Up in smoke

Plastics have certainly been in the news the past couple of months. First there was the city of Whitehorse discussing a possible ban of single-use…

Plastics have certainly been in the news the past couple of months.

First there was the city of Whitehorse discussing a possible ban of single-use plastic bags.

Then Raven Recycling got caught up in the world wide commodity collapse and was having trouble selling bales of used plastic margarine containers and shampoo bottles.

Finally, the Yukon government is renewing its burning permits at the community dumps. If this is successful it means the continued burning of wastes, including plastics.

All of this begs the question of what exactly is it about plastics that has everyone concerned?

From a Yukon perspective the main problem with plastics is waste disposal.

Here is a quick examination of each of the plastic issues mentioned.

Plastic bags represent, either by volume or weight, a minuscule percentage of the waste stream.

However, they visually dominate the landfills.

Being light, they get blown around and cling to trees and fences.

They also get entangled with birds and animals, which also eat them.

In both cases the result is usually fatal.

From a recycling perspective plastics can be both good and bad.

Some plastics are easy to sort, easy to handle and are profitable.

Examples of this are the plastic milk jugs or the clear coloured pop bottles.

Raven’s figures show that last year about 10 tonnes of milk jugs and 55 tonnes of both clear and green pop bottles were recycled.

The rest of the bales of plastics being shipped out consist of margarine containers, shampoo bottles and the firm packaging that seems to be wrapped around everything one purchases from a big box store these days.

This mixed plastic constitutes more than 60 tonnes per year.

These days, Raven has a tough time making money on plastics, especially the 60 tonnes of mixed plastics.

From a disposal perspective, burning plastics is about the worst way to deal with it. Regrettably, this is what currently happens in many Yukon communities.

Plastics are made from a variety of sources and chemicals, but the root material tends to be a hydrocarbon.

Plastics come from the very same industry that brought us the Exxon Valdez, the Alberta tarsands.

This means that when plastics burn they give off all sorts of nasty chemicals.

Given that the community dumps have large barrels termed burning vessels it means all those nasty chemicals get scattered over the countryside.

Burning turns those chemicals from a solid state into a gaseous one, thus spreading them on the wind.

In addition, the resulting ash at the bottom of the burn barrel can also contain the nasty chemicals.

When that gets buried, usually in a trench adjacent to the burn vessel, it could leach into the groundwater.

This might eventually end up in the food chain.

Something weird can also happen when burning different types of plastics together.

When different plastics burn together, or when they burn along with Styrofoam, electronics, batteries or whatever else has ended up in the community burn vessels, different chemicals can mix and bond together.

Since no-one really knows what is getting burnt, it is unknown what chemicals are forming and then spewing out of the burn vessel chimney.

Odds are, they are probably not healthy.

In conclusion, and just so the reader isn’t left hanging, here is what has become of those plastic issues that started the column.

Whitehorse did not deal with the possible plastic bag ban, and essentially decided to urge the Yukon government to do something.

No word yet on any progress.

Raven Recycling continues to accept and recycle all plastics, albeit most of them at a financial loss.

The community dump-burning permits are in front of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board.

Deadline for comments from the public is January 16th.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist.