Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

13 Oct 2020

A step toward a circular economy

Posted by Michael Keating

Last week the Canadian government took a run at slowing the flood of plastic garbage in the environment when it announced a ban on a number of plastics by the end of next year. They include single-use items such as plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, and food ware made from hard-to-recycle plastics. It is step toward a national goal of zero plastic waste by 2030, and is part of a push for industry to stop creating so much waste. This follows years of stories of a world flooded with plastic garbage, some of which breaks down into tiny particles that end up in our food, water and bodies. Every year, Canadians throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic waste. Only 9 per cent is recycled while the vast majority ends up in landfills. In 2019, Canada was publicly embarrassed when the Philippines and Malaysia shipped contaminated plastic waste back to Canada, saying it was unfit for recycling. This came a year after China banned importation of most foreign plastics for recycling.

Last week’s announcement draws from the Canada-wide strategy on zero plastic waste, an agreement among the federal, provincial and territorial governments. It seeks to reduce plastic waste and move used plastics into a circular economy. According to the Recycling Council of Alberta, “the current economy is linear, which means that things are made with raw materials, used and then disposed. In contrast, a circular economy keeps products and materials circulating within the economy at their highest value for as long as possible, through reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, sharing and delivering products as services.” Circular systems minimize input of raw resources and creation of waste by keeping materials in use rather than throwing them away.

Unwanted plastic.
Credit: Laura Sullivan, NPR

The problem is that many plastics are hard to recycle. In the 1980s and 1990s plastics manufacturers were under fire for the amount of plastic garbage in the environment. Companies funded a number of plastic recycling operations. According to a story by National Public Radio in the United States, these were often a financial failure, but gave people the impression that something was being done even though much of the plastic went from recycling containers into garbage landfills. There a number of reasons. Sometimes the plastic is too contaminated with food waste or other materials to be worth cleaning to recycle. There are hundreds of types of plastic, and sometimes several are combined in one product, meaning waste materials have to be sorted before being melted down for a new use. Plastics will also degrade to lower quality when recycled, limiting their use. With low oil prices, it’s often cheaper to make new plastic.

Governments are putting more onus on industry to make changes at the design, collection and recovery stages of plastics. It may mean less stuff thrown into recycling bins and less confusion for people trying to figure out what they can and cannot recycle.

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