The dark side of recycling

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

dark_side_of_recyclingRecycling is not the most sustainable method to protect the biosphere from greenhouse gasses and other pollutants. In fact the green circular economy of plastics manufacturing and re-manufacturing impacts severely on the environment.

Plastic waste dominates in households. Some of this waste is transported by the scrap-Mafia illegally abroad, especially, E-waste, to Third World countries such as countries in Africa and places in India. Other is legally sent for processing and reprocessing to places abroad, including China. Only a small percentage is actually processed and reprocessed in the countries where it is generated.

Much of the plastic waste, at least in many countries of Europe, is not actually recycled in any way, shape or form, but instead sent to so-called waste-to-energy plants, as in Sweden, for instance, or just simple incinerators. That is also the very reason that Sweden keeps running out of waste, namely waste to burn in those energy plants, and not because they recycle so well in that country.

The problem, while better than putting the stuff in landfill, is that burning this waste, releases emissions. According to research in Germany, however, it is a very small amount only, of all emissions in that country, for example. But as the emitted steam, so to speak, contains a high amount of water and dioxins are water repellent the measurement of gases can be very misleading. Better would be to measure concentrations in the released dust and nano-particles.

The danger with incineration of plastic waste is that often the contents cannot be clearly defined. Different plastic products contain different harmful substances and it is often very difficult to ascertain how dangerous such elements are for the health of people, animals and the Planet.

In many places the asthma rate near such incinerators has risen dramatically but whether this can be attributed to those plants alone or whether it has also other contributing factors is still to be ascertained.

Every tonne of so-called residual waste being burned releases about one tonne of carbon dioxide, together with other gasses and pollutants. Per tonne furthermore there remain 300 kg slag and dust, after the poisonous smoke gasses have been filtered.

The mechanical recycling of plastics also is not without problems. Many of today's jogging suits and other sports articles, as well as jumpers (sweat shirts) are made from so-called fleece. Those fleece textiles are made from mostly recycled plastics. Those textiles through abrasion during wear and washing release small particles, so-called micro- and nano-particles, which end up into the waste water. At sewage plants those small fibers cannot be filtered out of the water and thus this micro-plastic ends up in the rivers, and the seas and, also, in the food chain.

Theoretically there is only one way to over come this dilemma and that is a significant reduction of the use of plastic and, as far as micro-plastic fibers and particles go, maybe also and especially the use of plastic – whether recycled or virgin – for use of fleece and microfiber cloths, and such.

Also, maybe, just maybe, plastic packaging, if it has to be, could be designed in such a way that it – automatically – could have a second use, obvious to the consumer, that could extend the life of those plastic products for many years or even decades to come.

I have one of such products – well, it did not have the second use written on it but it was obvious, to me at least – that has been serving me in my kitchen now for over 20 years. (

On the other hand we need to get away from the serious over-packaging of products, and especially here the multiple “wrapping”, as is often the case, and the overuse of plastic in wrapping and packaging fruit and vegetables as well.

Many of us out there think of how this issue of plastic pollution can be tackled and I shall be, in the virtual pages of this journal, be bringing the readers from time to time ideas and suggestion for reusing a variety of plastic packaging items to give those things a second life, and with it one that might be a great deal longer than intended by the original manufacturer. The small article on creating a dead-heading/forager's pouch from a 4pt milk just is but one of them. (

© 2017