[Ecoaction] The Problem with Plastics

Post by Ken Westcar. Originally released as a Victoria Club paper on January 23rd 2020.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer was reputed by peers to have uttered, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Fortunately, authors of Victoria Club papers have a longer window to ponder the moment when they are required to offer their heads to this diligent and astute audience.

Authoring Victoria Club papers involves the establishment of context above all else. It is the skeleton on which the flesh and organs of the topic are located, suspended and connected. The challenge is then to turn them into an engaging, factual and informative body of work, and this is where research, in its various forms is vital. The context of this paper is self-evident to most, namely, the World has a serious and growing problem with all forms of plastic waste. In a metaphorical sense it has become regular media fodder, a matter of deep concern for thinking people and an opportunity for willful blindness by populist leaders.

Building context:

The context is further reinforced closer to home by those of us who do urban and rural walking and see single-use plastic litter cast everywhere by careless souls who are happy to enjoy its short- term utility while caring little or nothing about its destiny.  Media reports of vast ocean gyres of plastics, fouled beaches, entrapped and doomed birds, turtles and whales or gruesome recycling facilities in Asia where workers’ health and safety are non-existent, do little or nothing to change their habits.

While browsing news articles, technical papers and interviewing subject-matter experts are common research methods, the privilege of travel allows for empirical observation of the relationship between consumers and plastics while drawing the conclusion that single-use plastics are perhaps not the problem, but society at large is. A case in point:

On a recent trip to Europe in the early Fall we had 500ml bottles of refrigerated drinking water thrust at us when exiting the cruise ship or the bus, irrespective of how long we would be away from a potable water faucet, café or, better still, a bar. To decline often resulted in a dismissive grunt from the server followed by a look of pity over our impending, thirst-related demise during the next hour or two. Was he on commission from the bottled water vendor one wondered?

Most of our 60 fellow passengers accepted each bottle with grace, often twice a day over the 18days we were together. Quick arithmetic suggests over 2000 plastic bottles of water were distributed on this one tour alone. Project this globally as “Campaign for Rural England” – a non-profit advocacy group did in 2015 and the number rises to 2 trillion annually with only a very small proportion of these being alternative materials including glass and paper. Today’s count would be higher still.

Further observation revealed that most passengers would drink about 25% of the contents of the bottle and then leave it in the seatback pocket for the driver to collect and dispose of.  On several occasions drivers merely placed the partly full bottles into a plastic sack which was then dumped in the nearest garbage container. Recycling receptacles were available but ignored for the sake of convenience.

A friend’s very elegant conclusion is that beverage companies sell long-life, single-use PET plastic and use the bottle contents merely as a marketing ploy. This was confirmed in a TVO program on health foods on January 3rd when a taste test of Glasgow tap water in plastic designer bottles bearing the fake brand “Wetter” had varying opinions about the water taste but rave reviews about the bottle design. “Fiji” brand water anybody? 

Since being awarded this subject by the Program Committee I have also become an honorary inspector of Woodstock resident’s recycling boxes during my frequent city walks. The presentation of recyclable plastics varies from positively obsessive in terms of cleanliness and compliance with acceptability guidelines to appalling muddles of filthy and non-compliant stuff that likely never makes it past the transfer station sorting and grading process. So, it is landfilled and, thereby, yet another blatant example of the struggle between society’s long-term good and the products adding convenience to our lives and for which we have little or no consideration of their true costs.

Plastics in the environment:

When plastic waste management is either non-existent or dysfunctional the results are not hard to see. At a time of supposedly heightened environmental awareness, the media seizes on blatant examples such as ocean gyres, poverty-stricken garbage pickers and plastics dump fires in Third World countries. More recently, plastic waste laying at the bottom of the Earth’s deepest ocean trenches, once thought to be only the domain of strange life-forms in a relatively pristine environment, has shown how pervasive unmanaged plastic waste is. Jacques Cousteau would turn in his grave if he only knew.

During a recent visit to Panama we took a boat trip on the Chargres River that American canal engineers John Findlay Wallace and John Frank Stevens used to keep the waterway deep enough for ocean going ships. But there were two problems. One was quick-growing water hyacinth that, if not removed semi-annually, would choke the river and cause problems with navigation and hydro generating station intakes. The other was a floating plastic waste of every description that covered about 30% of the river’s surface area. By no means was this a pristine environment and the snapshot we enjoyed of the apparently abundant wildlife was likely a mere point on the downward trajectory curve of their ecosystem both above and below the water. Our guide noted that floating plastic was merely a troublesome by-catch of periodic water hyacinth removal and otherwise left to drift to an uncertain destiny, either in the Pacific or Caribbean.

The cause, it seems, is irresponsible waste disposal at riparian communities combined with frequent heavy rains that flush loose materials into the canal and its connected rivers and streams. There are no mitigation or remediation plans unless one counts Panama’s recent token ban on plastic shopping bags. Again, society enjoys the deceptively enticing, though temporary benefits and the profiteers shirk their responsibility, externalizes its costs – and the environment pays.

The Guardian newspaper on December 5th 2019 detailed a tragedy that had befallen and estimated half-million hermit crabs on the remote Henderson and Cocos islands in the Indian Ocean. There are likely many more such places. Their penchant for frequently seeking larger accommodative shells had led the crabs to plastic waste on the beach that appeared hospitable and was accessible when laying at a certain angle in the sand. House-hunting crabs entered these containers and, whether they located a suitable shell or not, found themselves unable to escape and quickly died from dehydration. Their decomposing corpses emitted an odor which, in their previously natural habitat, signaled the demise of a shell resident and its availability for re-occupation. This attracted other hermit crabs which also met their demise due to entrapment. It started a death loop that only stopped when the plastic container overflowed with fetid, deceased crabs. Over 500 crab corpses we found in a single plastic container.  These creatures saw opportunity rather than a problem and paid the ultimate price. One needs to wonder if humankind will eventually mimic this.

Researchers from Tasmania and the U.K. are concerned over this level of mortality. Crabs are an amusing novelty to watch but, more importantly are dissipators of seeds and aerators of soil. Extirpation or extinction will harm marine and shore ecosystems and contribute to their collapse. Just like the Chargres River in Panama, the authorities on these remote islands demonstrate near-zero political will to mitigate the problem.

The costs of denial:

Today, we treat most used plastic as a waste problem. Many in the western world, where post-usage recycling in the form of regular curb-side collection by local authorities is common, are often lulled into a sense of complacency. It is, after all, someone else’s problem when the property taxes we pay for garbage and recycling collection implicitly exonerate us from subsequent concern.

Our problem with plastic closely parallels other pervasive burdens on an evolving global society. I describe these merely to illustrate the main purpose of the paper which is to prioritize the “Why” rather than the “What” and “How”.

Western leaders embraced globalization in the 1970s as a path to prosperity for many. But they failed to heed warnings from socio/economic experts that previously well-paying jobs and complete industries would be sacrificed as manufacturing and related wealth creation were transferred to low-wage/regulation-light regions. Needed investments in skills retraining and speedy re-employment of those rendered redundant was scarce, primarily because neither business nor taxpayers wanted to bear the significant financial burden. Industry lobbyists made this quite clear to most governments at the same time as organized labour was being emasculated. It sowed the seeds of gross income inequality, increased mortality rates and many other modern social ills we bear witness to today. In other words, the beneficiaries of globalization did not want to acknowledge its problems and they adamantly refused to pay for it, by whatever means possible.  

The fierce dialog over another serious matter, climate-change, has its roots in similar denial, obfuscation and abdication. Global society runs on fossil fuel and it has been a key component in the increase in prosperity for millions of people in the same way that plastics have added convenience, affordability and consumer safety. At a very fundamental level organizations such as today’s Victoria Club would struggle to survive without the on-demand mobility that fossil fuels enable.

Until the 1980’s the downside of unbridled fossil fuel use was largely ignored by the World with only the occasional crude oil spill and localized mass marine flora and fauna extermination fading quickly from the news. Remember the “Exxon Valdez” tragedy. But the past 40 years have seen a greater understanding of escalating greenhouse gas emissions and their contribution to accelerating climate change and human health concerns.

At a personal level we may wring our hands over the prospect of the end of humanity on a barbecued planet Earth and largely feign concern over future generations while doing little or nothing concrete to address the problem or actually making it worse. (Frequent flyers, and big pickup drivers hang your head in shame!). Instead we look towards elected politicians to do the heavy lifting when doing so is very likely to truncate their time in office and alienate their wealthy supporters. Tragically, climate change denial, support for the fossil fuel industry, tax aversion, fears of economic disruption and short-term wealth creation currently inhibit any seriously affirmative action at the political level. Outright denial, greenwashing, hypocrisy and inaction have become the norm.

This causes most of us to make token, conscience-driven lifestyle changes while knowing, full well, that climate Armageddon is somewhere on the horizon. We want action on climate change but prefer to offload the required inconveniences on others.

Action on plastic, societal dysfunction, climate change and other global ills are heavily influenced by a process known as future or temporal discounting.  It’s basic human trait primarily because, unlike other animals, most of us have the ability consider the future. But few of us understand the implications of today’s actions. It’s like the common mental block over compound interest, and the dangers of smoking and excessive use of recreational chemicals.

In this regard, Ken Westcar and Friedrich Nietzsche (I borrow from Bill Bes’s recent Victoria Club paper) agree that approximately 95% of humans only make a fundamental habit or lifestyle change when faced with an imminent and consequential catastrophe.

Such was the case in Victorian times in many U.K. cities when sewage disposal was simply a matter of throwing a bucket of urine and feces out onto the street or into a local watercourse. After arguments over the cause of rampant cholera epidemics and their toll on urban society were resolved in the mid-1800s it took only about 5 years to build a sewer system that effectively eliminated the problem. Publicly funded sewage systems undergo costly but essential enhancements to this day for precisely the same reason – to prevent human sickness and death and thereby facilitate economic and social development. This crisis had severely damaged cities and their populations but there was enough clarity of thought and shared urgency to resolve the problem quickly and entrench public policy to permanently eliminate it. In other words, it gave more-immediate assurance that you had increased odds of dying of old age or being run down by a horse rather than from a pervasive and invisible killer. One must wonder if such an assertive and long-term approach would occur if sewage management was a for-profit enterprise.

Whether we can or will take such selfless action on today’s existential crises, including plastic waste remains highly questionable. There’s little cause for optimism.

The apathy and ignorance of consumption:

We consume and dispose of plastics, drive our fossil-fueled automobiles, fly to distant places and engage in consumptive and often harmful lifestyles and find, immediately afterwards, our local World has not perceptibly changed. The air remains breathable, the water drinkable, the trees are green, the birds continue to sing, and our recyclables get collected. Such apparent temporal discounting reinforces the tendency to resist a significant change in our personal and group habits. We may perhaps understand, in a vague way, their future implications but we discount those against immediate convenience and reward.

Imagine now if you are in a Third World or relatively isolated society where there is no easily accessible or trustworthy media or decent education system to inform you that discarded plastics threaten your livelihood and are an escalating global problem. Those of us who have travelled to such places may have noted that beverages in single-use plastic bottles are heavily promoted by prominent global soft drinks corporations and are offered by practically every vendor irrespective of their primary business because they are supposedly safe, convenient and immensely profitable. For convenient carriage of these and other snack products, mostly plastic wrapped, they offer a free plastic bag to customers. Almost inevitably the empty plastic container and its handy plastic bag are discarded as litter with the user completely oblivious and ignorant of the consequences. They have no understanding of the consequences.

Some hard facts:

The enormity of the plastics problem can be understood by studying work done by the American industrial ecologist Roland Guyer assisted by researchers Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender-Law in 2017. Please don’t look at Guyer’s web site unless you thrive on gloom and doom, but it does provide some very hard statistics. These are critical:

  • Since the 1950s, when most of us were still admiring the home telephone made from Bakelite, a hard resin material, the World has produced 8.3billion metric tons of plastics.
  • Over the same period 6.3 billion metric tons have accumulated in our environment.
  • 2 billion metric tons are thought to have been recycled, burned or remain unaccounted for.
  • By 2050 the World will have generated 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste.
  • Plastics take between 400 and 1000 years to degrade and there’s uncertainty over what resultant compounds will remain in the environment.
  • In a CNN article dated December 12th 2016 on “How to stop the 6th Extinction”, author John Sutter noted that ocean ecology scientists have predicted that the mass of plastic in Earth’s oceans could exceed the mass of fish by 2050.

These are only estimates based on evidential research. There’s no global repository of data and many players in the plastics industry are reluctant to divulge their role in the material’s life cycle for commercial and political reasons.

But one ominous figure is that, according to Wood Mackenzie, a research firm, over US$200 billion has been invested in the North American petrochemicals industry alone since 2010. Most of this new capacity produces raw materials (polymers) for the plastic industry. Parallels exist in other nations and regions with extensive petrochemical industries including the E.U. Saudi Arabia, China and Japan so the global production potential is mind boggling.

But these statistics are merely a historical snapshot. As more of the World’s population achieves middle-class these numbers will continue to escalate. In developing countries, a plastics-rich, wide-screen, relatively cheap TV is often a subsequent priority to a plastics-rich cell phone and, similarly a car.    

So, the big question is; How can we make plastics less of a problem when apathy and ignorance abound? It’s a sobering fact that only about 9% of the post-consumer plastics stream is recycled today. The remaining 91% is either landfilled, burned or randomly discarded into the environment. And it not just easily visible stuff like containers, other manufactured products and plastic film.

An invisible threat:

Scientists are now talking a much harder look at plastic nanoparticles from cosmetics and abraded dust that enter the lungs and pass through vein and artery walls and into the bloodstream and vital organs. They have yet to understand their toxic effects on humans and negative health effects. So, the feel-good fleece you wear that you were told was made from recycled PET plastic bottles may be contributing to your premature demise.

Helge Nielman, a biogeochemist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, has suggested that plastic nanoparticles could be rendered so small and in such profusion because of environmental grinding and abrasion, that they could become, quote, “more like a chemical dissolved in the water than floating in it”. Little is understood about the negative health-effects of this pollution vector in our marine ecosystems. What impact it has on the human food chain is also largely unknown but it’s something relatively new to humanity – a growing potential menace that we don’t really understand.

In looking at the issue of plastic nanoparticles and human health, it’s worth reminding ourselves of another fluid-related vector; the controversy over a chemical call Bisphenol A (BPA), which, over the 60 years prior to 2010 was commonly used in many plastic products including hard plastic, single-use bottles and containers. A CBC News article at the time contained the following:

BPA, also found in resins that coat the interior of food cans to prevent corrosion, has been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen and does not occur naturally in the environment.

There is no smoking gun indicating how dangerous BPA is, but the evidence is adding up, said Bruce Lanphear, a senior scientist at the child and family research institute at B.C. Children’s Hospital.

Studies in animal models are “quite concerning,” and raise questions about prostate disease, breast cancer, fertility issues and behavior problems in children, Lanphear said. 

In August, Statistics Canada reported that measurable levels of BPA were found in the urine of 91 per cent of Canadians aged six to 79.

“Health Canada considers that sufficient evidence relating to human health has been presented to justify the conclusion that bisphenol A is harmful to human life and should be added to Schedule 1 of [the Canadian Environmental Protection Act],” the federal government reported in the Canada Gazette.

While it’s reassuring to see Health Canada acting on suspected toxicity issues there has been recent concern over several substitute compounds. A very recent update by CBC contained the following:

In other words, these chemicals may have the same harmful effects as BPA, but at lower levels. Almost all the BPA substitutes showed some hormonal influence, suggesting they could affect growth and reproduction. 

“This is something that the scientific community has been warning regulators about for a very, very long time,” said Muhannad Malas, toxics program manager at Environmental Defence, an advocacy group.

“Chemicals like BPA, that end up getting phased out through regulation or through voluntary corporate action, are being replaced by what are referred to as ‘regrettable substitutes.’’

An August 2019 article in the journal “Toxicology” provided a detailed update of the potential health-effects of BPA substitutes and indicated areas of concern with human reproduction and other endocrinal (glandular) issues. More research is needed with larger and longer-term studies to quantify and qualify the problem.

Clearly, humankind is only in the early stages of a comprehensive understanding of the effects of ingested compounds used in or resulting from plastics’ lifecycle and we may be in for surprises if links to modern diseases such as dementia or obesity are confirmed.  The imaginative mind can conjure many eventualities. The ugly fight over the removal of lead compounds from gasoline that had conclusively proven to impair brain function comes to mind. Remember the movie “Erin Brockovich”?    

The politics of plastic waste:

With a better understanding of the scale and scope of the problem with plastics, this paper will further explore their political aspects as herein lies the real issue. In a perfect world humanity would be enjoying the myriad benefits of plastics while managing them through the post-consumer stages as part of a circular economy. But humanity has demonstrated its environmental ineptitude, not only with plastics and other forms of human-generated waste, but with fossil fuels and food.

We previously examined ignorance and apathy as major contributors to the plastics problem and this has a direct bearing on the political will to find a sustainable solution. Industries dependent on the production, use and disposal of plastics also bring their gargantuan economic and financial heft to the political table and, to a large extent, have countered forces that consider the environment and human wellness as top priorities.

In 2008, the then Ontario Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty established Stewardship Ontario tried to initiate recycling fees, including bottle deposits, on a wide range of packaged products with the intention of making the province a greener and less wasteful place. The collected fees would boost recycling and the higher costs of consumer products was intended to reduce profligacy in a manner not unlike the current and similarly controversial carbon tax. A deposit refund system was part of this initiative to encourage consumers to return packaging (bottles, cans and other single-use plastics) to retailers and ultimately producers.

But, although it had the potential to significantly reduce plastic waste, the original Stewardship Ontario program was poorly designed and marketed and was branded as a “tax-grab” by the Conservative opposition when it should be seen as a business cost externalization to taxpayers and the environment. No doubt the opposition was intensively prodded by industry, and the provincial stewardship project was ultimately cancelled. About the only vestige of the provincial program is the 20c returnable deposit for wine and liquor bottles delivered to the Beer Store. Blue Boxes, sans glass wine and liquor bottles, have remained the primary method of “free” recycling at the consumer level even though their effectiveness is currently under scrutiny by the province. It seems we may yet come full circle.

Stewardship Ontario lives on as an industry-funded non-profit under the authority of the Waste Free Ontario Act of 2016. Its primary purpose is to explore and execute on recycling opportunities to reduce the amount of waste, including potentially recyclable plastics, heading to incinerators and landfills. It collects fees from participants known as Industry Stewards – companies that are brand owners, first importers or franchisors of the products and packaging materials that end up in curbside Blue Boxes. As an industry organisation its effectiveness is determined by corporate commitment to the various programs and the stringency of provincial legislation.

To further encourage plastics recycling Stewardship Ontario promotes Extended Producer Responsibility which works towards a closed loop or circular economy for plastics. It moves the cost of recovery, transportation and recycling into a new product back to Industry Stewards. The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks is currently reviewing enhancements to this largely voluntary program in terms of legislation to drive industry participation up and the volume of household plastic heading to landfills down. However, it’s difficult to assess the outcome as of today.   

European politicians have been significantly more aggressive on single-use plastics and moves toward a circular economy but, in most countries, they are still not top priorities. In general, there is a more robust social conscience towards plastic waste in Europe and Scandinavia and, during a recent visit, it was encouraging so see extensive use of reusable, glass beverage bottles, paper straws, potable water fountains and bathroom condiments pump dispensers. Consequently, my personal stock of hotel purloined, mini plastic bottles of body wash and shampoo are now all but exhausted.

There was a time, prior to Donald Trump’s rise to power, when bottled water was not sold in the Grand Canyon National Park. The U.S. National Parks Service had sought to reduce the incidence of plastics littering of which discarded 500ml, single-use water bottles were a major component. It was not long before the bottled water industry made note of Trump’s negative sentiments towards environmental issues and lobbied hard to have the ban lifted –which it was. Under the ban there were no dehydrated human corpses reported at the Grand Canyon (although some were found after falling into the gorge in pursuit of the ultimate selfie) so there was no evidential reason for allowing the sale of bottled water within the park boundaries. But, commercial interests leveraged the Trump administration’s war on environmental regulations to get their products to the tourists irrespective of the increased disposal costs and longer-term hazards.

This example is anecdotal because the issue has been expunged from the National Parks Service web site, most likely at the request of the bottling companies and the Trump hand-puppet currently running the EPA.

Prior to the Trump presidency, the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. studied the life-cycle implications of a wide range of consumer durables and capital goods with the intent of having their manufacturers’ guarantee a usable life in hours or another quantitative parameter. The intent was to reduce the volume of cheap, defective stuff going into the waste stream. One of their concerns was the diminishing technology cycle of plastics-rich consumer electronics particularly flat-screen televisions and computer monitors along with a myriad of other consumer products purchased by price-conscious customers or the “early-adopter” fad for the latest and greatest technology.

The intent was to encourage manufacturers to build more durability into their products albeit at a higher selling price and thereby reduce a burgeoning waste stream. Or, at the very least, inform the highly price-conscious consumer that a low purchase price equated to a short product life.

Because the EPA was one of Trump’s primary targets this project was quickly cancelled in entirety and all supporting documentation expunged from their web site. Most likely it was in response to intense manufacturer and retailer lobbying that liked a less-informed consumers and had no consideration of the growing waste stream, much of which was plastic.     

With this level of political malfeasance in a country that’s embraced corporatocracy, regulatory reduction and unbridled consumerism, it’s very easy to appreciate that national leadership is central to the problem with plastics. While citizens may recoil in horror over grizzly images of terrestrial and marine plastics pollution, it’s seldom an issue at voting time. Most voters don’t see the connection or fail to recall their spontaneous response to the mess they had witnessed in the media and that surreptitiously encroaches upon them.

Politicians may only give lip-service to the problems with plastics often because of lobbying by industries anxious to avoid the replace/reduce/recycle costs or by those who profit from the transportation and disposal of plastic waste. Little wonder the “waste management” business grows almost exponentially and employs a phalanx of lawyers and lobbyists.

The Ford government in Ontario has yet to discover a conflict in its “Ontario is Open for Business” campaign, primarily the enticement of regulatory relief with the need for tighter regulations on recyclables, particularly plastics. One must hope that they can produce an effective “Made in Ontario” policy rather than mimicking the often-questionable practices of our neighbours to the south where business cost externalization is the norm, industry lobbyists formidable and politicians opportunistic.

One of the Ford government’s early moves was to terminate the position of Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and fold those responsibilities into the Auditor General’s Office.  Dianne Saxe, who was Environmental Commissioner at the time was concerned about the growing waste stream in Ontario, much of which was plastics, and the impact of landfills on environmental and public health.

Clearly, such a high-profile environmental advocate posed a problem for the Ford government and its corporate supporters. So, the consolidation of her responsibilities into the Auditor General’s Office based on “cost savings for the taxpayer” was an effective way of blunting environmental considerations of existing and future Ford policies. The Auditor General’s Office unlikely has the broad knowledge resources to match those of a focused, but politically problematic Environmental Commissioner.

This, and the Trump administration wholesale emasculation of environmental regulations at the behest of powerful corporations and donors suggest that any meaningful actions on plastic waste, other than more landfills, will be muted for the foreseeable future. Instead we can expect more greenwashing and obfuscation.

Dealing or deals:

So, if the global population remains addicted to plastics in all forms, what are societies’ options in dealing with it? How can the root cause be addressed rather than the more simplistic and largely ineffective treatment of symptoms?

In its 2019 report entitled “Discussion Paper on Reducing Litter and Waste in our Communities” the Ontario Chamber of Commerce demonstrated considerable lucidity on dealing with Ontario’s waste but was against tighter regulatory reinforcement including increased stringency on landfill permitting. In the case of plastic waste, making landfilling the most expensive disposal option by restricting the supply of landfill space could drive significant behavior change back down the manufacturer, consumer and diversion chain to where most externalized costs are generated.

Currently, there is very limited public or political appetite to deal with the root problems which are gross profligacy and cost externalization. Sure, there are glimmers of hope as a few people and lucid institutions seek and employ sustainable alternatives, but they are a microscopic drop in a very large bucket. I like to think of the Nietzsche/Westcar/Bes principle that 95% of people are ignorant or apathetic or both, 4% understand enough to show some, often transient concern and the remaining 1% take some sort of concrete action.

Apathetic businesses may scoff at the thought of taking responsibility for the plastics they produce and distribute but there are signs that corporate profits are already being negatively affected, particularly in the tourism industry. In common with our Panama trip there is a growing revulsion over discarded plastic waste that fouls otherwise pristine beaches and many tourist hotspots. Resort operators and municipalities incur increasing costs for cleaning up a growing tsunami of plastic waste either through littering or armadas of ocean flotsam. Grubby places soon get a negative reputation which is amplified by comments on sites like Trip Advisor or social media. For the global community this is a “canary in a coal mine” but the full extent of the danger is yet to be recognized.

Producers and retailers are not totally blind to the escalating concerns over single-use plastics. Bottled water and snack companies are now offering containers that are “biodegradable” or “compostable” and consumers will usually accept these statements at face value on the assumption their end of life will mimic a rotting cabbage. But, it’s not that simple or straightforward.

Research on the issue of “biodegradability” or “compostability” of single-use plastics is more a greenwashing tool by beverage companies. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

All materials are inherently biodegradable, whether it takes a few weeks or a million years to break down into organic matter and mineralize. Therefore, products that are classified as “biodegradable” but whose time and environmental constraints are not explicitly stated are misinforming consumers and lack transparency. Normally, credible companies convey the specific biodegradable conditions of their products, highlighting that their products are in fact biodegradable under national or international standards. Additionally, companies that label plastics with oxo-biodegradable additives as entirely biodegradable contribute to misinformation. Similarly, some brands may claim that their plastics are biodegradable when, in fact, they are non-biodegradable bioplastics.   

Research produced no evidence of municipalities separating single use biodegradable plastic from those made from standard, petroleum-based polymers. Neither do they have the means to collect and process them such that they have a shorter and environmentally safer transition to benign constituents. Only on a very large scale do biodegradables look practical but the actual degrading process needs tightly controlled conditions as does a means of using or safely disposing of residues.

Another issue with biodegradables is that many use natural, starch-based compounds mixed with other chemical constituents for shelf-life durability. 1 kg of polylactic acid, the most common element in biodegradables, requires 2.65kg of corn as the raw material. Replacing existing global production of conventional plastic (490 million tons) with biodegradables is estimated to need 125 million tons of corn. Of course, not all plastics could be made from corn as most industrial varieties require specific physical properties, but just replacing single use containers using petroleum-based compounds with corn-based ones would remove millions of tons of corn-derived staples from the global food chain. This at a time when global food production is under increasing threat from climate change.

Widespread conversion of single-use plastics to biodegradables would also drive up packaging costs and product selling prices. This would likely meet extreme resistance from industry and sympathetic governments averse to regulations necessary for there to be any perceptible benefit. Given that only about 9% of plastic production is recycled it’s clear that biodegradables are a drop in the bucket with many questions about their true environmental impact yet unanswered.

The increased re-use or recycling of all types of plastic waste faces daunting challenges. The forecast for global plastics production in 2020 is approximately 490 million tons. If the recycling rate remains at 9% it means that about 446 million tons will still be dumped or incinerated. If the recycling rate could be increased to 20% the amount will only decline to 392 million tons – roughly total, global plastics production in 2015. We have already witnessed the negative environmental consequences of this.

While landfills remain the destination of the majority of plastic and continue to be cost effective for consumers, profitable for the waste industry and mostly opaque to the general public, it’s highly unlikely that tax and regulation averse governments will mandate a fundamental change in diversion rates in the immediate future, defined here as 5 years or less.

In countries with vestigial waste management and recycling facilities it’s highly unlikely there will be any change to diversion rates, for obvious reasons, and that poorly managed dumps and ultimately the environment will be the recipient of most of their plastic waste. This will continue to be exacerbated by mainly western nations that export plastic waste, ostensibly for recycling, but with almost no follow-up monitoring. This was exemplified in early 2019 when Canada was forced to repatriate 69 of a total 103 containers of mislabeled trash, primarily contaminated plastics, from the Philippines at a cost of $1.14m for shipping and disposal by a British Columbia waste company. Environment and Climate Change Canada, in cooperation with governments of receiving countries, now require certification and permitting of hazardous waste exports. Australia is another waste exporter required to implement the same rules.

But non-hazardous waste can still be exported with impunity. Carmeuse Lime in Beachville, just west of Woodstock, imports “low carbon waste” from the U.S. in the form of plastic, rubber, nylon, new and used diapers to feed its kilns rather than using natural gas. Monitoring of flue gasses remains largely opaque to the public and of limited interest to Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks bureaucrats. NIMBYism anyone?

Economic headwinds:

There are several ways of recycling plastics, but the challenge is whether the process is commercially viable or not.  Currently there’s an oversupply of most virgin plastics polymers thereby making recycled polymers less competitive – with a few exceptions. Without a robust regulatory approach, it’s likely that commercial considerations will continue to determine global recycling rates. Factors include the value of products derived from the recycling process and inputs such as capital equipment, water, labour, energy and transportation. Energy inputs for some recycling processes requiring high temperatures and therefore high energy consumption, can, alone, dictate commercial viability.

Although seldom considered a “hard cost”, all recycling processes emit carbon dioxide and other gaseous compounds including some methane, so they are by no means benign to the environment and human health. Conversion of waste plastic into various types of liquid, combustible fuel (primarily diesel) ultimately adds significantly to overall carbon emissions in the form of engine exhaust gases. However, one benefit of fuel derived from waste plastic is that it’s sulphur free.

Products made from recycled plastics compete with virgin plastics and other petroleum products, wood and some fabrics.  Given the political clout of these industries there will be varying degrees of resistance to recycled products. An example is the major focus by Finland into expanded uses of forest industry products. Traditional dimensional lumber is being re-engineered to be stronger and more durable, wood fibre is being developed as a replacement for some fabrics and the liquor produced during the pulping process is being closely analyzed as a potential source of pharmaceutical compounds. Buckley’s Mixture is reputedly derived from pulp liquor. The Finns stress the low carbon footprint of sustainably harvested forest products and their end of life biodegradability. In other words, significant competition for the plastics recycling industry in Scandinavia and Northern Europe where environmental awareness is much higher than in most of the rest of the World. Little wonder incineration finds favor.

Achieving a significantly higher percentage of plastics recycling depends on government policy, commercial viability and environmental considerations. Conscientious consumers and reliance on the free market are unlikely to significantly mitigate the problem with plastics in the foreseeable future.

A burning issue:

Because plastics are carbon-based compounds they can be disposed of by incineration and this is normally an alternative to landfilling. Incineration is highly controversial due to the polluting and potential negative health effects of flue gases. This means they are a major target for NIMBYism especially when located close to urban or environmentally sensitive areas.

Controlled incineration is enjoying considerable success in Europe and Scandinavia where energy-from-waste projects are very common. In the U.S., California has adopted this technology as have some other states. In Ontario incineration plants are in Brampton and Clarington and B.C. has two in Burnaby. But impacts on the environment vary according to how well the incineration plants are engineered, maintained and managed.

The “flagship” of waste incineration plants was recently commissioned in Copenhagen, Denmark. It has a capacity of 440,000 metric tons a year and the energy output for district heating and electric power generation can serve up to about 200,000 homes. To make it more palatable for locals, it’s a multi-use facility with a year-round, artificial ski hill and several restaurants. Elevators to the top of the building are glass-sided so that visitors can see the waste conversion process first-hand. The estimated total cost of the project is C$860m.

It’s interesting to compare this up-front cost with the rumored C$25m to establish a 17.5m ton landfill in Beachville. One can torture the arithmetic on “best practice” and “taxpayer value” until the cows come home but it all really boils down to political will. An option for Copenhagen would have been to sell its non-recyclable waste to Sweden or Germany where less-sophisticated incinerators suffer from frequent fuel shortages. Instead it chose to deal with the problem locally with a degree of “out of the box” thinking and strong political will.

Consider also that Denmark’s approach to climate change is diametrically opposed to most of North and South America and the Third World. This suggests that they looked very hard and long at the alternatives and decided this incinerator would fit into their very progressive climate policy.

As mentioned previously the success or otherwise of controlled waste incineration depends on engineering and management. Burning waste away from the critical public eye is relatively easy as evidenced by the Beachville example. With non-recycled plastic being a significant part of incinerator fuel, and being primarily a petrochemical product, it has extraordinary heat value and burns relatively easily. Managing the actual combustion process is critical to avoid sub-optimal flue gas composition.

Without complex aftertreatment of toxic flue gases their discharge into the environment can pose major risks to human and animal health and damage to property. The constituents of flue gases will be predominantly carbon dioxide, a significant contributor to climate change and a cocktail of other gases and particulates. A partial list includes mercury, dioxins, furans and oxides of nitrogen. Nanoparticles are also a risk and their potential adverse health effects have been discussed previously.

Flue gas scrubbing and particulate filtration can reduce levels of toxic compounds but it’s a very complex and expensive process. Oxides of nitrogen require catalytic conversion and large quantities of introduced ammonia for effective removal. Managing this process requires robust control systems and extreme diligence, not unlike nuclear power.

Catalytic conversion requires periodic replacement of mechanical substrates critical to the elimination of oxides of nitrogen. These substrates cannot be recycled and are usually landfilled. Also landfilled is the approximately 17% by weight of the combusted waste in the form of toxic bottom ash. Constituents may vary but Burnaby B.C. has identified high levels of toxic heavy metal cadmium and lead making this a hazardous material. Unless disposed of very carefully it remains a long-term liability to human and animal health and the environment. A similar product from coal-fired power stations has been used in the production of concrete but vast quantities are simply buried and often forgotten until they overtly threaten human health.

Another form of incineration, known as pyrolysis, where waste plastic can be reduced to ash and combustible gases in a heated anerobic (oxygen free) environment, is being used in some countries on a limited scale. But the variability of both the resultant gas stream and toxicity of solid residue have, so far, limited its use.    

So, incineration is an option for mitigating the problem with plastics but it’s a relatively expensive one in the shorter-term. Its use depends largely on political-will, tight regulation, evidence-based economics, the willingness of the taxpayer or private industry (or both) to fund capital requirements and host the facility. Might I suggest it doesn’t match the Ford government’s regulatory and tax-averse “Ontario is Open for Business” sloganeering very well?  It’s a non-issue at the federal level in the U.S.

Just bury the stuff:

In this discussion, the issue of landfills has been omnipresent. Whether part of recycling or incineration processes there is a residue that, based on current technologies, will need to be absorbed into the environment in one form or another.

As we discussed previously, the initial capital and operating cost of landfills is attractive. Indeed, a cursory search for landfill images on the Internet shows a very high percentage of discarded plastics. So, in a free-market, regulation averse economy, they have been the defacto choice for disposal because they provide the ability to externalize, to the public and environment, many of the costs that would otherwise be incurred by plastics recycling, incineration and re-use.

Unless municipally owned, landfills are private businesses who’s turnover and profits are largely dictated by the volume and mass flow of waste and generally legal methods of reducing operating costs. The current permitting process in most Canadian provinces is quite rigorous including environmental assessments and community liaison. However, it is also prone to misinformation, greenwashing and political lobbying. In the U.S. and other countries there are frequent examples of blatant corruption in landfill development and operation.

While landfilling plastic waste appears to be an attractive option it is necessary to remember that oil-based polymer plastics take between 400 and 1000 years to degrade. Net of current levels of incineration and recycling Planet Earth will need to find space in landfills for approximately 400 million tons annually based on current production levels. It’s problematic to forecast plastics waste volume growth as it depends on population growth, the consumption characteristics of those rising to middle-class status, and the percentage recycled or incinerated. But a reasonable estimate might be 10%. By 2050 the total annual landfilled volume could therefore be in the order of 1.2 billion tons.

If we base Canada’s landfilling requirements on our current 1.36% of global GDP it works out to about 5.5 million tons of plastic today and 16.5 million tons by 2050. Little wonder the waste “management” industry salivates. It’s equivalent to filling one Beachville landfill every year.

Most waste, of which plastics are a sizeable proportion, is trucked to landfill sites which places a considerable burden on the taxpayer and the environment. Carbon emissions, nano particulates in exhaust gases and from brakes and tires, highway wear and tear and winter salting of roads are transportation cost externalities not borne by the waste industry. But they manifest themselves in climate change, negative human and animal health outcomes and watercourse degradation.

Where does the ultimate responsibility fall?:

When dumped into a landfill, plastics take between 400 and 1000 years to degrade. This process is not well understood, and neither are the resultant liquid and solid compounds needing to be absorbed in the body of the landfill or leaking into the surrounding environment. It’s important to remember that other toxic compounds deposited in the landfill have the possibility of reacting with deposited plastics to form extremely hazardous residues.

In a liquid form these, normally toxic residues are known as leachate and most modern landfills employ leachate treatment plants. Previously leachate dispersed slowly through clay substrata or was pumped into local sewers or watercourses. Landfills built on fractured rock have experienced uncontrolled leachate flows that polluted local drinking water sources and devastated marine ecosystems. The Richmond Landfill near Napanee is a case in point. The proposed Beachville landfill near Ingersoll has similar characteristics and potential.

Landfill permitting regulations generally call for financial assurance paid to the permitting authority by the owner based on a specific but nominal cost per ton deposited over the commercial life of the operation. These funds are designated for the cost of remediation of any serious operational problem over the commercial life of the landfill and often for a specified period thereafter. The extent of this financial assurance varies from willful blindness and industry lobbying to rigorous, depending on where the landfill is located, the extend of public scrutiny and how long it’s been operating.

Landfills have varying lives as commercial propositions and 20 years is considered typical. Subsequently they become liabilities for the owners and operators as they require monitoring for decades after closure. Various legal means exist for the owners and operators to walk away from future liabilities at which time the cost of any long-term remediation such as untreated leachate leakage and source water contamination falls to the taxpayer. Remediation may not be technically, or financially possible and entire local ecosystems possibly lost – in perpetuity.

Compare a 50year owner and operator stewardship of a landfill, pre and post closure with the 400 to 1000 years it takes for deposited plastic to fully degrade into a variety of unknown chemical compounds. Clearly this has the potential to be a monumental taxpayer and environmental burden that, today, is incalculable.

Reduce – it depends on us:

Having reviewed three potential end-of-life solutions for plastics a fourth is entering the public psyche, at least in First World countries. But, it’s so recent that quantifying the benefits is highly problematic. It’s a growing interest by the more conscientious consumer to reject single-use plastics in favor of reusables, refillables or paper and plant-based fabrics. Retail, hospitality and building services companies, being sensitive to consumer trends, are adapting accordingly. But such a small segment of society (perhaps the Nietzsche/Westcar/Bes 1%) support this that its beneficial effects on the sheer volume of plastic waste is currently vestigial, at best.                

    The problem with plastic is inversely proportional to its incredible and expanding utility. That it positively impacts most aspects of our lives is without question. Just about everything we touch from a squirt of toothpaste to a modern passenger jet is facilitated by the application of many different forms of plastic. For most material things in life it’s simply the best option but this positive experience has forced us to take it for granted and be apathetic to its effect on Planet Earth.

It’s obvious from the amount of discarded plastic in the environment that humanity remains largely disconnected from the problem of end-of-life management and its potential dangers. We have amply explored these in this paper. This future discounting or out-of-sight/out-of-mind attitude is unlikely to end anytime soon within global society. Commercial and political forces tend to exacerbate the problem. The growing realization that there is potential plastic Armageddon as part of the Anthropocene Age is yet to be sufficiently adopted by the majority.

Guarded optimism:

However, there are signs that many global corporations are paying somewhat more attention to their social and environmental responsibilities as a means of ensuring their long-term sustainability and profitability. It’s difficult to understand whether this is mere greenwashing, hedging their bets on the future or a genuine plan to move towards a circular economy. It will be interesting to see who the leaders and laggards are and the tangible results they produce.  

Because we live in a fossil fuel based global economy the problem with plastics parallels that of climate change. The alternatives to our current patterns of consumption are daunting to most and considered unaffordable to many. But, I believe, there’s hope.

Writers on concerns over climate change glean optimism from shifting public opinion, particularly among younger generations who have more at risk than baby boomers. They seem to have heard the message which manifests itself both in protest and constructive action. The Greta Thunbergs of this world will become more numerous while the apathetic and deniers will try to hang on to the status quo. The differentiation comes from education; the ability to think critically and assess both sides of the argument and then move more assertively towards an equitable solution.

One must hope that the plastic tsunami, once its existential threat is better understood, will face the same scrutiny by younger generations. In this regard we must applaud municipalities who engage with schools and colleges to explain waste management in general and the specific issues relating to plastics. Anything to get the message across that out-of-sight should not be out-of-mind.

The geology of Planet Earth must not show the Anthropocene Age as a deep stratum of willfully discarded plastic under and on the land and seabed. One must hope that the twin perils of plastic and climate change will not define the survivability of our home in the Solar System.

Perhaps, when the scourge of dumped plastic becomes more prominent in our lives, the words of Samuel Johnson will ring true. It will not be mass hanging in a fortnight but major lifestyle changes that we mostly discount today.

End.

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