Claim: Climate Friendly Plastic Recycling is a Total Con

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Australia’s 60 Minutes current affairs programme has claimed that people who think plastic waste is recycled are being deceived – the plastic is being burned, buried or dumped.

60 Minutes: Australia’s recycling industry now ‘mostly a con’ after China closes doors to plastic waste

By Sammi Taylor • 60 Minutes Digital Producer Apr 14, 2019

Most Australians think they’re doing the right thing when they take their recycling bins to the curb every fortnight. 

But our belief that we’re doing our part for the environment is somewhat misguided: Australia’s plastic recycling industry is largely a con.

“When you throw this stuff in your recycle bin at home you might like to think again,” Bartlett says.

Australia alone has dumped more than 71,000 tonnes of plastic in Malaysia in the past 12 months.

But there, the mountains of plastic waste can often end up in illegal processing facilities and junkyards.

It’s a big problem – and many players within the recycling industry are calling it for what it is: a load of rubbish.

Read more: https://www.9news.com.au/national/60-minutes-recycling-plastic-waste-australia-china-malaysia/9cb9fb9f-09ab-4c34-8be0-dcc7d996bcab

Gee, what a surprise. It has been obvious for a long time that plastic waste is just waste.

One question – what does a high population density country like Malaysia do with all those mountains of plastic they are buying receiving?

It seems unlikely Malaysia can burn all the plastic – in a densely populated country like Malaysia areas suitable for large scale toxic burnoffs are likely in short supply. And there is nowhere available to bury that amount of plastic. But Malaysia has excellent ports and maritime facilities, and good access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Perhaps they ship the plastic somewhere.

Update (EW): On review it is not clear whether Malasian waste processors pay for low grade plastic waste, or whether they are paid to get rid of it.

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74 thoughts on “Claim: Climate Friendly Plastic Recycling is a Total Con

  1. I am aware that recyclables appear to be a waste of energy and that what the US shipps, now to Vietnam and some other countries since China stopped taking it, have the cost of the ship and fuel to haul it over there and, that a lot of it ends up dumped in their rivers and oceans and that makes it little more than an ironic, feel-good environmental disaster. However, I don’t understand this.
    Why would Malaysia pay for plastics etc., and then just ship it to other countries or, if I am reading your implications correctly, dump it into the oceans? It seems like a money loser. One would think they do something with the trash to recoup what they paid and make a profit even if they do get rid of a lot of it.
    I am confused as to any logic to this. Please, help me understand. Thanks.

    • Or, Malaysia is paid to accept the trash, as paying them to take it would be cheaper than trying to reclaim the plastic and make it worthwhile to re-use.

    • It’s a two-sided market.

      The Malaysians are not paid to take the material–they are paid to recycle it. This in the form of the same recycling broker paying a premium for the resulting products. The cost is set according to the cost of recycling. So, petroleum-based textile for instance costs $189/ton to produce from recycling, so the broker agrees to buy a certain tonnage at $200/quarter-ton.

      Here’s the problem. It costs only costs $75/quarter-ton to produce the same material from virgin natural gas or distillates. SO, the ‘recycler’ dumps the plastic in the ocean, produces products from much cheaper distillates, and affixes a false certification to the shipment.

      The broker accepts the material, collects sustainability credits from whatever accreditation, and resells the ‘recycled’ material on the market.

      It’s been going on for decades–but cheap gps has made tracking much easier.

  2. Burning polyethylene and polypropylene is not toxic- they just become carbon dioxide and water.

    • Mark, thanks, but the article says Malaysia pays for it.
      “One question – what does a high population density country like Malaysia do with all those mountains of plastic they are buying?”

      Why would they pay for stuff they are just going to burn? That makes no economic sense.

      • The recycling process produces plastic pellets that can in turn be sold for a profit to companies that turn them into all manner of products.

        The problem comes in the form of what to do with the plastic that is not recyclable and inevitably gets mixed to some extent with the plastic that is. As long as the percentage is low enough that the recycler can still be profitable from selling the pellets, it makes economic sense for the recycler to buy as much plastic as they can process. But the plastic that cannot be recycled has to be disposed of somehow, and the less ethical the recycling company is, the more likely it gets piled up and burnt in an outdoor fire, or simply dumped in a water way when no one is looking.

        • Thank you, David. The article could be clearer on this point. Your explanation makes perfect sense, though, I still don’t understand why they would be shipping non-recyclable plastics to other countries instead of just burning it (or, dumping it into the oceans themselves).
          Maybe shipping is much cheaper than I imagine?

          • Clearly the original article on 60 Minutes lacked clarity and/or accuracy (nothing new there, the ABC isn’t the only lot who stuff things up). China stopping taking plastics was obviously a big disruption, and things are naturally likely to be a bit pear.shaped for a while. To my mind, a good long term solution is to develop biodegradable plastics for many uses, and genuinely recycleable plastics for the rest. And proper incineration is a legitimate candidate, especially if it generates some usable energy.

        • Yes it is cheap, especially if they pay you to take it.

          Plastic: heat it in the absence of oxygen and it is rendered into oil. This is a well known technique and can be done on a small scale, meaning any scale.

          A second initiative is to turn all non-mineral garbage into methanol, again an accessible and well-understood process. Methanol can be used as a precursor to make any industrial product currently based on oil.

          There is an international scale initiative to do this and its head told me he foresees a time when we will separate garbage into mineral and non-mineral only, with all non-mineral materials (food, plastic, everything) being rendered into methanol which can be traded easily.

          Given raw materials as “high end” as plastic, the production of oil from some of it and methanol from the rest makes being a garbage processor attractive.

          “Where there’s muck there’s brass.”

        • There are several countries that do this and have done for decades – waste to energy or waste to heat incinerators. Key is high temps, above 1100C, which is when certain molecules are rendered non-toxic.

          The city of Malmö in Sweden for instance has for decades used a waste to heat incinerator including plastics, to produce domestic heating this way (fjärrvärme).

          • Tetris, you beat me to it! The only sensible thing to do with virtually all waste is to reclaim it’s inherent energy by suitably burning it and using the heat for a productive purpose: usually the generation of electricity. “Oh the CO2!” the people cry but they fail to realize that almost certainly coal, oil or gas is going to be burned for the same purpose if the waste material is not.
            In fact the situation is even worse if the waste is dumped in a landfill rather than being burned. In a landfill the waste starts to decompose, admittedly more slowly than in a furnace, and the products of decomposition are largely CO2 and methane. In the long term, burning waste for energy actually diminishes the production of greenhouse gases.

    • Burning polyethylene and polypropylene is not toxic- they just become carbon dioxide and water.

      Have you tried doing that ? I suggest you try and let us know what the “CO2 and H2O” produced smells like.

      Incineration can work if done correctly, I seriously doubt if that happens in a country like Malaysia. More like back yard fires and workers with paper nose masks against the toxic fumes.

        • People forget that the heat value of plastic fuel is limited by contaminants, such as non-combustibles and liquids such as water. I doubt that much enough energy is recouped to justify burning any mixed municipal waste, even most sorted plastics. Also, PVC can generate phosgene, definitely a bad actor.

          • Not an issue for PE or PP. Will agree for others. Did comparison testing of three incinerator types on simulated transuranic wastes in the ‘80’s. Prep’d representative waste materials which included PVC. Ran waste though incinerators in CO, NC, & TX and evaluated performance including ash & off-gas characteristics. Went on to design and test off-gas systems for pilot and full-scale radioactive waste treatment processes. Had a good team to work with.

          • We had a trash burning power plant in Columbus, Ohio. It was placed in the southwest corner of the city, in the middle of a poor white neighborhood that has never produced a city council member. It finally shut down because of excess motor vehicle morbidity and mortality. There was also excess human morbidity and mortality (2.5x morbidity and 1.4x mortality) but that did not get the attention of city policymakers.

      • “Characterization of the combustion products of polyethylene”. The paper describes burning in a “furnace” that was not designed for complete burning. In fact, as a single tube furnace, it was designed to break down whatever is burned into as many different substances as possible for analytical chemistry- similar to mass spectrometry.

        Properly designed incinerators burn almost all of the carbon and hydrogen to CO2 and H2O. Any neglible amount of other combustion products are burned in a second stage. Any ash consists titanium dioxide, and some other inorganic pigments. The incinerator generally also has to have some kind of water spray/filter system post combustion to catch any very small particulates and and any other potentially dangerous combustion products.

  3. I thought ALL plastic is naturally sucked into a giant Texas-sized swirling patch in the middle of the pacific … ? All of it. Especially all the plastic I sort for my Waste Management garbage Co. it’s ALL going into the pacific … in micro-sized dots … small enough to be eaten by plankton and then kill ALL the whales and dolphins in the ocean

  4. OMG. I still throw my plastic Coke bottles in a recycle bin at work. Does that mean I’m responsible for walrus’s jumping off cliffs?

  5. The NSW government, in an effort to pay for the recycling of bottles, put a 10c deposit on large bottles, which they collect when the bottles are recycled in the kerbside bin collection.
    Some are recycled by individuals at recycling stations.
    But the ultimate problem is too much material, particularly cardboard and glass.
    Glass is worth less than its recycling cost due to high prices of electricity and labour.
    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-07/recycling-companies-forced-to-stockpile-glass-industry-crisis/8778088
    In Victoria, Mr Musgrove said “hundreds of millions of dollars being raised as revenue from the landfill levy”
    was not being spent.

    “Recycling is effectively being taxed to prop up a state government budget,” he said.

    Mr Musgrove hit out at regulators and governments, calling for action to be taken before the crisis becomes a disaster.

    “There’s no incentive to invest and there’s no co-investment by government, or very, very limited co-investment by government,” he said.

    “It costs jobs, it costs companies.

    “We need ministers to bang their heads … together and come up with a national strategy, a national coordinated response.” August 7th 2017

    It looks as if the problem is in the US as well
    https://buffalonews.com/2019/01/28/rethinking-recycling/
    Perhaps the answer is paper and cardboard fired base load power.

    • California has had minimum deposits on containers for several decades. The main result is more people digging through trash to find discarded containers.

    • Queensland just instituted a similar rip-off, a ten cent charge on most beverage containers under 3L (excluding wine, spirits and a few others). In theory, one can redeem the charge by going to a Container Refund Point, but I live in a rural area, the closest regional city doesn’t have a refund point, and the closest listed refund point is a 40 minute drive. This would make no economic sense for me, even if the closest city had a refund point. On the other hand, my young nephews live in Brisbane, have no problem bin diving, and are clearing over $100 a week in refunds – that’s over a thousand aluminium cans and plastic/glass bottles a week that would once have been ‘recycled’ (one hopes at least the aluminium is). They may be able to afford their own cars once they get old enough to drive.

      I used to toss my beverage containers into the recycling (which apparently is what most people are still doing), but now I’ve started tossing them in the trash. Since the ban on plastic grocery bags came in a couple of months ago, I’ve had to buy good bin liners and they are tough enough to hold bottles with no worry (unlike reusing the flimsy grocery bags as bin liners). Recycling is pretty much a scam and, as much as I like the idea of not wasting resources, I’m tired of being ripped off and lied to.

  6. Our waste should not be allowed to leave the country. I would think that it is mostly possible to make plastic which can be recycled. If not then burn it.

    So what happens to the plastic in the Oceans, does it break down, the UV from the Sun.

    The Greens say it has a life of thousands of years, but of course they would say that.

    MJE VK5ELL

    • a opaque milk container will last around 2 aussie summers before it splits/shatters and is brittle bits.
      I use them for plant waterers and then go get the bits n bin em or throw em onto the bonfire pile.
      ok in small amts as firelighters too.
      cardboard saved for winter use on pathways to try n keep mud in house down by the end of a wet winter its all pulped and turned to soil by worms etc and the boron in it as fire inhibitors good for soils.
      waxed one(rare now) excellent firelighters.
      cardboard with wool/jute carpet over its good for weed supression, especially with some treeloppers tanbark over all.
      EPA Vic allows very little reuse of tyres ie as garden bed/raised garden bed walls, earthships style homes even as treegaurds or as ideal excersize yard rings for horses..solid with earth/sand in them to avoid horses bein broken in from being hurt, and riders;-)
      the ONLY legal uses are for drag/bike racing /gunclub barriers and to put on top of massive haystacks and silage piles to keep tarps dow
      now car bike and silage hay ALL are hi risk of fire uses but thats ok???
      homeowners using them is bad bad bad naughty
      at the same time the majority of waste tyres are BURNT for energy production on the quiet.
      processors reclaiming oil and making rubber pellets for roaduse or other functions all seem to have gone out of business.
      what recyled rubber you can buy is Massively expensive!!! garage use and matting for paths etc

      in Sth Aus you can use tyres for homes filling washouts on farms and for garden beds etc etc that all have their EPA sanction

      • ozspeaksup

        “Boron is an essential plant nutrient, required primarily for maintaining the integrity of cell walls. However, high soil concentrations of greater than 1.0 ppm lead to marginal and tip necrosis in leaves as well as poor overall growth performance. Levels as low as 0.8 ppm produce these same symptoms in plants that are particularly sensitive to boron in the soil. Nearly all plants, even those somewhat tolerant of soil boron, will show at least some symptoms of boron toxicity when soil boron content is greater than 1.8 ppm. When this content exceeds 2.0 ppm, few plants will perform well and some may not survive.[123][124][125]”
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boron

  7. “It has been obvious for a long time that plastic waste is just waste.”

    It isn’t. It is a high-grade fuel, and should be used as such. If burnt in a proper facility it causes no more environmental problems than NG, which is what it really is, in solid form.

    • it going to happen in sth aus and probably elsewhere soon as their claimed costs to handle it are soaring, the risk of some nasty fly and other disease risks are going to be “interesting” when they occur…and they will

  8. The demonisation of plastic has gained much momentum in the UK thanks to the BBC and Daily Mail etc. who between them on an almost hourly scale publish horror stories about how many sacks of plastic have been collected from this or that beach, how many plastic bags have been found in the stomach of a washed up dead shark etc. Is it plastic’s fault? As Carlin so amusingly pointed out, it’s the fault of humans. People talk of used plastic as a “valuable resource” which it is not. It is a waste product (largely derived from light gas condensates, themselves a byproduct), difficult and costly to reprocess efficiently and should be treated as such. The recycling process allows it to leak back into the environment at many stages – so incinerate it and get a second use that way to generate electricity (and the CO2 which would have been emitted anyway had the condensate been burned as fuel).
    Once again the problem is obfuscated by the mainstream media in connivance with our superiors and betters. “Tax the bottles” they say. “Make the manufacturers pay for disposal,” to loud acclaim from the greenies, who are incapable of working out that the manufacturers simply pass the cost on to the consumer who therefore ends up paying yet another hidden tax.
    Rarely does anyone speak of the thousands of tons of microfibres, invisible to the naked eye, which find their way into the oceans as a result of domestic and industrial fabric washing processes, ending up in the food chain and ultimately in humans. Research into potential worldwide health problems? Not a lot! At least in Sweden a lot of sewage sludge is dried and incinerated, so their contribution to the problem is probably minimal …. but CO2 !! /rant

  9. David Attenborough tries to convince us Brits that when plastic waste of UK origin is found in the Pacific, it’s proof that ocean currents spread pollution around the world. Those less gullible amongst us have known for a long time, that if our waste finds its way to the Pacific, it was probably taken there by ship via a kerbside recycling collection box.

  10. ps some sth aus councils are talking up the RFID chips n spyware in bins as the UK introduced a while back…
    at a masive cost of course
    it will result in?
    fines as revenue maybe but Id love to have some UK peoples input on that from there seeing as its been a few yrs on now

  11. Pyrolysis, that is all that needs to be said, about plastic recycling issues.
    It ain’t rocket science….but it could be.

  12. Polyethylene is reported to be metabolized and degraded by various Lepidoptera larvae. Polypropylene is even degraded in the human body.

    As a BSA boy sprout I was involved with the construction of a hybrid rocket engine powered by IIRC plexiglass polyacrilate and oxygen gas.

  13. Recycling is a very fuzzy concept in my experience, words are often spoken which are not met by actions. Several years ago during one of Melbourne’s (Australia) periodic dry spells, one of the public water conservation measures was the banning of private hand washing of cars. Commercial car wash businesses were still allowed to operate. I was site manager for one such facility during this period. Several times I was asked whether the facility recycled it’s water. I asked the owner what the appropriate response should be. His reply “Just tell them less than 80%” While technically correct, I was not really comfortable with this as the the real figure was 0%. Not one drop was recycled.

    These days we have for household rubbish collections we have red bins for general rubbish, yellow bins for glass, cardboard, paper and SOME but not ALL plastics and green bins for plant waste. No controls of any kind over what goes in which bin.

  14. What Australia does with its plastic trash, I dunno.

    In the US, only about 3% of all plastic generated ends up in recycle streams. Another 13% gets incinerated (with perhaps a substantial portion of that being in cogeneration plants to generate electricity or industrial steam), and the rest – about 84% – goes to landfills.

    The recycling rate has plummeted in the last couple of years, from about 9% in 2015 to 3% in 2019, because China stopped importing recycled plastic.

    The result has not been to send it to Malaysia to dump in rivers or the ocean, but rather it’s been sent to landfills here in the USA.

  15. Plastic is fuel in power plants. You mix it with some wood, solid waste etc. Its basically just solid oil that can be pulverized up and blown like coal dust as long as you can keep it from sticking to the walls you’re golden.

  16. We should not send waste to countries who may be improperly disposing of it. Each country should dispose of it’s own waste.

  17. A strategy employed in some states is the use of “resource recovery”, that is the burning of municipal solid waste to make electricity. Municipalities pay a tip fee to dispose of MSW at the plant, the plant then sells electricity to the grid which here in Connecticut buys it at the avoid cost rate, the state municipal rate or a negotiated rate.

    One of my partners had a lead role in the development of two of the five waste to energy plants in Connecticut; Connecticut is not alone in employing this strategy. Another partner had a lead role in the development of a merchant tire to energy plant that burned tires as its fuel to make electricity. I understand that plant has been closed due to the lower cost of standard fuels (sometimes there are victims of fracking).

    See also:

    https://www.statista.com/statistics/499763/waste-to-energy-recovery-facilities-in-the-us-by-major-state/

    • New Hampshire has two trash-to-energy plants in operation. About the only materials that are regularly recycled in great volumes are metals (steel, iron, aluminum, copper, lead) and corrugated cardboard. Plastics are a question mark, but most likely a lot of them are burned in the TTE plants. Glass is no longer recycled except locally and then it is usually ground up and used for aggregate/filler by the local municipalities.

  18. Fastest way to reduce plastics: put toys in pickle barrels. Put lightbulbs in pickle barrels. Put decent pencils in glass jars. Wrap meat in paper. Stop wrapping up every damn thing in plastic!

  19. Oh, Dear. Recycling is a Total Con?

    The next thing you are going to tell me is that there is no Santa Claus.

  20. Recycling is just a form of virtue signaling. If recycling were profitable private industry would be leading the cause. They are not. So our tax dollars are being wasted in this fruitless effort. Only metals are profitable in a recycling system. And even that effort can be iffy. Get government out of recycling and stop listening to the eco-terrorists who are trying to force us into a dystopian society of no meat, no fossil fuels, everyone acts and dresses the same, no children, we walk or ride bicycles……….the perfect socialistic society that only they know how to run.

  21. In the USA, much plastic and paper was shipped out for many years. That industry was disrupted when China said “no more.”
    The restructuring and development of “waste disposal” is an on-going process. A lot of the decisions (now) are based on available space for landfills, cost of transporting waste**, and waste-to-energy as an income stream. Expect to see much more of this, over what is already in place.

    **cost – – In the link below, it says the town is shipping material to another county for final disposal. That county is 220 miles (350 km) from their burn facility.

    https://my.spokanecity.org/solidwaste/waste-to-energy/

    Spokane, Washington has a waste-to-energy facility that started in 1991. Not a new idea.
    The facility can handle up to 800 tons of municipal solid waste a day and can generate 22 megawatts of electricity, earning about $5 million in power sales annually.

  22. Many years ago, when I decided to try and do my bit by recycling, they had a number of bins at the local supermarket to put supposedly recyclable stuff into. I noted down what went into each bin and set up some shelves in an outhouse with plastic bins labelled up for different stuff. From memory, plastic bottles, glass seperated into clear, brown and green, steel cans, aluminium cans, aluminium foil, paper and cardboard. Later, they got rid of all these different bins and changed over to ones which just took all your recycling stuff mixed together. My thought at the time was just why? If this stuff was really going to be recycled it would need to be separated out, so why mix it all together? It was at this point that I started thinking that it might all be bullshit.

    • Stonybrook

      So few people clean and accurately segregate their trash that “relying” on the public to properly even put the basic different material g(lass, steel, aluminum, plastics and paper) in different containers fails. So the “industry” defaulted back to “automatic” stream recycling. Which allows them to just throw the whole container of trash into the landfill as one pile. Now, we should at least realize that if the trash is in one landfill in each county, then in some future date when it does become economic to recycle some specific part of the trash, it is all in one easy-to-access pile.

      The real waste is those cities that dump it in the ocean. There, it cannot be recycled ever.
      Those who “pretend” to recycle overseas (let the third world import our trash, burn our trash, get their hands dirty handling and separating our garbage) but who actually dump the trash at sea and then turn around with an empty barge are also criminal.

    • In Canada, recycling facilities have long conveyor belts with about 30 “sorters” who take care of it..

  23. The cost of collecting and transporting recyclables in my town amounts to over a million a year. The sale of the material to the recycler brings about $60,000 in return
    If, on the other hand, the recyclables were collected and hauled away, unsorted, with the trash collection, the town would have spent far less this added tonnage.
    The result: Over 50 % potential tax saving, money that would be available for schools, traffic improvements, social programs, etc.
    Town leaders, as the others in our state know this and confirm: “Recycling costs us. Nothing we can do about it – it’s a state law that we recycle.” Unfortunately this is true, and as most government programs, recycling will continue unabated.

  24. Plastic is mostly a litter problem, not a pollution problem. Bits of wood also float, degrade slowly, and cause few environmental problems.

    Ironically, if we made more poly-chlorinated plastics then wouldn’t float as well, so there would be less visible. Problem solved.

  25. In Boscawen NH, the transfer station stopped recycling plastic when the nearest place that could accept it was in Ohio. There was a public announcement, and signs saying plastic was being recycled were taken down. However, bins for plastic remained, I assume in part to keep townsfolk in practice and perhaps to prevent having to change the compactor bins for regular trash.

    All that went to the local trash-to-energy plant, not really recycling, a couple miles from home. I never did smell it.

    Glass used to to be reused and hence sorted by color. Now it’s comingled, crushed, and sent to an asphalt plant to be added to base layer black top.

    Where I am now sends the trash to a firm that is pretty close mouthed about what they do with it.

  26. I thought I was doing my part and saving all my batteries for recycling – took them to a store that states it can recycle and I asked what the process was. The process was to wrap them in a special plastic and take them to the landfill. Horrible on all fronts.

  27. State government had mandated that our citizens curb recycle. We had done so for years before I was promoted to the capitol. Once here, if we wanted to recycle we had to haul it ourselves to collection sites. In the mid-1990s I was promoted. We have just merged two environmental agencies. Each Monday the agency held division director meetings. I was sent to the very first meeting for the new merged agency. Topic of discussion recycling. Turns out that all our state had been doing was storing recycled materials at a relatively large cost. The money for storage was not legislatively appropriated so was coming out of other programs in the agency’s budget. Our new Republican majority Legislature didn’t like that so ordered the agency to fix the problem. Supposedly the assigned team ultimate found markets. Since I was not in the direct loop I don’t know how it all turned out. Though in discussion that first day we were told by those in charge of recycling that one of the problems was how many people were recycling not just in our state but across the country.

  28. Plastic is a derivative of fossil fuels.

    It can be burned in special power plants to generate energy.

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