Recent reports in The Record regarding Waterloo Region's export of recyclable plastics to India and China are a stark reminder of the extent to which we are distanced from our waste. That distance can be both physical, in terms of kilometres travelled, as well as mental, in terms of our knowledge about how the waste is handled. Many people do not know what really happens to their plastic waste once they place it in their blue box.
Some plastic waste is recycled in Ontario, but there isn't a large enough market to absorb the growing volume of this type of waste. When the region's landfill and recycling facility cannot find a local buyer for recyclable plastic wastes, it can easily find an outlet in far-off countries, where the cost of recycling the plastic is much lower. The export of waste for recycling in developing countries occurs not just with blue box plastics, but also with electronic waste, such as outmoded computers and cellphones.
The problem with this global market in recyclable waste is that we have little awareness of the conditions under which it is recycled when it is shipped overseas. Research over the past two decades has shown that recycling conditions in many developing countries, including India and China, are often far from ideal.
Workers often lack protective clothing and proper working conditions, and the environment can suffer due to toxins being released as a result of the recycling process. In many cases, recycling of plastics or electronic waste is done not in state of the art facilities designed specifically for that purpose, but rather in open air conditions, where melting of plastics can release toxins into the air, and near waterways, where drinking water can be contaminated.
This is not to say that all recycling in the developing world looks like this, but in many cases, it does. For this reason we should be concerned about the fate of our blue box plastics that we so carefully wash out and carry to our curbside once a week.
At the same time, burying recyclable plastics waste in a landfill is not ideal. Although some communities in Ontario have chosen this option over shipping it elsewhere, there are limits to landfill space that must be taken into consideration. Moreover, plastic waste can take hundreds of years to break down, and it can leach toxins into the surrounding environment.
This leaves us with a serious dilemma which has been brought upon us by the remarkable growth in the volume of plastic packaging in recent years. Only 20 or 30 years ago, plastics were not such a major packaging material. We have become used to the "lightweight and convenient" plastic packaging for margarine and yogurt tubs, plastic water and soft drink bottles, and plastic bottles for cleaning fluids, not to mention the mountain of plastic bags that we are offered to carry home our groceries.
There are alternative packaging materials that were widespread not so long ago. These include glass bottles, aluminum cans, waxed paper, cardboard containers, and cloth shopping bags, each of which is either much easier to compost, or more readily recyclable (and under safer conditions) than the plastics we are using at present.
These alternatives have fallen from use, not just because of the low cost and convenience of plastic, but also because there are global outlets for plastic wastes which remove them from our sight, and thus from our minds. For this latter reason in particular, the message is not getting through that we need to rethink our packaging materials.
Plastic packaging materials are largely "recyclable" in theory. But given the limited local market for these plastics, they are being shipped halfway around the world or buried in landfills. Neither solution is desirable. And both are discouraging us from seriously exploring alternatives to plastics in packaging.
Communities such as Waterloo Region should think carefully before exporting their recyclable plastic waste to developing countries. Not only does this practice have potentially negative environmental implications in other parts of the world, but it also distances us from the problem and reduces the incentive to remedy it.
At the same time, the packaging industry and retailers should be encouraged to reduce their use of plastics. The Ontario government's recently launched campaign to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags has encouraged retailers to begin providing alternatives to consumers. This is a good first step, but much more could be done to address the broader recyclable plastics problem.