Why is plastic to oil not a good thing?

When we throw our plastic into the recycling bin, we expect it to be converted into reusable material that can enter the marketplace. That's what recycling means, and that's what happens. Plastic is melted down, separated and made into new p


by Steve Parker

When we throw our plastic into the recycling bin, we expect it to be converted into reusable material that can enter the marketplace. That’s what recycling means, and that’s what happens. Plastic is melted down, separated and made into new plastic products which can in turn be recycled into new plastic products and so on.

The No. 1 plastic in your water or pop bottle can be made into a new bottle or similar container by companies able to make food-grade recycled plastic. It can also be turned into fleece jackets and other items of clothing. The important thing here is that the material returns to the marketplace. The fact is that plastic, with the addition of a small amount of new plastic, can be recycled indefinitely.

It’s actually good news that China implemented their “green fence” policy of rejecting shipments of recyclables deemed too contaminated. It allowed China to develop better environmental standards in the industry.

It also means that the North American market is sending China better product. Christina Seidel, of the Recycling Council of Alberta, says sorting plastics is very important because it increases the value and lowers the contamination rates. In B.C., the non-profit Multi Material BC is building a large plant with technology to sort the plastics easily and effectively. This plant will help ensure that Yukon products move to environmentally-friendly marketplaces.

There are reputable processors in places such as China and Vietnam. Many plastic items that are bought in North America are made in China and other Pacific Rim countries. If people want their cheap plastic items, then they have to allow the feedstock to be sent to the countries that make the products.

The question of transportation often gets raised when talking about recycling in a northern town. Having to ship plastics Outside for recycling does cost energy and emit carbon dioxide, but transportation and recycling of that product is only about 10 per cent of the energy used in creating a new product.

A plastic-to-oil machine almost seems too good to be true. And it is. A plastic-to-oil machine cannot take all plastics and sorting is also required. No. 1 and No. 3 plastics cannot be used in the machine, while No. 6 plastic will not produce oil. No. 7 plastic is often a mix and so may contain a plastic that cannot be used in the machine.

That leaves us with a number of plastic items that have to be dealt with by other means. No. 2 plastic can be used for plastic-to-oil, but it is a plastic that is has value on the market and can be easily recycled into new plastic containers. Why would we turn that into oil? Let’s face it, a lot of the plastics we have here can’t actually be used or are not worth being used for plastic-to-oil.

Fans of plastic-to-oil like to trumpet the fact that the process produces little carbon dioxide. However, they like to talk less about the emissions resulting from the burning of the oil.

And what about all that oil we bring into the Yukon? Yes, we do import oil to run our vehicles and heat our homes. We also don’t have enough of the right kind of plastic to replace most of that oil. So the best way to reduce oil imports is to reduce our use of oil. We can increase insulation, turn down our thermostats and start taking the bus. Converting plastic to oil will do little to decrease our carbon footprint.

Finally, there are still lots of questions about the process used with plastic-to-oil. Does the price quoted include the costs of a chipping machine, a washer, collection of feedstock and the employee wages to do all this work? What about dyes and other chemicals used in plastic manufacture? Are they still in the oil, ready to be released when it’s burned as fuel in your furnace?

Recycling plastics and other materials is a loop. Plastics to plastics, paper to paper: that’s how we save Earth’s resources. Plastic-to-oil is not upcycling, downcycling, bicycling or any other kind of cycling. It’s an open-ended system where we are unable to recover and reuse the material.

All in all, recycling is a better option. Plastics are kept in a loop and can circle around many times. Reuse and recycling is better than releasing heat and carbon dioxide into the air – two things this planet needs less of.

Steve Parker is the office coordinator for Raven Recycling. He lives in Whitehorse.