Peak Plastic: The inevitable collapse of the recycling system

Filling that blue barrel is not the good deed you think it is:

Within months, Malaysia, which has a sizable ethnic Chinese population, had replaced China as the world’s largest importer of plastic scrap. But this country, and others across the region, soon saw the waste as an environmental nightmare, and a heavy backlash has begun. With public support, some advocacy groups have urged officials to permanently ban the import of plastic waste.

But at a time when the world is awash in such plastic, some experts worry that this backlash could block the flow of raw material to Southeast Asia’s aboveboard recyclers and manufacturers — and raise the chances that plastic scrap will end up in rivers, oceans, dumps and illegal burn sites.

Just one more area in which the Free Market completely fails to provide sustainable solutions. There used to be hundreds of genuine recycling operations in the U.S. (actually turning the plastic into a reusable product), but there simply wasn't enough money in it. So we collect it, crush it together into handy blocks, and ship it off to some 3rd world country. What will they do with it? Don't care, out of sight, out of mind. But those of us concerned with air quality need to start paying close attention. With the difficulties in handling the volume of scrap plastics, co-generation facilities that burn them are becoming more popular, such as cement industry kilns:

Some recyclers are already feeling the effects. Officials in the Philippines, for example, last month declined to issue import permits for a shipment of plastic-waste-based fuel that is produced in Australia and used in the production of cement, customs paperwork shows.

Pavel Cech, the Malaysia-based managing director of ResourceCo Asia, the Southeast Asian branch of an Australian company that produces the fuel, said that between 100 and 150 shipping containers of it would not reach cement kilns in Malaysia and the Philippines this month because of customs disputes. He said the cement companies that use the fuel in their kilns would now burn coal instead.

If you remember the Titan Cement fiasco of a few years ago, they wanted to burn tires as a supplement to coal. Luckily that project was shut down after years of exhausting advocacy, but the idea of generating energy from burning garbage and plastic waste has not died. It's happening in numerous locations in the U.S. already:

In Rahway, N.J., near Route 1&9, looming cooling towers and a huge white smokestack dwarf the nearby car dealerships, fast-food joints, and motels. The installation is visible for miles and is a familiar landmark to the highway’s regulars, but likely few of them know what is going on inside.

The structure is the Union County Resource Recovery Facility, a waste-to-energy facility that Covanta operates on behalf of the local government. Instead of the usual coal or natural gas, it burns garbage to make electricity.

Inside, a parade of garbage trucks from all around the county tilt their loads onto the facility’s floor. What comes in is the assorted dross the local citizenry throws out that isn’t suited for paper, metal, and plastics recycling bins. Workers bulldoze unwanted toys, old pillows, broken furniture, and heaps of plastic garbage bags into a 10-meter-deep pit. Two steel claws the size of delivery vans mix the pile like two gigantic hands tossing a salad.

After the operator has sufficiently homogenized the mass, the claws grab heaps of the stuff and drop it into a hopper feeding three furnaces that incinerate the trash at 1,100 °C. They can process 1,400 metric tons of waste daily. The boilers generate steam heated to 450 °C, powering turbines with a capacity of 42 MW, enough for 30,000 homes.

I hate to say it, but this may be the least bad idea when looking at plastic waste. I'd really like to see us melting the stuff down to be used as bricks for infrastructure, or something along those lines. But our oceans are teeming with this crap right now, and incinerating will at least reduce that issue.