Compostable Materials - A Sustainable Replacement Of Petroleum Based Packaging?
2.2.1 Waste Handling
- The Destinations Of Throwing “Away” -
- Potentially Dangerous -
When we throw “away” our plastic there are different possibilities where the waste can end up depending on country and local conditions. The most common and oldest destination is placement in landfills. Another is burning for energy recovery (incineration). However, a significant amount of waste is leaking into the environment. According to a research study about the marine pollution calculated that of the 275 million metric tons of plastic plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entered the ocean.(18) Recycling is seen as the optimal choice to handle plastic waste because of the ability to retrieve material and prevent pollution.
The growing landfills are not so much a concern because of the physical space they occupy. According to European Commission landfills are the least desirable place for waste to go because it “may release chemicals such as heavy metals resulting in run-off called leachate. This liquid can contaminate local groundwater and surface water and soil”.(19) Modern waste incineration plants can be used to produce electricity, steam and heating for buildings and burning is an effective way to get “rid” of plastic. However, the problem does remain when precious resources are lost forever as a result of being burned. Furthermore, poor or incomplete burning of waste materials can result in release of hazardous chemicals, including dioxins and acid gases. Some plastics are not at all possible to burn without realising hazardous substances but still is. (20)
“More than 40 years after the launch of the well-known recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling.”
- The New Plastic Economy Report (2016)
It’s hard to say how much plastic is being recycled in the world, numbers differ - or don’t exist - a lot depend on the country. There are no international standards of recycling practises today which make it impossible to appreciate a universal number.(21) Europe is looked upon as the most developed area with sophisticated recycling knowledge and infrastructures in place. However according to numbers of the Solid Waste Association, 87% of the plastic waste is sold onto China. The report furthermore accuses China of having low environmental standards and next to no supervision and say that there is no reliable source of what happens to the recycled plastic once it reaches China.(22)
“Just because a material is recycled does not automatically make it ecologically benign, especially not if they weren’t designed specifically for recycling.
- William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle
If the plastic reaches a recycling facility it will most likely be “down cycled”. This happens when different types and qualities of plastics are mixed together ending up in a so called “plastic soup”. This results in an overall drop in the quality, which further means that it more than likely won’t be technically possible to recycled again. Even well meant recycle initiative can even potentially be of serious health risks for humans. A recent study show that 43% of the toys tested, which weremade out of recycled plastic contained brominated flame-retarding chemicals. These plastic additives “have been associated with lower mental, psychomotor and IQ development, poorer attention spans and decreases in memory and processing speed”.(23) According to Dr Michael Warhurst, CHEM Trust’s director, regulations need phase out groups of chemicals of concern, “the brain development of future generations is at stake”.(24)
Another problem with plastic products, particularly in packaging, is that many of them may have been mixed and mounted together with other materials. For example, metals or paper in packaging. Manufacturers do so to enhance the products performance in for example oxygen and moist barriers. However did the report by The New Plastic Economy - Catalysing Action (2017), found that “this combination of multiple materials means that many of these applications, like those combining plastic and aluminium layers, are economically, and in some cases even technically, unrecyclable”.(25)
Snack chip bags, like these Doritos packages, contain several layers of plastic and foil, and aren’t recyclable Photograph: Mike Mozart/flickr
The recycling system today is insufficient and can be potentially dangerous. However, it should be pointed out that It is not recycling as a concept that is the problem. According to the authors of Cradle to Cradle William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the issue lies in the design. Most products today are not made to be recycled. Plastic could be recycled perpetually if the quality and additives were considered and the design was intended to do so.(26)