This is a post by Luc De Rooms. Luc, who has written again for my blog, has 35 years experience in environmental and waste issues. He was for 10 years, Project Manager, Underground Waste Containers, with the city of Antwerp, the largest city in Belgium. Since September 2015 he’s Project Manager for Innovative Waste Management in a Circular Economy. Luc explains why, according his opinion, plastics are poisonous materials that have no role in a circular economy, a really controversial position. But even if, as I expect, many will disagree with this position, his article contains some really interesting ideas that will trigger the required discussions.
“After a MO-article, claiming that “plastic is a valuable resource” was liked by government-run Flanders Circular, the authors concluded that the plastification of the minds seems to be almost complete.
If the agency that has to put Flanders on the track to become circular, is itself not able to unmask this subtle twist of so-called ‘reuse of waste’, then it is clear they will simply guide us into destruction.
As plastic has penetrated all aspects of our lives, including, unfortunately, the food we eat, it is not a surprise that it is anchored in our brains, in our thinking. Out of laziness, we have both created and accepted disposable materials, turning them into a huge plastic Frankenstein monster that is now turning against us.
The industry’s solution of the so-called bio-plastics, could be considered a Frankenstein light, and is even worse because it puts us on the wrong track while we are losing valuable time. The only solution is to make producers of (plastic) products responsible for what they do. And then a deposit fee on disposable packaging is a first good step.
Roses wilt, flowers fade … plastic doesn’t
Let’s get to basics: plastic is an artificial product. A synthetic, not-in-nature-occurring substance. It is therefore not surprising that plastic does not naturally dissolve. Plastic is a hazard and what we have already dumped in the environment and especially in the oceans will haunt our descendants for centuries to come.
It will literally sneak into their bodies, micro- and nano-plastics are already to be found in algae, sea salt, shrimp, mussels … even in the air we breathe, largely due to the recycled fleece vests.
The mass production of plastic started only about 50 years ago and it already has immense effects that will last for another 500 years, even if we would stop producing new (disposable) plastic tomorrow.
Plastics, and most certainly the disposable kinds are poison. Not only because the microplastics in the seas accumulate toxins that will eventually end up in our food chain. But also because plastic is only usable thanks to toxic additives. With an ordinary chain of polymers, exactly what plastic is, one cannot do much. It is only after adding plasticizers, stabilizers, flame retardants, pigments, etc. that plastic acquires its practical value. We are talking about lead, chlorine, bromine, in the past also cadmium.
In the aforementioned article that made me freak out, DIY techniques are promoted to melt down plastic and recycle it into gadgets. Melting plastic mess in the presence and even with the help of children, giving them a useless gadget and (un)willingly suggesting that plastic is not a problem, seems to me more criminal than educational.
Plastic is not a valuable raw material. Plastic is merely a by-product of the oil industry. If we were not to use asphalt, kerosene or petrol anymore, plastic would not be available either, because it is far too expensive to produce it on its own. Only a few percent of oil is used to make plastic, all the rest would be waste.
So plastic keeps kerosene cheap, and vice versa, asphalt and petrol, and vice versa. Plastic is therefore part of the problem with the climate, CO2. We are destroying ourselves in a ‘very cheap way’.
Pretending that plastic, even disposable plastic, is not a problem, is inappropriate and even misleading. The abundance of scientific evidence to the contrary would have us incriminate guilty neglect and perhaps even complicity. Certainly in the case of those who are tasked to safeguard the community from harm. Isn’t this the main reason why we need a government?
Recycling plastic is fake
Even in Europe, or should I say especially here, recycling plastic is a farce. Plastic is not at all suitable for recycling, i.e. keeping it in the loop. One can compare the current recycling methods with a food strainer where the cooked vegetables are pushed through. Everything simply passes. But after a few cycles nothing much is left. This is what happens when PET bottles are recycled into fleece or car bumpers or gadgets. In turn, these can only be ‘thermally recycled’, a masterful forgery with words for ‘cremation’. But hey, the bottles are gone and enter the statistics as being recycled.
Here and there one can hear a target for recycled raw materials: 30 percent or 50 percent. A new product then contains 30 or 50 percent recycled material. That seems OK, but of course it is not. It means that you need to add 70 or 50 percent of new material for each cycle. That is but a little better than everything new, and has nothing to do with a circular process.
Let’s take the example of a 30 percent recycling ratio. In a second turn, only 30 percent of the previous 30 percent of recycled material is left, resulting in a mere 9 percent of the original material. In a third turn, it will be only 2.7 percent, and in a fourth cycle 0.81 percent. This is not recycling, it’s a foodstrainer instead. Current recycling is mainly fake, pure eye-blinding.
The plastic industry will argue that you will never be able to recycle plastic 100% because of food safety reasons. Well… plastic simply does not fit in a circular economy. And that’s that.
“Building small-scale plastic factories in places where there is little awareness about waste”, says the author of the contested article. This is so unfortunate, if not simply wrong! People must not become aware of what you can do with plastic, it is important that they understand what you cannot do with plastic. You cannot create closed recycling systems with it; you cannot make full loops with it, let alone build a circular economy. What a pity that so many institutions let themselves to be misled so easily.
Re-cycling makes a new bottle from an old bottle, but many so-called recyclers make new, different products using waste material. That is not re-cycling (re-using, preferably in an infinite loop aka a ‘closing loop’), but de-cycling (taking the waste material out of the cycle). From a de-cycled new products one can never make an identical product again, neither can one make another new product with it, because one would need other shredders and smelters to recycle the newly made products after use. After all, they become completely different in composition, shape and density from the waste it was made of. Then it is absolutely not to be qualified as recycling. Re-cycling is endlessly bringing the material into the same circle, again and again and again. Regrettably the concept of recycling is itself being ‘recycled’ into wrong and misleading meanings. Discerning re- from de-cycling may help future debate.
- The shortest cycle: you rinse your bottle and refill it over and over again
- The second cycle: the brewer takes your bottle back, rinses it and refills it
- The third cycle: the milter melts your bottle and makes a new one … and again a bottle and another bottle, for all eternity …
De-cycling does not make any loop at all, but takes the bottle out of the loop and does something else with it …
Disruption at work
Instead of looking for other products one can make from plastics, all creators, engineers and product developers should now be looking for other materials than plastics! Materials that are recyclable and can be used in endless cycles, such as glass and metal. Just to be clear, we are not talking about bio-plastics or bio-destructible plastics, as they are a contradiction in terms.
Plastic, a non-natural substance, does not improve by making it bio, no matter if the carbon part (monomer) coming from petroleum is replaced with a carbon part coming from corn, buttercup flowers or potatoes.
The problem is not in the origin, but in the making of a multi-part chain (or polymers) that does not occur in nature: plastic. Unlike natural polymers, cellulose for example, quite a lot of energy is required to do so.
The reverse happens naturally in nature: turning a polymer back into monomer. A tree does compost in the long run. Plastic could also be recycled to monomers from polymers, but only by chemical recycling. That process will again take a lot of energy, because it is artificially disassembling what has been artificially put together before. The producers of plastics are not prepared to bear these costs.
The energy needed for chemical recycling can never be adequately developed in a natural environment, no natural process can handle this. The sham maneuvers around bioplastic only try to divert attention, for the sake of profit. The terms ‘degradable’ or ‘bioplastics’ are very misleading. These plastics do fall apart but they do not perish. The visible polymers are released, often from their starch binding, possibly they decompose into smaller polymers, but what remains are invisible micro-plastics that cause damage, faster than the petroleum plastics do, up to inside our digestion.
Make producers liable
We have to act for full producer responsibility. All costs caused by product, also in its waste phase, are internalized at the time of its purchase. Products that cause a lot of costs will become expensive, not too bad because the costs are at least covered. The better thing would be that consumers then start choosing other products, which cause less costs and can therefore be sold cheaper. That seems to me the truly free commercial competition, which is actually distorted because some costs are being passed on to governments, especially local ones.
Because there is no blueprint readily available and because it will take years to convince everyone (Trump included), all available and proven means must be used: a ban on disposable plastics, a ban on micro plastics in cosmetics and cleaning products, a deposit fee on all packaging, the obligation to give a 100 percent recycling guarantee for all government purchases. None of them are implemented in Flanders.
Most of these models are known, they have proven their value in many other countries, so we can impose them tomorrow. ‘Deposit fees will not solve everything’, people argue, but doing nothing will solve even less. Pushing forward fake recycling is complicity and ‘the voluntary-based agreements’ that the industry is so happy with, are detracting from the urgency of the plastics problem. It is no use to regret that measures were not taken 30 to 40 years ago, when the problems started. Just let us begin with what can be done now, deposit system, and learn from it, so that a final producer responsibility can be elaborated even better by 2020-2022, for example.
As a citizen you can deny (local) governments to use tax money to clean up what the producers literally throw on the market. In Flanders we have the opportunity for that in 2018. Give your vote to parties and candidates who are in favor both of a deposit fee and the prohibition of disposable packaging and micro plastics.
On the local level one can make a difference, especially if you push policymakers in advance and use the social media to share the views broadly. A local litter tax is certainly possible, local candidates should not hide themselves behind the indecisiveness of Flanders or Belgium or Europe.
As a consumer you have to be as alert as possible: few or no labels are reliable. Buying package-less is the best option, but sometimes it is difficult for drinks. Occasionally a targeted campaign can help, such as a boycott. Or an organised deposit-shopping. For instance. Do not buy Coca Cola and the like for a month or so in December 2018, the Christmas Cola-month, unless when available in glass bottles with a deposit. Ask for it in your supermarket, your convenience store, it still exists, but is almost forgotten!
Luc De Rooms and Jan Van Vaerenbergh are active at AXI, a foundation established in 1992 to put into practice the principles of the UN Rio De Janeiro conference. The non-profit organization offers courses, guidance, advice and support to third parties or public authorities and through its own projects.
More info: https://www.facebook.com/AXIvzwAntwerpen/