Plastic World

            Lucky for us that our pub has installed some outdoor seating under party tents right on the beach. And since this is the first week that almost feels like summer Camp and I decided we better support our local watering hole. The whole pandemic feels like dejà-vu, from a year ago. Maybe even worse. Despite vaccines finally getting into people’s arms, nothing much has changed. We just have to roll with it. 

            ‘It was V-day for me yesterday,’ Camp said. ‘Astra Zeneca at the pharmacy, courtesy of Biden who graciously sent us a million doses.’

            ‘I got mine, Pfeizer.’

            We raised a toast to the vaccinated.

            I wanted to talk about a subject I had just read about in my Swiss paper but I’m sure it applies to Canada as well.

            ‘We all know Camp, that Governments, people and businesses want to recycle more plastic. But Greenpeace, of all people, is now showing that this is surprisingly unecological. We’ve all seen the shock pictures of the plastic noose around the seal’s head and the plastic bag in the bloated turtle’s stomach and we know about the micro plastic particles in the salmon and the shrimp. Anyone googling the internet for plastic waste will be dragged into a deep dark hole and lose their appetite for seafood.’

            ‘I believe you, and I’m sure I’ll get a proper lecture now,’ Camp said. 

            ‘Yes, well here it is: Canadians produce an estimated 3.3 million tons of plastic waste per year. About 2.8 million tons end up in landfills, equivalent of the weight of 24 CN towers. According to the Canadian government we use almost 25 billion plastic bags every year and in Canada more than one-third of our plastics are for single-use of packaging.’ Source: Oceana, Rachelle Young, 2019.

            Camp just nodded, resigned, and I carried on: ‘Most of us recycle glass, metal, batteries, cardboard, paper and yes, plastic but we do not separate the different kinds of plastic. And we should because different plastics have different polymers and different characteristics. They cannot be re-purposed unless separated, otherwise they end up being thermically recycled, meaning incinerated and hopefully the resultant heat will drive some kind of turbine or machine. But this process leaves its own carbon footprint and does not save the environment from toxic emissions.’

            ‘What are you telling me?’ Camp asked, ‘that our plastic recycling is futile?’ 

            ‘Not me Camp but Florian Kasser from Greenpeace wants to fight the plastic industry from the other side, from the packaging and manufacturing end. ‘We need reusable containers for refilling anything from shampoo to water, from oil to detergent,’ he insists. ‘Instead of single small bottles, stores should offer bulk containers for refillables’. He sees plastic recycling as a kind of indulgent trade and once the separating machines are built, they need to be fed, constantly, creating a so called locked-in effect. Kasser personally separates glass, metal and PET, but not plastic. Although the reduction of CO2 emissions due to mixed plastic collection is relatively low to the overall environmental impact, the savings could be significant. For every kilo of plastic we don’t burn we save 4.5 kilos of CO2, the Swiss Federal Institute for Materials Testing and Research claims.’

            I paused to let that sink in and we washed it down with our beers.

            ‘Things are going in the wrong direction, Kasser says. He cites a 2018 study by the Rapperswil University of Technology in Switzerland. It concludes that if a person collects and separates plastics for a year, the benefit is comparable to abstaining from eating one 8oz steak and 30 years of recycling plastic has the same benefit as cancelling that flight from Zurich to Mallorca.’

            ‘In other words, it makes no difference,’ Camp said. 

            ‘If you really want to make an ecological difference, Kasser said, you should eat less meat, keep your heating down and drive and fly less. These three aspects account for around two thirds of our ecological footprints. Plastic packaging on the other hand is below 1 percent per person.’

            ‘This is thirsty talk but here comes Vicky with a refill, in proper glass pints.’

            ‘Here you go boys,’ she said. ‘I see you two are saving the world again.’

            ‘Not really, but we’re thinking about it,’ Camp said.

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