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July 14, 2021

Real talk about recycling

Topics: Plastics

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Only nine per cent of plastics in Canada are recycled, and even that lackluster stat is misleading. Most so-called recycled plastics are actually downcycled into products that cannot be recycled again. Meaning, that sweatshirt or carpet made from recycled plastic bottles is eventually destined for a landfill or incinerator.

For decades, recycling has been touted as the way to address our growing plastic pollution crisis. And not just by well-meaning environmentalists and politicians. This narrative has also been pushed by an industry that has made trillions of dollars flooding the market with cheap plastics, while benefitting from a waste system that is largely paid for by tax dollars from municipal public coffers.

You might now be wondering: Why isn’t recycling the solution to plastic pollution? And why hasn’t all our dutiful recycling done a better job of protecting our oceans from a constant deluge of plastic trash?

To put it simply, the economics of plastic recycling just don’t make cents – or sense.

The reality is that producing new, virgin plastics from fossil fuels is cheaper than recycling existing plastics. Ninety-nine per cent of plastics are made from fossil fuels and Canada’s oil and gas industries receive $4.8 billion annually in public subsidies, enabling a cheap supply of fossil fuels and effectively subsidizing the production of virgin plastic. These subsidies give unfair economic advantage to the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries.

Meanwhile, recycling systems operate at a much smaller scale than the oil and gas sector and are constrained by the amount of high-quality plastic available to recycle, as well as the limited demand for recycled plastics.

Basically – it’s hard for recyclers to get a reliable supply of high-quality plastic to recycle. And when they can, there aren’t always companies willing to buy the recycled plastic and turn it into new products since virgin plastic is usually much cheaper. Here are some ways that governments can help recycling make sense (and cents!):

  1. Establish mandatory recycled content requirements for plastic products. When governments legislate that plastic products must include a minimum amount of recycled material, they generate demand for recycled plastics, helping make them more competitive with virgin plastics.
  2. Stop subsidizing the oil and gas industry and instead support and fund reuse and refill systems through public procurement practices.

Our recycling systems weren’t designed to handle the complex plastics on the market today.

Contamination makes recycling plastics more challenging and reduces the quality of the recycled material. There’s the obvious contamination – plastic bottles with garbage stuffed inside, or bits of paper, glass or metal that end up in bales of “sorted” plastic at a recycling facility. But there are also the less obvious kinds of contamination, like labels, adhesives, chemical additives and dyes in the plastic itself.

For example, most pop bottles and some takeout containers are made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but the PET used in pop bottles is different than the PET used in takeout containers. And while there are only seven plastic resin codes (the number inside the ‘chasing arrows’ symbol on a plastic package), within resin codes there are many more different types of plastic that have different physical properties and melting points. (Are you a plastic expert yet?)

The fact is that our recycling systems were never designed to handle the volume or complexity of plastic materials on the market today, let alone handle the anticipated market growth. The ‘best’ recycled material is made with pure streams of clean plastics and dumping all our plastics in the same curbside recycling boxes and relying on recycling facilities to sort it out simply isn’t working. But there are some ways to address these complexities:

  1. Standardize plastic packaging and improve labelling requirements so there is less complexity. 
  2. Institute deposit return programs, like the Beer Store in Ontario, which dramatically reduce material contamination and improve recycling performance.
  3. Move away from single-stream recycling programs and back to the good old days when we separated plastic, metal, glass and paper. In Japan, residents sort their trash into as many as 34 different categories!

Plastic can only be recycled a handful of times.

Unlike glass and metal, plastics can’t be recycled over and over again. And while theoretically, some plastics could be recycled a few times before being landfilled or incinerated, most plastics only get one kick at the can.

Every time plastics are recycled, the building blocks (polymers) they are made from get a little shorter, and this shortening impacts the performance of the plastic. That’s why most plastics are downcycled into textiles or durable goods like artificial wood. And those products eventually end up landfilled, incinerated or leak into our environment and oceans.

Recycling can’t keep up with the projected growth in plastic production.

Globally, only nine per cent of all the plastic ever made has been recycled. Meanwhile, plastic production is expected to double by 2035 and quadruple by 2050. In the best-case recycling scenario, 45 million tonnes of plastic would be flowing into the global environment annually by the year 2040. That’s seven million more tonnes than today!

We can’t focus all our attention on end-of-pipe solutions like recycling. We need to focus our attention on the source, and that means reducing plastic production and use from the get-go.

Canada needs a strong ban on single-use plastics.

Plastic is an incredibly durable material – that’s why it persists in landfills, our environment and the oceans for so long. It’s not only poor design, it’s simply wrong to use such a durable, long-lasting and harmful material for single-use products.

That’s why Oceana Canada is calling on the Canadian government to implement a strong ban on unnecessary single-use plastics. It has already committed to banning six single-use items as soon as the end of 2021, but the proposed ban is a drop in the bucket for an ocean drowning in plastic trash.

Take action now and tell the Government of Canada that you want to see a strong national ban on single-use plastics. We must act now to #EndThePlasticDisaster.