by Andy Lera
When we throw our plastic into the recycling bin, we believe it will make its way into a new product. That’s what the chasing arrows symbol indicates, right?
For some materials this is true. Pop bottles can be made into new bottles or fabric, milk jugs can be made into plastic lumber or pipe. We are diverting plastic away from landfills and making new, useful products out of it, right? That’s what recycling is all about, right?
This is an action that makes us feel good. But this has come with blinders that made us not see the whole picture.
The worldwide plastics recycling industry has seen major changes in the past year. For over 20 years the world sent a large majority of its low-value mixed plastics to China to be processed by low-paid workers who often picked through the materials by hand in former farmers’ fields.
The workers were looking for the high-value resins and throwing aside the trash to be landfilled or regularly lit on fire in open piles, creating health hazards for area residents. The plastics were soaked in water mixed with sulphuric acid or caustic soda to clean it before making new products. The residual solution was commonly dumped into ditches to soak into the ground water and find its way into rivers. (Read about it here: tinyurl.com/burnplastic)
Does recycling feel good now?
These practices allowed even reputable North American brokers to ship unsorted, contaminated loads to China for processing. After all, how can we effectively sort our waste when we are paying workers $18 an hour instead of $18 a month? This practice resulted in China implementing the “green fence policy” in 2013, effectively slamming the door on the world’s face and halting shipments of low-value and contaminated plastics. Most recycling brokers are now either refusing to accept mixed plastic or are charging a fee for handling it.
Recyclers here ship to reputable brokers in B.C. or Washington State. These brokers then try to sell plastic through various buyers. Some is going to products like plastic lumber. A good product, but largely unrecyclable at the end of it’s life. Some is going to Waste to Energy plants to be incinerated. After all, plastic has nearly the same calorific value as fuel
oil and WTE plants derive 1/3 of their energy from plastics. Some of it is going to other Asian countries with lower environmental standards to be sorted and shipped to China.
Does recycling still feel good?
If this plastic had a value to make a good product, recyclers would have no problem selling it. With several hundred tonnes stockpiled in Whitehorse and millions of tonnes stockpiled at recycling centres word wide, we can see this value has dropped through the floor.
However, plastic is still a hydrocarbon and we can make use of this low-value plastic right here with plastic-to-oil machines. These machines, designed in Japan and soon to be built in U.S., convert plastics into either light crude oil, which can be used as heating fuel, or refined into gasoline, diesel and kerosene.
All this can be done with very high efficiency: one kilogram of plastic + one kilowatt hour of electricity = one litre of oil. That’s about $0.14/litre.
Emissions are miniscule: a catalytic converter decomposes the emissions to less carbon dioxide than what three people emit. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program recognizes the machines as a carbon reducing technology. Calculate in the displacement of fossil fuel imports to Yukon, and the plastic-to-oil process is in fact better for the environment than recycling.
Critics say this practice is waste-to-energy – incinerating waste and recovering a small percentage of the energy – and should not be done. That’s misleading. In fact, plastic-to-oil produces a product that is of a higher value than the original plastic and generates 12 times the amount of energy as it uses, so this is not waste-to-energy.
What is it then? We have all had the 3 Rs drilled into us, but that is an outdated concept that needs to be changed.
Plastic-to-oil could be called up-cycling, as defined by Wikipedia as: “the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.”
Recycling, meanwhile, is down-cycling, as defined by Wikipedia is “the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality.” The entry goes on to say that “a clear example of down-cycling is plastic recycling, which turns the material into lower-grade plastics.”
Clearly, up-cycling is better than down-cycling (or recycling). So instead of the 3 Rs we all know, maybe it should be Reduce, Reuse, Up-cycle, Down-cycle.
We have critics stating we should not do plastic-to-oil as we need to subsidize recycling of all the plastic into new plastic. But it is not ethical to have this plastic shipped to poor countries for processing. It is not environmentally desirable to have it incinerated in a waste-to-energy plant. We have a landfill that is reaching maximum capacity. Worldwide markets have crashed for mixed plastic. We are still using millions of litres of oil.
So what will it be? Local processing of plastic creating local jobs, displacing fossil fuel imports and lowering CO2 emissions? Or do we continue to ship plastics out to a broken system and keep our blinders on because we think it feels good to recycle?
Andy Lera is an innovator who strives to find the most environmentally sustainable solutions to our world’s problems. He has built a Passive House, designed a highly efficient heat recovery ventilation system and currently is project manager for his latest passion: plastic-to-oil. He lives in Mount Lorne.