Drastic Plastic

July 10, 1998

By Michael Jessen

Plastic. It's a word on the lips of a lot of people these days judging by telephone calls to recycling information lines. Everyone wants to know where to recycle their plastic and are shocked by the limited opportunities.

For recycling to work there has to be a market for the material. Columbia Bottle Recycling operates the recycling program in the Creston - East Shore of Kootenay Lake area for the Regional District of Central Kootenay. Owner Frank Marasco recently sold 53,000 pounds of mixed plastics collected in his recycling program (the only one in the entire Kootenay or Okanagan regions to take mixed plastics).

Because the material is so difficult to market, all Marasco will say is it is sent to Vancouver and probably ends up overseas. The secrecy with which such markets are guarded is an indication of the unstable health of the plastics recycling industry. Shipping our plastics problem overseas is not the solution we should be depending on; utilizing it at home in the manufacture of everything from flower pots to scouring pads to compost bins is a much better idea.

There are seven major types of plastic resin categories, but more than 45 different resin compounds in current use, which must all be manually sorted to be recycled. Large resin manufacturers like Du Pont, Dow Chemical and Union Carbide have been accused of dumping virgin resin on the market at prices far below the cost of recycled resins, further preventing successful recycling.

Two recent reports, one by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the other by Raymond Communications Inc., tell the sad story of plastics recycling gone wrong. EDF's analysis, entitled Something to Hide: The Sorry State of Plastics Recycling, is based on data reported by the American Plastics Council. EDF obtained this data despite the APC's new policy denying the public access to its information.

Each year from 1990 to 1996, according to Dr. Richard Denison (EDF senior scientist and author of the analysis), for every additional pound of plastic packaging that was recycled, nearly 4 pounds of additional virgin plastic packaging was produced on average. "All told this decade, over 13 times more virgin plastic packaging was produced than was recycled," says Denison's analysis.

EDF points out the actual tonnage of plastic packaging recycled increased by 69 million pounds between 1995 and 1996. This small increase, however, did not even come close to keeping up with the 1 billion pound increase in production of virgin plastic packaging over the same period.

Raymond Communications' report blames the explosive growth in use of plastics for soft drink bottles and stagnant growth of collection programs for helping to push plastic bottle recycling down. According to Dennis Sabourin, vice president of Wellman, Inc. one of the largest U.S. plastics recyclers, things are so desperate for his industry that he fears it will crumble in the next few years unless the situation improves.

Tony Moucachen is the president of Merlin Plastics Supply in Vancouver, one of BC's few processors of post-consumer plastics. He recently spoke at a Recycling Council of BC conference and told delegates the industry needs incentives like California's recycled content legislation. He indicated that plastic soft drink bottles (PET plastic) and milk jugs (HDPE plastic) are the only currently recyclable plastics and even the prices paid for these materials are volatile. "Plastic is still at the embryonic stage," concluded Moucachen. "It hasn't matured like the paper industry." As a final warning to the assembled recyclers, he said "don't collect anything that doesn't have a market."

It is increasingly clear that governments at the provincial and federal level must act to ensure any future for plastics recycling. Their continued inaction doesn't even qualify as lip service.

TRASH TIP - The Earthworks group says North Americans empty 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour! The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says plastics production has grown 10 percent a year for the past 30 years!

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