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Plastic Propaganda

November 6th, 2013 · No Comments

 In our blind bid to recycle we seem to have forgotten the first two “Rs”

By Terri Chu

The city has put up nice new garbage bins along the major streets around the Annex recently. There are separate compartments for trash and recycling.  Toronto is ahead of most major North American cities when it comes to recycling, but I fear there’s a lack of understanding about just how effective it is.  There are some people who would never leave home without a water bottle or travel mug while others gladly buy single-use bottles and throw away coffee cups.  In my hometown (London, Ontario), I met a woman complaining about city council’s bid to ban water bottles in city hall boldly announcing “I recycle, there is no environmental impact!”

At the time, I was helping a friend run (successfully in the end) for city council so I quietly facepalmed rather than take her on.  Had I known how handily my friend would have beaten his opponent, I may have tried harder to clarify the situation.

If you take the subway, you may have noticed plastic recycling ads encouraging you to put plastics into the blue bin.  They’re all full of guilt-free love reminding us that trivial acts can contribute to saving polar bears. They’re also lying. If you take a closer look at the fine print, you will notice that the ads are sponsored by the plastic industry lobby group. I realized that the misconceptions surrounding recycling were wide-spread when armchair environmentalists on Twitter starting decrying the fact that their cities didn’t accept Styrofoam recycling for takeout containers.  Exactly what they thought recycling companies can do with it remains a mystery to me.

There is no such thing as plastic recycling. There is, however, such a thing as plastic downcycling.  By law, food containers must be virgin plastic – presenting the first challenge to true REcycling.  The next challenge comes from the properties of the plastic itself. Coke tried to reuse the scrap plastic bits from its manufacturing process (pre-consumer) and even then could not get the clarity they needed in the bottles.  The most important drawback to consider, however, is the toxicity involved in the plastic recycling process.  Even if we managed to turn every Coke bottle into a designer fleece top to be discarded by the trendy fashionistas in four months, we would still have to deal with the fact that the effluence is going back into our drinking water supply which will eventually come back into our bodies.  My view of plastic recycling is that it is great propaganda cleverly designed to make people feel good about continuing to consume products to drive up GDP.  It’s highly polluting and you are much better off skipping the bottled water and hitting a fountain.

Glass and metal recycling is a much better process (assuming the material doesn’t end up in the landfill because of overcapacity at the processing plants), but both still take a lot of energy.  Our best bet is to reduce and reuse.  We seem to have forgotten the first 2 Rs in our bid to get everyone to recycle (and keep consuming).  If you can, shop at farmers’ markets where the farmer takes back and reuses the jars.  Shops such as Grassroots on Bloor (near Brunswick) will sell soap, shampoo, etc. by weight. You bring in an empty container, they’ll weigh it, you get what you want, they’ll weigh it again on the way out, and you pay for what you need with minimal waste.

Don’t buy into the propaganda. Recycling will not cure our environmental woes and, in many ways, it only makes them worse (because people lose the guilt and end up using more).  It is not guilt-free.  Any type of single-use container is highly environmentally damaging.  We need to bring back the 3 Rs and emphasize REDUCE and REUSE.  Recycling should be the last resort, not the first.


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