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Things That Don't Work to Fix Plastic Pollution

We have known for a long time that plastic being tossed into road-side ditches, blowing down our streets and dropped into our waterways is bad environmental stewardship, bad for marine life, bad manners and bad economic behaviour. No matter how much product advertising we see for seeing plastic drink bottles being what the cool people use, we still know that littering with them is really not morally acceptable, and simply bad social practice.

Still, the amount of plastic and other debris that ends up in our wild lands and waters is pretty convincing evidence that we, as a species, are tossing our plastic into the environment quite regularly, and in increasing volumes. Why is that the case? Because we value our personal convenience over all else; over nature, over our own health, over the health of others including our own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I'll stop there, because unless we clean up our act on how we're trashing our home planet, more than great-grandchildren may not be in the cards.

Good Intentions

If good intentions solved problems, we would not have those problems. There just aren't enough 'do-gooders' who have a 100% personal success rate in the population. Please understand I have a lot of respect for those who lug around reusable coffee and water bottles. (There's many a morning I head out from home with one of each filled to the lid. My Tervis bottle even has a cute recycling badge built into it - despite the fact that one of the 6 curved arrows has fallen off. Somehow, it seems fitting. I have equipped workplace kitchens with reusable mugs and dishwashing supplies, and more. So, I fully get the earnestness of those with the good intentions. I also know the full frustration and disappointment of seeing others ignoring those efforts and continuing to use throw-away cups and bottles.)

Guiltication Campaigns

A staple of many environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGO) and echoed by 'green teams' and do-gooders, these campaigns impllicitly believe that if only EVERYONE knew how bad plastic pollution was, then they would change their behaviour and embrace better practice. I know these campaigns have been around since the 1980s, because that's when I enthusiastically participated in them in the workplace and in public. I have seen the posters (now 'infographics') on bulletin boards, on buses, on light-poles, in cafeterias, on ferry boats, etc. At some level, people should be informed about the problems caused by plastic pollution. However, with at least 4 decades of this programming, it's pretty clear people are still throwing plastic waste into the environment anyway, and ratcheting up the 'shock value' of the images is not making big (if any) changes in behaviour for the vast majority. The sad reality is that most people just don't care. They want convenience, not a lecture, and they believe that if they 'pay' for the convenience, then they are entitled to have it. The guiltication campaigns do not effectively address this fundamental belief system.

Bio-degradable Plastic Substitutes

Some people have chased the dream of the environmentally-benign biodegradeable plastic material for one-use items as if it was the Holy Grail of solving plastic pollution. It's not. Again, at least 4 decades of seeking this miracle material. But so far, nothing brings the characteristics we want (no failures in immediate use, short time to decompose to natural elements in a variety of environmental conditions, and cheap). If we had a natural material which met those criteria, and was the same price or cheaper than current plastics based on subsidized oil prices, it would have already won in our perverse economic system we euphemistically call the 'free market'. (If we could force the cost of dealing with downstream effects into the price of the single-use plastic products, bio-substitutes might have a better chance. However, so far, the combination of being able to handle a hot beverage for 30 minutes without leaking and then biodegrading quickly in a snowbank has proven elusive.)

Most Municipal Plastics Recycling Programs

This is the one where I really get under the skin of some people. We pay a lot in our taxes to implement these programs, and absorb the time tax to clean and sort our recycables (paper, metal, kitchen waste, plastic), and the big polluting trucks roar up and down our residential streets to collect our carefully tended personal waste streams. But the systems have a lot of issues and 'leakage'.

Most municipal programs don't actually accept all plastics (e.g. Ottawa does not accept polystyrene (styrofoam) in any form, including drink cups). So if you toss all your plastic waste in the recycling containers, some will be rejected as 'contamination', either at the end of your driveway, or later in the process. Worse still, in my opinion, some programs change the plastics they accept over time, based on the market value of the product. But this is almost never accompanied by a leading education campaign for the population who do the heavy lifting at the front end of municipal waste diversion programs. And very few programs, if any, accept mixed waste (e.g. paper coffee cups with plastic lining, frozen juice containers with metal, paper and plastic all connected to each other).

Most programs provide residents with open-top recycling bins. So, on 'garbage' day, it's typical to see one-use plastic drink bottles blowing down our street, because it does not take much wind to lift an empty PET water bottle out of the bin and out onto the road, driveway, lawn or sidewalk. Given the bin is out for hours before the collection truck shows up, the wind has moved that bottle out of the 'recycling stream' and into the environment, probably permanently. There is additional 'leakage' all throughout the process, including 'contamination' and landfilling and incineration of plastics which were collected in recycling programs.
Halifax will burn waste plastic now that it can't ship to Asia
Calgary: The recycling conundrum: How your blue bin hurts the environment

So, while municipal programs don't work nearly as well as you have likely been led to believe, I am not advocating for not using them. Despite their warts, they are better (so far, I believe) than sending all the plastic to landfills (expensive) or incinerators (trading one form of pollution for another). Still, I would really like to see the roaring collection trucks switched over to electric hybrid vehicles. There is no reason the 15-metre hops down our residential streets could not be done using electric power, even if the highway runs to the landfill or transfer depot need an internal combustion engine (biofuel?) for now. I mean, garbage collection is a health program, and recycling is an environmental program, so couldn't the front-line equipment reflect this with technology which is better for our health and environment?

Recycling programs can be amazingly effective. Take Sweden as an example. It comes down to social willingness and political courage. By comparison, in North America, we truck our trash (including plastic waste) hundreds of miles from major cities to sanitary landfills prepared to take those excesses for hefty fees, spewing air pollution and greenhouse gases with every truck round-trip.

Shipping the Problem to Asia

Yes, the easy way out for many North American recycling programs has come to an end. As of January 2018, China is no longer accepting most plastic waste from overseas. Now, most of that will likely end up in landfills or incinerators. Because Asia actually was our key 'diversion' and 'recycling' destination. However, if the cost of even nominally dealing with our plastic waste addiction becomes more expensive, perhaps we'll be motivated to find some real solutions. But, I'm not holding my breath on that one.

So while the approaches above don't actually work to sufficiently reduce current rates of adding to the plastic pollution inventory in the environment, things are about to get worse (as of early 2018). They also don't address the existing pollution in the environment. For that, we need a different way of thinking about the problem.

Next: Things That Do Work

Types of Plastic
The Science of Plastic Pollution
Media Items on Plastic Pollution
RESTCo's Plastic Pollution Solution Path
Some Interesting Approaches
Things That Don't Work
Things That Do Work
De-plasticizing the Ocean (2017 RESTCo 3-pager)
Removing microplastic from shoreline/beach (demo)
RESTCo Plastic Pollution Solution
Capturing Micro- and Nano-plastics from the Waste Stream
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