Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

The Recycled Plastic Scandal

SPOTLIGHT: The widespread dumping of recycled plastic in poor countries isn’t helping the environment.

BIG PICTURE: Last week, the Global Warming Policy Foundation released a paper titled Save the Oceans: Stop Recycling Plastic. EU waste disposal policies, it argues, are disconnected from reality.

Mikko Paunio, a Finnish public health expert, reports that a large percentage of plastic gets recycled by businesses because it makes sense. In that context, plastic tends to be uniform, or at least limited to a few varieties.

Material collected curbside from private residences (aka post consumer plastic) is another matter entirely. Problem one is that many different kinds of plastic are mixed together. Sorting it is expensive. Problem two is that it needs to be cleaned. This is resource-intensive and creates a new challenge. As Paunio explains:

A great deal of water is needed to wash the waste to make it useable, so the amount of waste water generated is enormous. Moreover, this process leaves prodigious quantities of dirty solid waste, including biological waste that is hazardous…

That new category of hazardous sludge constitutes problem three. Problem four is that the market for recycled plastic is constrained by the fact that there’s a worldwide glut in inexpensive ‘virgin’ plastic.

In other words, European countries spend a lot of time, money, and effort recycling post consumer plastic. Not because it makes sense, but so they can pat themselves on the back. So they can brag about how environmentally responsible they are. So officials can claim to have met their recycling targets.

What happens to this plastic? Much of it ends up in landfills, despite all that effort. Even worse, millions of tons have been exported to countries with inferior waste management systems. The sort of countries where trash routinely ends up in rivers that flow into the ocean.

Paunio says that once plastic arrives at a European sorting plant:

it more or less counts as ‘recycled’ for EU monitoring purposes, so it is then a matter of dealing with it in the most convenient way, which may well not involve recycling at all.

Much of the plastic…has been sent to the Far East, where it may or may not be turned into new plastic objects. The EU has been, until now, the largest exporter of plastic waste to China.

After China banned such shipments earlier this year, they were diverted to other Asian nations, in which “the waste management infrastructure…is much more primitive.” How much of Europe’s second-hand plastic is being purposefully discharged into the ocean, burned in the open air, or dumped into sub-standard landfills by bad actors in Third World countries? It’s impossible to tell.

As this 5-minute GWPF video explains, despite the absurdity of the situation, there’s immense resistance to changing course.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Green groups fantasize about a world in which everything is virtuously recycled. They’re prepared to use other nations as refuse heaps in pursuit of that fantasy.

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This entry was posted on July 2, 2018 by in ethical & philosophical and tagged , , .
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