Does Recycling Really work?

We have recycled for decades but have hardly made a dent in the amount of plastic that has piled up  in landfills and oceans. Only 9% of plastics manufactured since the 1950s worldwide have been recycled. The vast majority of those plastics were being sold to be recycled in China, which was the largest global market for plastic waste in the world at one point. This practice caused contaminated plastics to accrue in China, raising environmental concerns. As a result of the devastating environmental ramifications of the rapid industrialisation China had undergone, the government decided upon a way to decrease the importation of plastics. In 2018 the Chinese government made it illegal for low quality, contaminated plastics to be imported into the country for processing or recycling. With the inception of the National Sword Policy some truths involving the plastics industry had unravelled.

Where the Myth Began

Recycling plastic has, for the most part, never been economically viable but was always touted as a solution to getting rid of the waste. The originators of the myth of “sustainable plastics”  were none other than oil and gas companies that had invested $50 million a year on ad campaigns during the 1990s to relieve their image of the heavy criticisms of the public throughout the 1980s. During the 1980s, North American cities had become laden with plastic with nowhere to go. This created aggressive attitudes and thus a combative legislature to hinder or increasingly control the selling of plastics. This only encouraged the oil industry to engineer more persuasive tactics to lend plastics a “greener” image in the ’90s. These ads would tout the innumerable benefits of plastics on top of their multifaceted uses; this bombardment no doubt was manufactured to influence the public’s opinion.   Just like that, the narrative against plastics changed as they became viewed as being  more environmentally conscious by virtue of their assumed recyclability. It wasn’t just the ads that were utilized to sway the prevailing sentiment regarding plastics, there was also the inconspicuous yet pervasive international recycling logo. This logo falsely led many to believe that the plastic they were throwing into their recycling bins was viably recyclable. The entities involved in introducing this icon would go on to claim that the intention of introducing “the three chasing arrows”  was to help sort the plastics it was emblazoned on.

The international recycling symbol. Photo via flickr.com

Though this is the industry’s claim regarding the matter, others who were involved in its creation would argue that the symbol is not so innocent. The international recycling symbol was another reaction to the criticisms the plastics industry faced in the ’80s. To some, this was a ploy engineered to diminish the awareness of the consumer by subtly conveying that the plastics being consumed were to be recycled. Though most of these plastics technically are recyclable, it is more economically viable to produce plastics from oil than it is to process it from used plastics. This is because it takes very expensive manpower to sort through hundreds of different types of plastics along with the cleaning and processing of the plastics. In fact, it is arguable that melting down used plastics is far less energy efficient and more wasteful than producing the plastic from scratch, as more energy is used just to sort, clean and process the material. 

  This was no concern for the gas and oil industry. As recycled plastics were their main competitor, their goal from the beginning was to produce as much virgin material as possible. The millions spent on clearing plastic’s image were just used to sell more oil, a desire that is only exacerbated in the present day when demand for oil from cars and trucks is receding. Due to  this, it is expected that most of the profits that the oil industry would garner from plastics would even exceed profits from automobiles, so much so that the industry is willing to bet $400 billion on it.

  Whether or not these predictions are reliable, there is the fact that millions of tonnes of plastics have been produced throughout this drama, and millions more will be produced. So much of it is manufactured and discarded that at times it goes eastward.

International Dumping Grounds

There was a time when Chinese plastics processing companies bought plastics at a very competitive price in order to manufacture recycled plastics which they would  eventually sell in the west. At the time, approximately 70% of American plastic waste and 95% of European plastics waste was being sent off to be processed in China. Due to China’s low labour costs and its demand for recyclable material, a healthy profit from this arrangement was a foregone conclusion. 

   That was until the National Sword Policy took effect in 2017. As it turns out, China had become overburdened with low-grade contaminated plastics that would either get incinerated or discarded in landfills. The sheer amount of discarded waste would accumulate and produce worries about the environment. This new policy would be the solution to China’s waste problem; no longer would China accept low-quality contaminated municipal waste. Instead, Chinese plastics processing plants only accept pristine, uncontaminated high-grade plastics. This has caused the quantity of recyclables exported to China to dwindle by 99%.

A portion of the price for China’s rapid economic development was the deterioration of its environment; this photo is just part of the full extent of the pollution that ravaged the country. Photo via flick.com

    The policy has since proved a source of apprehension for those countries that relied on China for waste disposal. Many are now scrambling to find the answer to their crisis in South East Asian countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia, but none of those countries are as lenient as China once was. This still does not change the fact that these countries are facing the same reputation as dumping grounds for the global north. This is a common relationship that repeats itself as a phenomenon called “toxic colonialism,”. Here,the countries of the global north habitually dump either toxic or contaminated waste in and around the countries of the global south. This phenomenon is quite a common occurrence, to such an extent that there are many examples of it occurring. 

   An infamous example would be when a private Canadian company had sold municipal waste to the Philippines under the guise of it being high-grade recyclable material. The Philippines had a very long spat with Canada until it was finally agreed that the garbage would return to its origin. Except this time, the shipment was considered to be full of garbage instead of high-quality recyclables. This marks an ever ubiquitous double standard when it comes to international trade relations, especially when the very agreement meant to control the transport of hazardous waste is broken. 

   Canada and the Philippines are both signatories of the Basel Convention which was an accord conceived for the very purpose of restricting the transport of waste from wealthy countries to developing nations. It only reveals the disrespect extended to nations that are conceived as being dumping grounds and the indifference of the modern recycling industry. Because such an overreliance had been placed on selling waste abroad over the past few decades, the recycling industry of the west had been left underdeveloped, lacking the infrastructure to deal with the waste. As a result, new developments are being made to solve the problem

New Beginnings

   Some see this issue as an opportunity to develop experimental ways of dealing with the piling of plastics waste. Among these entities, there is a consensus that we should not merely incinerate the waste but to contrive new ways of using it to its fullest extent. One such development is pyrolysis, in which plastics are processed into fuel. The result is a product that is chemically similar to fossil fuels and so can be used as an alternative. Pyrolysis is expected to make large profits if implemented on a larger scale, particularly because not much sorting is needed to process the material. It can be processed from a “mixed stream” of material. Due to the versatility of these processes, it is predicted that they may have a wide implementation in the future of the recycling and even plastics industry as it may save money used towards seeking raw material. Though these developments may not be panacea to the plastic , they may be a more viable solution to a decades-long problem.

The results of pyrolysis is a product that can be used in place of  fossil fuels. Photo via flickr.com

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