Recycling – Where Does the Plastic REALLY go?

Reduce, reuse, recycle is something that we all try and live our lives by. The commitment we have to keep the earth we live on renewed, green and organic means that we have to always keep the principles of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ at the forefront of our minds. Like the other aspects of our lives, sometimes the best course of action is not clear – which is better? Reduce? Reuse? Recycle? Aren’t they all as good as each other? Sadly, no, as we have discussed before on they are definitely not all as good as each other.

Reducing is always the best option, period. If you don’t buy it, you can’t waste it, it can’t go to landfill and the resources are left where they should be – exactly where nature put them. It’s really easy to focus on recycling as the number one option as that is what many environmental campaigns stress. It is something physical that green groups can use to relate the general public, governments can leverage their communities with and companies can get behind to increase popularity and brand image.

Recycling really is a marketing coup because let’s face it, if a large household name released a, ‘The best way to help our environment is to not buy our products’, advertising campaign, they would be out of business very soon. If they launch a clever eco-friendly marketing campaign where you pop a used can into a machine in the park and food drops out the bottom to feed the wild animals, they win credibility as a caring company on all fronts – and sell more product. It’s a win/win/win/win to infinity for them. But is it the right thing to do?

You can only ever answer the question, ‘Is recycling the right thing to do?’ if you know what happens to the recycled material and where it really ends up.

We all merrily wash, sort and organize our plastic for recycling. We can return some to the depot and get the deposit back, which is small but welcome, the rest is collected at the curb or in a roadside facility – and then disappears into the ‘wild blue yonder’. Sometimes we throw them where they need to go and forget about them. We’ve done ‘our bit’ and that’s the end of our responsibility. Sometimes that feeling justifies buying an item even if we don’t need it. The, ‘It’s OK, I can recycle it if I don’t like it’ or ‘it’s plastic, it can be recycled’, kind of mentality. Firstly, it’s not ‘OK’ to think that everything is so easily disposable, and secondly, just because it’s plastic it doesn’t automatically make it able to be recycled. The bag or box you put your recycling in isn’t magic, just because the item in the box it doesn’t magically change into something that can be recycled, or recycled easily. Recycling doesn’t just go ‘away’ – it has to go somewhere.

All the plastic that is produced should carry a number or letter on it. This is a code that reveals the chemical make-up of the plastic, therefore making it easy to identify, what is in it and how it needs to be recycled. Plastic #1 is more commonly known as PET or polyethylene terephthalate, and Plastic #2 is HDPE or high density polyethylene and you probably recognized them both. PET is often called ‘food grade’ plastic and most of the food and beverage packaging is made up of it. HDPE is also a plastic that makes bottles, but they are the more substantial ones that carry building materials or make mop buckets, non-corrosive pipes, non-permeable or permeable membranes and plastic lumber. It’s the numbers 3-7 that tend to unfamiliar to people, but they still exist in massive numbers, but are almost swept under the carpet where recycling is concerned almost to the point of being completely ignored, but why?

Why? Is a great question. Plastics numbered 3-6 are familiar to you just not by number. #3 is PVC or polyvinyl Chloride, the plastic many toys, blister packs and shrink wrapping are made from, #4 is LDPE low density polyethylene or the plastic wrapping used for food and garbage cans, #5 is polypropylene PP which yogurt cartons are made out of, #6 is Styrofoam (UGH) and #7 is ‘miscellaneous plastic not elsewhere categorized’, so basically – anything!  The reason they are ignored is that they are hard to recycle.

Western and Eastern Canada both have plastics number #1 and #2 recycling facilities but not where you think they are. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the plastic is collected and recycled locally, but this is never the case. The plastic can travel many miles to reach the facility that will make them into the raw material, and sometimes it takes more than one factory on opposite sides of the country to make them into something useful. The concentration of recycling information you are familiar with is revolves around the recycling of plastics #1 and #2 for one simple reason. That gives the best PR. Companies want you to recycle, so they present the best scenario to inspire you. Recycling is the best option for plastic, but the better option is not to create the demand for plastic in the first place.

These #1 and #2 plastics are recycled in Canada but only if there is the demand. Great piles of these plastics can sit at the recycling depot if there isn’t a market for them and then wait, and wait … and wait, until there is one. The deposits paid for beverage bottles can help offset some of the cost, but it doesn’t guarantee that manufacturers will design final products using the raw recycled material. Add to that the vast areas the materials have to travel to be collected, recycled then remade into something useful – it’s hardly a green option.

Plastics #3 – #7 are a completely different matter. Knowing what happens to them is not easy to determine as the transparency of the information is very thin. The plastics vary broadly in their ability to be recycled and in the processes that recycle them, so the nearest exact information we could find as to where they are recycled is ‘Eastern and Western Canada – and Asia’. We could not find anything that pinpointed where these plastics were recycled in Canada. On the contrary, all our research indicated that these plastics were all recycled in China.

For decades China has been the biggest consumer of used numbers #3 – #7 cartons, bottles and pails, importing over two thirds of all the post-consumer plastic that the North American continent produced, equalling several billion dollars. It was shipped to China, cleaned, sorted and then broken down into raw material resin pellets that were then remade into laptop computer cases, winter jacket filling and even cosmetics. Now you know why we had to wash them before we put them at the curbside, they could spend four months getting to their destination, then two months waiting to be recycled.

These resin pellets are considerably cheaper than sourcing the raw material, and easier to use in manufacture, so are usually there is a good market for it. Not only does the recycled resin make the item cheaper, for countries with an eco-conscious mind it’s another marketing coup as well. This large scale disposal of plastics #3 -#7 came at a huge cost to China and in itself, was not sustainable.

Most of China’s recycling was performed by ‘Mom and Pop’ type set ups which were hard to regulate, and any material they could not turn into resin pellets would be dumped and left to decay. Essentially each year two thirds of the North American continents plastics, including unrecyclable Styrofoam, was ending up in industrial China and either left to rot – or burnt. These operations were heavy on pollution and considered to be one of the main causes of Chinas horrific air quality and noxious waterways, enough so that when economic pressure was put on the government to clean up their act, one quick way to produce results was to firmly regulate the import of the raw material.

In 2013 the Chinese government began to check the quality of the plastics coming in, rejecting the majority of them as ‘substandard’. The operation began to be called the ‘Green fence’, and thousands of tons of used plastics were shipped back to their original generators as huge cost. It soon stopped coming in as the risk was too high, so the ‘mom and pop’ companies went out of business, leaving only the large companies solvent. These companies are then set up as recycling hubs for their domestic market – and let’s face it, they need a huge amount of raw resin for their own market! It was a stroke of genius and produced great benefits – for the government.

So what is happening now to the material not being recycled in Asia? Short term it’s a great gain for those able to recycle these plastics in North America, but the capacity is low. North American resin comes at a higher cost than the Chinese import which, coupled with the break in supply, means that recycled plastic is being less designed into products so the demand is also dropping. The demand may be dropping but the production of material to recycle is not.

As price becomes more a pain point for manufacturers and the plastic material builds up, other countries will fill the gap. India, Vietnam and Indonesia are all rapidly expanding their recycling capacities, but sadly on the same model the Chinese used decades ago, so there will soon be a large state of déjà vu for the industry. Until then, huge mountains of plastics #3 – #7 will be hanging around to be found a use for – or even worse, be sent to landfill.

The Alberta Plastics Recycling Association said this:

“For the foreseeable future, the much more practical solution for Alberta municipalities and their recycling contractors would be to work with Canadian processors and brokers. Find out what their requirements are for commodity streams and sorting and work within that system to ensure continuing markets for their collected recyclables.”

Until demand for the resins of these plastics picks up a lot, or the green fence comes down, the margins are so low that only the largest of the North American providers will survive – even then, there is no guarantee for how long.

Where do your plastics for recycling go? It would appear round the world and back again, or at least further than the average consumer has travelled. But really, the best thing you can do for plastic recycling? Use paper.



Like what we’re doing? Want to share your story or tell others? Do you have a green business in Calgary and want to get in front of a large local audience? Let’s build a green community together!