Commentary: Who is blaming whom?

Commentary: Who is blaming whom?

A recycler asks whether more processing in developed nations can help keep plastic out of the ocean.

July 26, 2017

I’m surprised to find out that less than 10 percent of the wonder material, plastic, is recycled each year. [According to study published in July 2017 the journal Science Advances.] I lined up alongside many others to contemplate with alarm the possibility that plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050! I’m keen to discuss what can be done to make sure this dire prediction never happens, but first a comment or two on why it’s there.


Prior to getting personally involved in plastic recycling, as a naive consumer I felt morally righteous to see the magic recycling triangle on the bottom of my squeezy honey bottle, as I spread its contents on my toast, in blissful ignorance to what “widely recycled” actually means. I’ve learned two things about this that have made me feel very uncomfortable.


Recycling, to the ill-informed old me, meant that my bottle was going to become another bottle and then another bottle, round and round the recycling loop. Sadly this, it turns out, is rather unlikely since the vast majority of plastic that is recycled becomes a lower grade material. My squeezy honey bottle is thus much more likely to end up as fabric and a milk bottle to become a timber replacement product, such as a railway sleeper or sheet material used in the building sector.


But this “cascade recycling” or “down cycling” as its often called, is not a bad thing. On the whole, it is good. It allows the material to have another life, but, at the end of this new life this material seems to be un-recyclable and suitable only for fueling an energy from waste plant. Well, until now that is, as the new approach of “chemical recycling” or “feedstock recycling” can give even this low-grade material a fresh start, as technology means we can turn such material into clean hydrocarbons that can used as feedstock for the production of new polymers.


The second thing I have learned about “widely recycled” is, in my mind, alarming. Living in the United Kingdom, I imagined a factory in say Birmingham doing this recycling, turning what they could into recycled pellets and responsibly paying to send the rest to an energy-from-waste facility. The reality is that 67 percent of the U.K.’s 2016 “recycled” achievement actually meant “put on a ship bound for the East Asia.” And the EU figures are not too dissimilar. Lay alongside this the list of the world’s worst ocean polluters: China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. An Ocean Conservancy report states that these countries account for 60 percent of plastic going into the ocean each year. Now I’m not saying that everything we send to Asia ends up in the ocean, but how certain are we that an appreciable amount does not?


This “exported” is equivalent to “recycling” construct begs the question: Why export this resource at all? Do they have technology in Asia that allows them to separate, wash and granulate more efficiently or more effectively than we can do in the EU? If not, then the reasons for sending it make me feel very uneasy as I munch on my honey-laden toast. If not a technological advantage their ability to recycle our material more economically than us at home has to be they are prepared to use low-cost labor to sort through this material by hand, avoiding the cost of the technology, or because there is no cost to the recycler for disposing of the material that they can’t recycle or a combination of both.


Whichever way you look at it, “widely recycled” cannot categorically be dissociated with plastic in the ocean. It’s within our ability to do something about this. We could keep the economic value of this material at home, create the jobs to recycle it where it has been used and, in the process, gain certainty that our material is not exacerbating the plastic ocean situation.


So rather than looking disapprovingly at the ocean polluting statistics from the five Asian countries, perhaps we do well to remember the Biblical question, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Let’s agree to work together to recycle our resources at home.


The author is the founder and CEO of United Kingdom-based Recycling Technologies, which converts plastic scrap into fuel oils, recycled-content liquid polymers and waxes.