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GREENINGS: Reduce, reuse, and then recycle (May 2018)

May 9th, 2018 · No Comments

The energy lost in the pretense of plastic recycling

By Terri Chu

With the celebration of Earth Day behind us and the provincial election before us, it seemed appropriate to rerun Greenings from February 2016. Writing that three Rs are not all equal, Chu is cautious about playing fast and loose with energy generation, and argues that the Wynne government needs to get it right when it comes to all things green.

“Why can’t they take black plastic?” asked my partner, staring at the City of Toronto recycling poster. I didn’t have an answer.

The ad, which helpfully reminds Torontonians what goes in which bin, notes that all black plastics are relegated to municipal solid waste. Turns out, black plastic isn’t very valuable. It isn’t accepted into recycling because it is difficult to sort and once dyed black, it can’t be turned back clear. In short, it would cost the city more to accept black plastics than it would get for them. So black plastics in this city are relegated to the landfill.

Every time I research plastic recycling, I come to suspect that we should rid ourselves of these programs altogether. Perhaps if people weren’t fooled into thinking plastic was “recycled”, consumption of it would actually go down. Make no mistake; the plastic industry spends a lot of money on “recycling” ads for a reason. Not for one minute do they want you to second-guess your purchasing decision.

What still burns me up (no pun intended) is the refusal of both the city and the province to even put recovering energy from waste on the table. After the Oakville fiasco, I fully understand the power of NIMBY-ism but landfilling tons of high energy plastic a year, and, worse, allowing it to eventually make its way into our oceans, is an absolute disgrace.

Few things made me more embarrassed than listening to former Premier Dalton McGuinty stand in front of a microphone and describe the decision to locate the power plant in Oakville a “mistake”. While cheers of joy sounded off in the west end, my ears only heard “politics now trumps science, professional advice, and efficiency”. This was only for a gas plant, a fuel source that is already in virtually every home in Oakville.

Media focused a lot on the political fallout, but few stories have been written about whether or not siting the plant there was the right decision, and it absolutely was from an environmental and efficiency standpoint. Cancelling it was the mistake whose after-effects we will be seeing in the future.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised a new era of politics.

Recovering energy from waste will be highly politically unpopular but a necessary part of our waste management strategy.

Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have been recovering energy from waste for decades now. While there are emissions associated with it, long-term, these generate far less pollution than low level smoulders. One landfill fire at a low temperature burn will more than justify recovering the plastic waste. New technologies that allow for very clean and efficient recovery are becoming available all the time. It would mean less natural gas, which is transported at great distance and cost, and it would also mean less plastic finding its way into our oceans.

Over five trillion pieces of plastic are floating somewhere in the oceans. That number is going up every day. Animals often get ensnarled in our plastic waste leading to devastating consequences. The ocean is only so big and can be our waste bin for only so long. Until we get our plastic consumption down to zero, we need to be responsible for breaking it back down into smaller, less harmful parts.

While there are many valid arguments against recovering energy from waste (such as cost, and that it encourages more waste), there are many valid reasons to start using it as part of our overall environmental stewardship solutions. How many more turtles tangled in plastic do we have to see before we accept that sending our “recycled” plastics onto boats bound for China isn’t the greatest of ideas? That’s the reality of what happens to much of what gets thrown in the blue box. Shipping containers are notorious for getting lost at sea. It doesn’t take much of a rogue wave to slosh a few containers overboard. I have very little doubt that some of the plastic waste is what we thought was bound for recycling.

We cannot ignore our environmental responsibilities because they prove politically unpopular. REDUCE, reuse, and then recycle. Until we have the reduce part down, we need a better solution than relying on the latter.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy and distinguish environmental truths from myths.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled smoulders.



GREENINGS: Car-free parenting is not rare (Spring 2018)

GREENINGS: The science of board games (Mar. 2018)

GREENINGS: Driving fuelled by unseen subsidies (Jan. 2018)

GREENINGS: No solutions for nobody’s problem (Dec. 2017)

GREENINGS: Celebrate science not milestones (Nov. 2017)

GREENINGS: Down to the data (Oct. 2017)

GREENINGS: Reducing paper waste (Fall 2017)

GREENINGS: Taking tolls to the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway (July 2017)

GREENINGS: Lessons from Madrid (June 2017)

GREENINGS: Thoughts on hitting the 400 benchmark (May 2017)

GREENINGS: Solving the food waste problem (April 2017)

GREENINGS: Kellie Leitch was right (March 2017)

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