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August 3, 2019

The plastic problem: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad Khan


August 3, 2019

The practice of recycling has everything to commend it: On a finite planet, it conserves resources; it is meretricious allowing us, as it does, to pin a mental merit badge on our chests as we ready the assigned recycling bin once a week; and it is an activity that is all good.

We are saving the planet, albeit in a small way, from some of the excesses of the developed world. And when everyone does their share, the impact has to be unavoidably significant. Right. Or, does it?

If we examine what we recycle, that is paper, glass, metal cans and plastic, the junk mail and other paper discarded is the most copious but plastic is close. Almost all of it used to go to the developed world’s great recycling bin in the east … China. It absorbed some 95 percent of EU recyclable waste and 70 percent from the US. But China began to grow its own domestic garbage with the growth of its economy. The consequences have not been unexpected. China announced a new policy in 2018, named inexplicably National Sword, banning the import of most recyclables, particularly plastics and contaminated materials.

Since then China’s import of such recyclables has fallen 99 percent. Needless to say, metals and glass are not as seriously affected. For the American recycling industry, it has been a major earthquake. First, about 25 percent of recyclables are contaminated and not recyclable. Then there are plastic bags. Not only are these, too, not recyclable but they tend to jam up sorting machinery.

The sorting of waste sent to China had been taken over by families in port side communities. It became their livelihood, retrieving whatever fetched a price and dumping the rest. Piling up in ad hoc landfills, it washed down waterways into the ocean. They were not the only culprits. Thus we have had the phenomenon of whales being washed up dead, starved because stomachs were full of plastic – 88 pounds densely packed in the stomach of one found in the Philippines and 50 pounds inside another in Sardinia. China’s ban on waste imports has been followed by Malaysia and Vietnam. In March of this year, India joined them.

As the outlets for their waste disappear and as most of the plastics are not recycled, self-reliance has been forced upon developed countries. All to the good for the environment, because it will also curtail the use of plastics out of necessity. The truth is only a fraction of plastic waste is recyclable, generally the white transparent bottles of which some are preferred. Most ends up in landfills. A 2017 study in Science Advances determined that 90% of plastics ever produced are still in the environment. Yet in the past six decades an estimated 8 billion tons have been produced. Moreover, the usage trend is upwards and in 2014 some 311 million tons were produced worldwide.

There is though a small movement to restore reusable bottles, and a company called Loop Industries may be on the right track. Their founders announced at the World Economic Forum in 2019 that they aim to return to the milkman model, reusing bottles for everything from edibles to shampoo and detergent. Loop has partnered with Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, PepsiCo, and other large companies. Perhaps, if we all return to the milk bottle model of the 1950s – refilling containers to be used again – there may be greater hope for the planet. The good news is, some towns and states have already banned single-use plastic bottles.

Another intriguing possibility is to use the millions of tons of crustacean shells discarded. Scientists are now able to extract chitin and chitosan from shrimp and lobster shells. Still, in the research stage, the process has to be made industrially feasible, and there are also problems with hazardous waste as it uses potent chemicals like sodium hydroxide.

Excerpted from: ‘Can Recycling Really Solve the Plastic Problem?’.


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