Jane Kearns is senior adviser of Cleantech at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, which includes advising, in a non-financial relationship, the mentioned companies in this article.
A dead whale recently washed ashore in Italy, carrying a dead fetus and 22 kilograms of discarded plastic in its stomach: bags, plates, electrical tubes, a laundry detergent package. It should be a shocking reminder of the environmental havoc our unrecycled waste is wreaking – only if the same story hadn’t been written a couple of weeks before in the Philippines. And before that in Indonesia, Thailand and Spain. That’s just in the past year, and who knows how many more animals have died without making headlines.
We need to do a better job of recycling our waste plastic, yet the trend lines are going in the wrong direction. In the 16 months since China imposed a strict new standard for imported plastic and paper scrap, North America’s municipal collection and sorting systems have buckled under the weight of our suddenly unrecyclable recyclables.
The situation has just escalated and has created some unsavoury headlines: The Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, is threatening war on Canada if we don’t take back tonnes of Canadian trash that have been rotting in a port near Manila. More than 100 shipping containers were sent there six years ago, and they were labelled as carrying plastics to be recycled. It turns out, the containers were mostly filled with unsorted Canadian trash.
Facing massive cost increases and nowhere to ship their scrap, hundreds of North American cities have begun burning, warehousing or landfilling their plastics. Other jurisdictions (including Ontario, the ancestral home of the blue box) are frantically investigating or implementing bans on straws and other single-use plastics, most of which are no longer welcome in China and other jurisdictions.
But after years of absorbing our scrap, China’s decision is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. The economics behind North America’s recycling programs have been broken for years, victims of their own widespread adoption.
In the 1970s and 1980s, recycling was a boon for early-adopting municipalities. But as programs sprouted across North America and Europe, that market became saturated. For example, there are many more plastic water bottles available for recycling today than beverage-makers need.
Adding to the crisis, the complexity of our curbside recycling only grows. New varieties of packaging and films made from a vast array of complex plastic polymers – no two kinds alike – have made the process of separating what we collect nearly impossible. No matter how clean it goes to the curb, and no matter how efficient our plants get, it costs more to sort. Manufacturers in China, India and Southeast Asia pay us less and have toughened their quality standards, while the global downturn in petroleum prices gives them every incentive to choose virgin petroleum sources.
For the suppliers of recycled packaging materials – municipal governments and their contractors – these increasing costs make it nearly impossible to recoup costs or profit from conventional recycling.
Every Canadian generates about 850 kilograms of waste a year, and we recycle about a third of it. The consequences of stopping would be dire. It can cost even more to landfill waste than to recycle it. And the environmental side effects of incineration, which cities such as Philadelphia and Halifax have turned to in the face of China’s import ban, are awful.
Cracking down on plastic packaging at the source is one solution, but it comes with its own consequences. Lightweight plastic is cheaper and creates fewer emissions to transport. When a serving of meat or vegetable rots in inefficient packaging, it wastes the water, nutrients and emissions spent delivering it to us.
So are we stuck between a rock and a hard place? Not necessarily. The solutions are right in front of us and are a combination of the right technology and smart policy.
Better technologies do exist and they all have one thing in common: Instead of sorting and bundling complex plastic packages for resale, they break them down into their basic molecules, which can be disposed of cleanly or resold profitably. A package made from biodegradable thermoplastic can be composted like a banana peel or turned into reusable resin. A water bottle, heated under pressure and turned into a synthetic gas, can be remade into a solvent, lipstick or a pair of eyeglasses.
There are a few Canadian companies that are leading in this space, including GreenMantra (waste plastic to value-added chemicals), Pyrowave (depolymerisation of mixed-waste plastics), Genecis (micro-organisms turn food waste into biodegradable thermoplastics) and others. Combined with the right policy, these new technologies can revolutionize our recycling system.
Provinces such as Ontario are on the right track by making big producers responsible for their recyclable waste, which will incentivize new solutions while saving municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars.
The push, both political and cultural, to rethink our use of single-use plastics is also welcome. This will accelerate the development and adoption of new technologies, and change our throwaway behaviours.
There is also a giant pot of money that might be tapped: the billions of dollars our governments currently spend on curbside collection and sorting. While some parts of this system must remain, much of it might be redirected toward these new technologies that can profitably break down waste plastic.
China’s import ban is not the real problem. Recycling’s economics are broken. The right technologies and policies can make North American recycling work again.