242 - Plastic Waste Revisited 2

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Plastics types


PET  7%  polyethylene terephthalate #1 bottles
PE-HD, PE-MD 12% polyethylene high density #2  Toys, milk bottles, pipes, housewares
PUR 7% Insulating foams, mattresses & pillows

PVC 10% polyvinyl chloride #3,  Window frames, cable insulation, pipes & Hoses.
PE-LD, PE-LLD 17% polyethylene low density #4,  Reusable bags & trays, packaging film for food and agriculture
PP 19% polypropylene #5,   food packaging, snack wrappers, bottle caps, bank notes, micro-wave proof containers, car parts
PS, PS-E 7% polystyrene #6, Specs, egg trays, packaging, insulation 
OTHERS 20% #7 Hub caps (ABS); optical fibres (PBT); eyeglasses lenses, roofing sheets (PC); Touch screens (PMMA); cable coating in telecommunications (PTFE); and many others in aerospace, medical implants, surgical devices, membranes, valves & seals, protective coatings, etc.
Source [6] 2015 EU demand by polymer type. shuffled away from ascending order of EU use and instead to # order, which refers to the little number in a triangle marked on plastics, from the SPI (US).

This is an update to 2007’s ‘Plastic bags get everywhere', on seeing that some essential links have been lost.


I have noticed an increasing amount of reporting of this as a problem. Notable among those is an entry from Blue Planet II, which has an audience that might well be different from those already aware. Given the thoroughness of the knowledge within that team, it is no surprise that they draw attention to the new factor, not covered when I first looked at this in 2006. What was reported then was the mass of floating material to be found in the gyres (five?). What we now add to that is the result of breakdown of large plastic into microbeads, which my screen editor wishes to be microbes.
"Gone are the silly notions that you can put nets in the ocean and solve the problem," said Eriksen. "This cloud of microplastics extends both vertically and horizontally. It's more like smog than a patch.” [2]


I see need for four immediate approaches.      

•   We must significantly reduce the amount of plastic reaching the oceans, which probably means a dramatic change in attitude to plastic - I will explore this further.      

•   We need to tackle what is in the oceans; dragging a net across a dense mass of plastic will reduce the future problem of microbeads. What we do not have is incentive in the form of perceived value for the work/cost involved in gathering it.      

•    We need research into discovering what, if anything we can do to reduce the microbeads in the oceans. I guess that these will become steadily smaller, which perhaps means these particles will return as a pollutant.   

•    Coupled with that last, we need to improve our recycling of plastic, especially with a far higher recovery rate.

I was ahead of the curve in pushing this as an idea in 2007, yet I was already a decade late. Another decade has gone by and we are just beginning to head towards action. Mrs May made a speech about this early in the year; as ever, instead of shouting support, the general response is 'too little too late' – from the same people who have done nothing themselves. Of course it could be the reporting, discarding support and only looking for dissent, on the basis that the role of the media is to keep us worried. Going back to plastic...

A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum shows that the plastic recovered and reused (about 14%) represents 36% of the original value. If end-markets are established to create demand for plastics in their “afterlife,” the forum set a theoretical EU and North American value of US$93bn-140bn. On very rough GDP calculations, Australia should be seeking an industry in excess of $3.6Bn AUD, and that is based just on the value of the recovery of resources in-country. If you compound that with technology, machinery and know how which can be transferred to much of Asia, the value will be considerably larger. [4]


Plastics and recycling

Not all plastics are equal, of course. We even have a distinction between bio-degradable plastic and bio-based plastics. I predict an immediate conflation to the term bioplastics, which will help no-one except those trying to hide something. Biodegradable plastics: which are materials that are degraded by microorganisms into water, carbon dioxide (or methane) and biomass under specified conditions, and can be made from organic and/or fossil resources.  Bio-based plastics: which are materials made from biological and renewable resources such as grains, corn, potatoes, beet sugar, sugar cane or vegetable oils.  [6]  The same source goes on to describe the European plastics industry, 2015, as having a turnover in excess of €340 billion and a trade balance over €16.5 billion, 5% of the previous figure, making it the same sort of size as pharmaceuticals in Europe. This is about a fifth of world production. See [6] extensively for headline figures.  P20 of [6], above right, supplies this image showing EU plastics demand; it may help you see what the politicians may mean when they target action on reducing perceived waste. Pages 24 and 25 below show what is done about plastic waste / recovery.

This on the left shows the movement away from landfill towards recycling and energy recovery. Some countries have banned landfill (eg D, B, A, CH, S, N) and the UK is in the middle of the EU ranking.  How recovery in its two forms is done is in the next image, to the right ([6], p26). I am assuming that you will zoom in for detail of these.


Recycling does occur and in the UK we’re up to about a third, which compares badly [7] with the 45% of recyclable goods (whatever that is). We’re pretty good with plastic bottles at around 60%, but pots, trays and tubs only manage 30%. The why needs to be explored. The extreme is the film products at 3%. I am sure that it is recovery at the level of sorting—putting the material in the right pile—that is the problem. Which will be why it simply isn’t put in a place for recycling – just too difficult. That can be addressed, can’t it?


Microbeads¹

The term is used to describe particles smaller than 1mm in diameter and the inclusion of these in products have been banned in the UK since last week (i.e early 2018). Quoting [10],  A report in 2016 found that more than a third of fish in the English Channel are contaminated with microscopic plastic debris from exfoliating skin scrubs, synthetic fabrics and other everyday products. Between 16 and 86 tonnes of plastic microbeads from facial exfoliants are washed down UK drains every year, said the report published by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. I think I found that report, [12]. I assume that we will have the terms nanoparticle and nanoplastic to describe particles several orders of magnitude smaller than microbeads¹. One has to wonder why we are failing to filter out much of this from waste water, and one wonders how much moves into potable water. Even some material filtered out may still enter the sea at a later date as a result of surface water run-off from agricultural land.  No-one is suggesting that the distribution of plastic in our oceans is at all even and I see future opportunity to ‘farm’ this in the sense of collecting it for profit, though that may not happen until we have floating cities too. Clearly there is scope for much research on the rate of breakdown of plastics, the points at which these particles re-enter the food chain (as nanoplastics?), the ways they collect at the surface and the sea floor (the density of plastics does vary enough for that), consequent effects on animal and human populations, other environmental effects and so on. What we need urgently are some commercial reasons to not only stop providing plastic to the oceans, but also to reduce what there is already (before it becomes so small it rates as a different sort of pollution). The exploration of the research results is itself a topic for secondary research and may become a further essay - I certainly found enough content to read at the very first attempt.

Source [13], which I referenced in the revisions of essay 11, points out that what was floating in 2007 has vanished, since the total on the surface is not very different in volume from previous years, which suggests that what was there earlier has either sunk, or been eaten, or is so small is passed through the nets. That source also points out that the plastic doesn’t have to become very much denser to sink below the nets –  perhaps organisms that grow on the plastic fragments are changing their density enough to make them sink out of reach, or even all the way to the ocean floor. [11] says, of Moore’s research way back in 1999 measured the proportion of plastic to plankton (in places with visible floating debris, presumably); in 2002, off the coast of Southern California, he discovered the ratio of plastic to plankton was 2.5. A separate study, project Kaisel, says 70 percent of the man-made waste that enters the ocean sinks to the bottom but that isn’t all plastic and we may be counting by weight rather than volume.

I wonder whether plastic particles will become like those of sand, pervasive across the planet. We can argue that every product we make should, across its life (or ours) leave the planet unchanged. Nor poisoned. Better, that the products be reusable and beneficial.

I looked to see if there is already some link between plastics and subsequent poisons. Of course there are. There is some vague connection between the phthalates in PET—plastic bottles to you—and bisphenol A, called BPA; when found together they do a lot of damage to humans  – in sufficient quantity. BPA has been found in nearly every human who has been tested in the United States.[15]. Oh, well, that will help moderate the population explosion problem, won’t it? I doubt it makes us more fertile. Medics might research Dr vom Saal, which reference is enough to set you going. The little reading I did hyped up the familiar Panic! message without explaining why we might want to use BPA, or what we might replace it with. A deliberate fog, or incompetence? Try [17]. All I read is that we need to rethink our uses of plastic, probably returning to glass for bottles.


Plastics - Recovery

Do read some of [8] from the British Plastics Federation    Solutions to the litter problem will not be found in the increased use of one material such as degradable plastics over another. The problem is caused by the behaviour of people and not plastics products. 
I did not find a figure for energy recovery from plastics in Britain, but see [9], which includes (p16) a map showing where the centres are; energy from waste, EfW. None in Lancashire or Cumbria. I did find a scheme, OPRL, encouraging labelling of what is recycled. The labels indicate three classes; widely recycled, check locally, not yet recycled. Quite how you check locally, I do not know. I have read and re-read our council’s collection rules and we visit our tip often enough to have a good idea what actually is recycled. So should you.

This is part of the wider pursuit of waste product recycling, which has been a growing issue all my life – younger readers might look up the term ‘rag and bone men’. The current EU 2008 targets For the '2008 targets', the Packaging Waste Directive sets the following targets: a minimum of 60% recovery rate (including waste incineration); between 55% and 80% of packaging waste to be recycled; with minimum rates of 60% for glass, paper and cardboard; 50% for metals; 22.5% for plastics; and 15% for wood. [17]. I can see there being a change in the plastic target very soon. Bear in mind this figure is just for packaging and you have been given the material contents. I think the plastic figure is low because it is so often combined (stuck to) some of the other materials. If I am right, then what we are in need of is sufficient incentive to strip packaging down to component materials for recycling and the easy placement of such separated materials in whatever your local waste management services handle. I am sure I have seen what is presumably carefully separated materials being thrown back together in the ‘kerbside collection', and, once I’d gone past my first few reactions, realised that this is what happens when too few people do the job properly – it is far simpler to sort everything using more sophisticated methods, even if what that in truth means is someone who knows what they’re looking at. All of this strikes me as remarkably labour intensive. I wonder whether there will come a time when we each must do community service that amounts to education in waste handling? I can see this turning into a three-layer society: those who are unable to learn the lesson (or who refuse to do ‘it’ right; those who are happy to ‘do their bit’; and those who consider themselves far too superior to sully themselves in such ways. I find myself curiously accepting of this, wishing for more ways to provide evidence of social worth. I still despise the group that would consider itself elite.

I have written before about an experience when living in Cornwall. The council wished to be seen to do recycling of plastics and we were strongly recommended to attend an education session given by our waste management team (the bin men). We travelled to an adjacent village to find a travelling show; eight men on a cart of sorts, each with a large bin of one particular plastic. They recognised their special material but, despite their very practised delivery, few of us understood anything of what they said and the afterwords, so to speak, made it clear that we had each learned very little. The result was that, a year later, plastic was collected unsorted. But ‘plastic’ still excluded the films such as wrapping and bags. [18] may help understand some of the problems, published in 2014. My reading of this said that bottles, which I understand to be PET plastic, are pretty well recovered for recycling, if you regard 80% as good. Pots & trays (Q9b) were at about 50% and film was at 20% (“always put in the recycling”). Add 10% everywhere for “mostly” doing that. I note here that the questionnaire asked people what they thought they were doing – e.g.Q16 asks to compare behaviour with what the council recycles, but that is perception, which I doubt agrees with the council’s perception of what is collected. I point out that, without feedback, one remains unaware whether your own behaviour at recycling is meeting the council’s needs/wants/targets. I might say that I understand very well what the council wants, I might say that their clarity of communication is high; that doesn’t actually mean that my behaviour is what was intended. There is an opportunity for education that is being missed. Since the older folk are the most likely to be trying to do this right (slide 22), those same folk might respond very well to a day at the tip spent discovering what they have been getting right/wrong, which will then percolate as chatter. At the same time the council would discover the extent to which their messages are being understood. Quite clearly recovery would rise (Q10) if there was a better understanding of what is recycled locally. Q19 (its result) says 60% of us refer primarily to the council leaflet. Of course we do; if you move house once you discover the differences between councils. Any other non-council source is unhelpful. Try to find out what to do with waste polystyrene, which somehow you ‘know’ can be recycled (and should be). Q18 in this presentation has an error.

You might also look at [19], WRAP(Waste Resource Action Programme)’s report on recycling, which establishes four barriers:

Situational barriers, including inadequate containers, lack of space, unreliable collections, no access to bring sites. 
Behavioural barriers, including household disorganisation, too busy with other things, no established household routine and forgetting to sort waste or put it out. 
Knowledge barriers, such as not knowing what to put in each container, and
[not] understanding the basic mechanics of how the scheme works.
Attitude barriers, such as not believing there is an environmental benefit, viewing it as the council’s job not theirs, and not getting personal reward or recognition for their efforts. 

[19] reports—I am being selective and you should really read it yourself and draw your own conclusions—that recycling is far more of a social norm than a decade ago and that there is a notion of recycling effectively – where ineffective recycling means putting the wrong stuff for recycling and not putting out all that can be recycled. 
This single point, raising the quality of recyclate, has the potential to dramatically reduce the costs of handling. Problems are: inclusion of contraries (recyclable but not here; non-recyclable, in the wrong container); contamination (needed to be cleaned before recovery); contamination within the material (e.g. foil-backed cardboard, waxed paper); external contamination (e.g. communal waste-specific bins contaminated with general waste).
Regarding plastics, WRAP reports four particulars, which I am pleased I have found myself but report here for clarity:   poor understanding / confusion about the types of plastic targeted and acceptable to a particular collection scheme; poor separation behaviour, for instance not removing film from otherwise recyclable pots, tubs and trays;  low awareness of plastics that can be recycled from non-packaging sources; and attitudes to rinsing and hygiene, and the contaminating presence of food on plastic packaging. 

Separately, WRAP reports that around 25% of properties are regarded as flats, for which capture is low and contamination is high. To repair this situation requires a significant number of initiatives, since ‘flats’² covers a wide range of property types. The report recognises that many councils are rediscovering things other councils have learned, suggesting that sharing of information is poor, perhaps an issue of internal education. Similarly, and as I suggested above, education of the public needs to be directed at the many differing segments.


I have looked again at my council’s list. They want only the PET bottles, though they don’t say they want it delivered clean. All other plastic goes in the general waste bin. Disappointed, but a very positive response back from Shirley in Recycling for Blackpool. The two other houses we lived in last year each had different and more inclusive criteria for plastics handling. 

Look up what your council will and will not accept; put the council leaflet or its equivalent near the place where you sort the waste in the house. Check what can go to the tip to be treated separately, for it many well be a longer list.  Expect this to change during 2018.


DJS 20180116 

top pic from  Greenpeace.


[1]   https://www.5gyres.org    
[2]   https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-just-found-another-huge-plastic-garbage-patch-in-the-pacific-ocean   
[3]   https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/ocean-plastic-patch-south-pacific-spd/
[4]   http://www.oceanrecov.org    
[5]   http://markets.financialcontent.com/stocks/news/read/35174254/multi
[6]   http://www.plasticseurope.org/documents/document/20161014113313-plastics_the_facts_2016_final_version.pdf      
[7]   https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/21/only-a-third-of-uk-consumer-plastic-packaging-is-recycled   
[8]   http://www.bpf.co.uk/sustainability/plastics_recycling.aspx    
[9]   http://www.tolvik.com/wp-content/uploads/UK-EfW-Statistics-2016-report-Tolvik-June-2017.pdf    
[10]     https://www.newscientist.com/article/2158111-ban-on-plastic-microbeads-comes-into-force-in-the-uk/
[11]     http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2011/01/26/our-oceans-a-plastic-soup/  
[12]     https://beta.parliament.uk/search?q=plastics+pollution   marine micro plastic pollution, POSTnote 528
[13]     
http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a6046/how-bad-is-the-plastic-pollution-in-the-atlantic/
[14]     https://projectkaisei.org/about-project-kaisei/#scientific   Visually great, content low, but try the blog.
[15]    
 https://projectkaisei.org/plastic-ocean-our-oceans-are-turning-into-plastic-are-we/    
[16]     https://www.newscientist.com/article/2123098-bpa-free-water-bottles-may-contain-another-harmful-chemical/    
17]   
http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Packaging_waste_statistics     
[18]  http://www.recoup.org/p/212/consumer-insight-2014      
[19]   
http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/WRAP%20Barriers%20Synthesis%20Full%20Report%20final%20121214%20PUBLISHED%20-%20PDF.pdf

¹ A nanoparticle is between 1 and 100 nanometres in size. Nano is 10^-9, 10. A microparticle similarly is 1000 times bigger,   at 10-4 to 10-6 metres in diameter. The term microbead is then largely being used incorrectly and should be one or two orders of magnitude smaller still; millibead would be an appropriate term to use.

²  A ‘flat’ in this context is characterised by any of the following; multiple occupation property; no kerbside waste collection, including a long travel to the kerbside or its equivalent; movement of waste intended for collection through habitation spaces, such as trafficking the binned material through the living room. Having communal exterior spaces where the collection bins are placed is yet another handicap to recycling – think sink housing estate and multiple occupancy buildings with local youths in aggressive mode, would you recycle?  See [19], section 5.5.

 However, © David Scoins 2017