Bioplastics Chronicles Waste Management

The Plastic Recycling Fairy Tale

Here's a summary of plastic recycling and the Chinese Recycling Scandal

Recycling

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. The first written records of recycling dates back to the Byzantine era (400BC) and paper recycling was done in Japan in AD 1031.

There are several steps to recycling. Simplified: (A) waste sorting at user level and collection. We differentiate between (1) mix vs separate waste streams, and (2) residential vs centralised collection; (B) industrial level sorting; (C) rinsing, washing, processing; (D) recycling.

There are more than 1000 types of plastics, mainly derived from petroleum. Plastics have different molecular structures and are not always compatible when it comes to recycling.

Plastics are usually divided in 3 categories:

  • thermosets / thermosetting: plastics retain strength and shape when heated;
  • thermoplastics: plastics become liquid when heated;
  • elastomers: plastics with a high elongation and flexibility capacity;
    • thermoset elastomers
    • thermoplastics elastomers

Recycling Codes

It’s a uniform system developed by the Society of Plastics Industry in 1988. It’s the universal ID card of plastics to facilitate separation and recycling.

  • 1 = polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (beverage bottles, cups, other packaging, etc.)
  • 2 = high-density polyethylene (HDPE) (bottles, cups, milk jugs, etc.)
  • 3 = polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (pipes, siding, flooring, etc.)
  • 4 = low-density polyethylene (LDPE) (plastic bags, six-pack rings, tubing, etc.)
  • 5 = polypropylene (PP) (auto parts, industrial fibres, food containers, etc.)
  • 6  = polystyrene (PS) (plastic utensils, Styrofoam, cafeteria trays, etc.)
  • 7 = other plastics, such as acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate and polylactic acid (PLA).

plastics recycling codes

Plastic Recycling

There are several waste treatment methods for plastic recycling:

  • Mechanical recycling: plastics are processed with physical means: grinding, shredding, melting. Recycled plastics are used to form new objects. Example: PET waste is converted into textiles.
  • Chemical recycling: some polymers can be converted into monomers and re-transformed into new polymers. This process involves the use of chemicals.
  • Backfilling: construction, land reclamation and landscaping engineering. Not universally accepted as recycling.
  • Energy recovery: conversion of polymers into petroleum. Plastics are mostly made from oil / petroleum and are thus high in energy

Products derived from plastic recycling are mostly textiles (duvets), car parts (interior and bumpers), building (isolation) and packaging.

Contamination of plastic waste streams (several types of plastics get mixed up)  may be a problem. It costs too much or it’s too hard to separate the plastics. Clean, large and constant waste stream are necessary to make recycling successful.

Germany is the most advanced country in Europe with regards to plastics recycling. They use a deposit system on plastic bottles.

Some plastics are harder to recycle such as PVC.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Are glass bottles environmentally friendlier than recycled plastics bottles? How do you compare both models? LCA is the dominant method. LCA involves looking at all stages of the product’s life: raw material extraction, materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair, maintenance, disposal and recycling. LCA introduces the concept of “cradle to grave” (from birth to death).

Are LCA reliable? Ask yourself the following questions. Who paid for the LCA study? Did the study serve a purpose? What methodology was used? How was the data gathered? Who controlled the objectivity? LCA results may vary depending on where you are located. What rules in Germany doesn’t necessarily rules in Japan. The results may differ if you have an oil field in your garden or if you have a glass factory in your street.

Are LCA the only barometer of truth? The truth doesn’t exist according to Socrates. Another question could be: what do you try to achieve? You may have to look further than LCA if you want to encourage the bio-economy. LCA may just be a statistical representation of reality.

Plastics Marine Litter

10 % is fishing gear. Plastics breaks down in micro plastics and ends up in the food chain: 36% of seabirds and fish will ingest plastics. There are 5 plastic continents or gyres.

plastic continents

Most plastic marine litter comes from the land through rivers. 10 rivers (8 Asian and 2 African) generate 95 % of the plastic marine litter. In order of importance: Yangtze (>50 %), Indus, Yellow, Hai, Nile (African), Meghna / Brahmaputhra / Ganges, Pearl, Amur, Niger (African) and Mekong.

The Chinese Recycling Scandal

Western countries export their plastic waste to China for recycling and China dumps the plastics in the Yangtze. This is probably the worse ecological scandal of mankind. The waste that is actually recycled such as steal and aluminium are recycled with energy generated from coal plants.

Cost of Recycling

China recently stopped importing waste from Western countries. Western countries will have to set up their own recycling systems and plants. This will be financed with tax and/or contributions. Taxes will have to be set and collected at national level and redistributed to local governments. There’s a risk that tax money will stick in the national treasury instead of going to local governments.

Ocean Plastics

Beware of the Chinese business model. We should be careful for potential pervert effects such as virgin plastics been dumped intentionally in the oceans to be collected a few meters further up, branded as ocean plastics and sold with a profit margin.

Closing Remarks

  • Has the European Commission some kind of responsibility in the Chinese marine waste dump scandal? Should or could they have known?
  • Best way to burry an issue is to create a parliamentary commission … so we know what may happen in the future.
  • What happened to the money paid for the recycling service? Should the money be refunded? By whom? To whom?
  • Should China be sanctioned? On what basis? Ecological crimes? What treaty?
  • Now that China is out of the recycling equation, can the West organise their recycling systems in a short notice or will it be a fiasco?
  • The China file has been known for a very long time and it may be justifiable: the ultimate recycling solution does not exist, not everyone knew the complete story and sometimes ignorance is blessed.
  • Do you think the European plastic waste fiasco could be worse than the Chinese marine litter scandal?

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