The dangers of plastic waste

plastic-recycling-dangers
Photo of plastic recycling plant fire in Birmingham (2013) courtesy of West Midlands Fire Service Photographic 2017

I wish someone had told me about Plastic Free July before August arrived. But hell, it’s never too late to start learning new tricks, eh!

In case you missed it too, this is a global initiative started in Western Australia. From its humble beginnings in 2011 with 40 people in Perth, Plastic Free July has now spread across the country and around the world. In 2016, 100,000+ Western Australians and more than 1 million people worldwide took part.

Every bit of plastic ever made still exists and in the first 10 years of this century the world economy produced more plastic than the entire 1900’s.”

The initiative aims to educate people to cut down on their consumption of single-use plastic. The main thrust is to get people to stop using disposable shopping bags. Australians already have an incentive, in that there is already a ban in Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT.

About a third of the plastic consumed in Australia ends up at recycling plants to be ‘down-cycled’ into other products. Plastic, as we know, lasts forever, unless of course it catches fire, in which case it burns as fiercely as oil or natural gas. Fire is an ever-present risk at waste and recycling plants because of the highly combustible nature of the stored materials.

In mid-July, a major fire broke out amid stockpiles of paper and plastic at the Coolaroo Recycling plant north of Melbourne. The political fall-out from this fire spread further than the smoke plume, sparking a class action threat and a move by the Victorian government to audit all recycling plants in the state.

Victoria (and other States) would probably want to avoid something like the UK’s record of fires at waste and recycling plants (300 per year), including the one depicted (above) at a recycling plant in Birmingham. 

Meanwhile back home…

No-one knows for sure how many recycling plants there are in Australia because many are private companies licensed by their respective Councils. However, Deakin University environmental science lecturer Trevor Thornton, writing in The Conversation, quoted 2013 figures from the Department of Environment and Energy which estimate there are 114 waste recycling plants in Australia.

Thornton says the industry needs a national registry, updated annually. Governments need to provide tax breaks so plant operators can upgrade their equipment and also provide manufacturers with an incentive to use recyclable material in their products.

“At the same time, we should consider penalising businesses which use non-recyclable packaging when alternatives exist,” Thornton said. He cited retailers who sell goods in multi-material packaging like polystyrene and plastic without providing an alternative.

I was musing about all of this and more after realising I need to break a habit of asking for bags at the supermarket. I’ve been kidding myself that they are being re-used at home as rubbish bags. Just because a plastic bag gets used twice or even three times doesn’t make it any better for the environment.

Major supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths have already made a commitment to phase out single-use bags within a year. Woolies has revealed it uses three billion bags a year. Coles has not released data but it is probably of a similar scale.

Plasticfreejuly.org says six out of 10 Australians are already refusing single-use bags and using a variety of alternatives, all of which involve bringing your own container when you go shopping. But it’s not just a shopping problem – cling wrap, plastic water bottles, drinking straws, plastic takeaway containers and plastic cutlery are all potential sources of pollution. But as we’ll read later, it’s not as simple as chucking everything into the yellow bin.

​The Waste Authority of WA says Australians use one million tonnes of plastic a year (most of it packaging) and 320,000 tonnes of it goes to landfill. But even the refuse, reuse, recycle mantra won’t be enough to hold back the tide of plastic garbage which is engulfing oceans.

Some plastic ends up in waterways and the ocean – where scientists predict there will be more tonnes of plastic than tonnes of fish by 2050.

​The Plastic Oceans Foundation says the world is producing nearly 300 million tons every year, half of which is for single use. More than eight million tons is dumped into our oceans.

As for the oceans becoming a massive plastic rubbish dump, how in hell does plastic end up there? Some of it is microbeads from the manufacturing and recycling process which finds its way to the ocean via drains and runoff. Containers carrying plastic product to foreign ports fall off ships. The best-known example is the container full of thousands of yellow toy ducks lost at sea in 1992. You can read more about this phenomenon and how ocean currents play their part by browsing this educational website created by clever people at the University of NSW.

Data from plasticoceans.org underlines the impact of this pollution on the planet (plastic manufacturing uses 6% of the world’s fossil fuels). Every year 500 million bottles and one trillion bags are discarded as waste (not to mention 24.7 billion disposable nappies). On the scale of things, it’s good that a third of this waste is recycled.

While Australia seems on track to phase out single-use  bags, we need to do something about our addiction to bottled water. A Choice Magazine story in 2014 highlighted the fiscal folly of choosing bottled water over tap water. If you drink two litres a day from the tap, you’ll pay about $1.50 a year, Choice said. Drink the same amount from single-serve bottles you could be looking at more than $2,800 a year.

The Australasian Bottle Water Institute says ours is a $500 million a year industry selling the equivalent of 600 megalitres (600,000,000 litres) of water a year, 60% of which is sold in single-serve bottles.

If we do use plastic, then we should at least know how to sort the different types of waste for recycling. The ABC’s Amanda Hoh, following up on the ABC’s popular War on Waste TV show, interviewed Brad Gray of Planet Ark for some tips.

Gray says the most common mistake is that people throw soft plastics such as bags, food packaging or “scrunchable” plastic in with containers. These soft plastics get caught in the conveyer belt and the whole recycling system has to be stopped so they can be removed.

“All “scrunchable” plastic including shopping bags, plastic food packaging, fruit netting and dry cleaning bags can be recycled, although most often not via your home recycle bin,” says Gray.

“The best method is to bundle all your plastic bags into one bag and take it to a REDcycle bin located in most metro and large regional supermarkets. These plastics are then recycled into plastic school furniture.”

So now I have finished this week’s FOMM, it’s hi-ho to the supermarket and co-op, sturdy hemp shopping bags in hand. Well, that’s the goal.

 

We welcome feedback and insights