags would make their way to generating stations like beer bottles. 

We also have to ask ourselves, what happens if we were magically able to fish all 5 trillion pieces of plastic out of the oceans? What would we suddenly do with it if we didn’t recover the energy? 

We cannot ignore our environmental responsibilities because it proves politically unpopular.  Reduce, reuse, and then recycle.  Until we have the reduce part down pat, we need a better solution than relying on the latter. 


Terri Chu is an engineer based in Toronto.




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