Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Recycling is not as straightforward as it sounds

Having spent 7 years selling very expensive non recyclable plastic I'm pretty close to this.

First, a story from the past. A recycling proselytist did a radio spot, back in the mid '00s. I remember this person going through Matt Abraham's rubbish and picking out the things that should have made it into recycling. She was down to post-consumer food wrapping, and suggesting that he should be recycling this.

Yeh right. I thought it was dumb at the time and KESAB is saying it's dumb now.

Flexible packaging has an incredible range of materials in it. I can think of polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, PVC and nylon off the top of my head. Forget the idea of laminates (ie nylon/PE) or coextrusions, and curse the coextrusion.

But the fact is, as soon as one wants plastics to do fancy jobs (sealability, cling, oxygen barrier, toughness) one is using plastics that are inherently nonrecyclable.

Think about the humble newspaper wrapping. The wraps from messenger, advertiser home, advertiser (home somewhere else) are different materials. KESAB are advising NOT to put flexibles into the kerbside recycling.

I'm all for it, but we need to be clear on the limits of recycling. These days it's recommended for rigids, only, to go into the kerbside.

Time to start another fight. Back in those Cryovac days we all tended to advocate "thermal recycling" that is, instead of burning coal or natural gas to create electricity, the calorific content of a piece of plastic could be used. English: burn the plastic and use it to run turbines for power.

We're not talking about incineration. We're talking about power generation. And all technologies have their challenges. So the obvious - emissions - issue is simply an engineering question. As my buddies from the plastics industry would once say, we'll be mining landfill one day. When we do, the Fawkner tip (around the corner from a big plastics plant) will be considered a huge deposit.


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