Plastic rubbish on land and sea is a big problem. You can pick it up but what do you do with it then? That all discarded plastic should be recycled seems to be an article of faith -- as we see below. But nobody is saying why it should be recycled. What is wrong with just dumping it in landfill? Digging a hole and filling it in again is not rocket science. Most plastic ends up in landfill anyway, so I am not proposing anything radical, unusual or outlandish.
But how many holes can we dig for landfill? What happens with all that landfill eventually? Again the answer it not outlandish. There is a fair chance that you are living on top of landfill already if your house is a recent newbuild. As good urban land for home building becomes scarce, developers buy holes -- valleys in the landscape. And they then fill up the holes to create flat land.
And what do they put in the holes? Garbage, some of which will be plastic. They then put in a layer of rocks to hold it down and then a layer of soil on the very top to facilitate people growing things in a garden. They will usually have to wait a year or two for everything to settle and then the "For sale" signs will go up.
It is a normal item in the precautions of conveyancing for buyers to hire a geologist to certify that the ground has settled into a stable state but the developers know that so will be sure to have sent in their own geologists before releasing the land for sale.
And the old method of dealing with garbage is still sometimes used -- particularly in small towns and cities. The local authorities find a hole or small valley, use it as a general garbage dump and top it off with rocks and soil when it is full. And what do they use the newly created flat "land" for? It becomes parks, sportsgrounds and playing fields. You would be surprised at how many of your local recreational areas originated that way. A dump I used to go to is now a sportsfield.
So holes will become a valuable asset and urban areas will slowly become flatter. That is the only penalty for putting plastic waste in landfill.
Plastic recycling enjoys ever-wider support among consumers: Putting yogurt containers and juice bottles in a blue bin is an eco-friendly act of faith in millions of households. But faith goes only so far. The tidal wave of plastic items that enters the recycling stream each year is increasingly likely to fall right back out again, casualties of a broken market.
Many products that consumers believe (and industries claim) are “recyclable” are in reality not, because of stark economics. With oil and gas prices near 20-year lows—thanks in large part to the fracking revolution— so-called virgin plastic, a product of petroleum feedstocks, is now far cheaper and easier to obtain than recycled material. That unforeseen shift has yanked the financial rug out from under what was until recently a viable recycling industry. “The global waste trade is essentially broken,” says Graham Forbes, head of the global plastics campaign at Greenpeace. “We are sitting on vast amounts of plastic, with nowhere to send it and nothing to do with it.”
This gargantuan overload is creating a conflict that industry and government can no longer ignore—one that pits the profitability and usefulness of plastic against its threat to public health and the environment. There are few places where that conflict is more visible than in Malaysia. Here, rock-bottom wages, cheap land, and a still-evolving regulatory climate have enticed entrepreneurs to build hundreds of factories in a last-ditch bid to stay profitable. The real economic and environmental costs of plastic recycling are on vivid display, as I discovered traveling across the country with photographer Sebastian Meyer. Over the course of 10 days, we visited 10 recycling factories—some of them, including Biogreen Frontier, operating without official registration, under threat of a shutdown—as they grappled with waste shipped by the boatload from across the world. And we saw how the consequences of the broken plastics economy spill over into waste dumps, container dockyards, private homes, and out into the ocean.
FOR HALF A CENTURY, plastics have seen rocketing growth, for good reason: They are cheap, lightweight, and virtually indestructible.
“There’s a great future in plastics,” a nervous young Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) is told by a would-be mentor in the 1967 movie The Graduate. Acting on that tip would have yielded spectacular returns. Global production soared from 25 million tons a year in 1970 to more than 400 million tons in 2018.
Behind this polyethylene deluge is an economic colossus: a global plastics market worth about $1 trillion last year, according to U.K. data analysts the Business Research Co. Demand for plastics has doubled since 2000 and could double again by 2050. “We have a growing middle class around the world that needs to improve their quality of life,” says Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets for the American Chemistry Council, an industry organization whose members include major producers like Dow, Dupont, Chevron, and Exxon Mobil. “Plastic is a part of that.” You can find plastic not just in your water bottles and sandwich bags, but in sweatshirts and wet wipes, home insulation and siding, chewing gum, tea bags, and countless other items.
The durability that makes plastic so appealing, it turns out, also makes it an environmental time bomb. An estimated 90.5% of all the plastic produced since 1950 is still in existence, according to analysis by Roland Geyer, an industrial ecology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science &Management. Only 8.4% of plastic waste in the U.S. was recycled in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. An additional 15.8% was burned to generate energy; the rest wound up in landfills. Recycling rates are even lower in parts of Asia and Africa. Even Europe, with its stringent environmental laws, recycles only about 30% of plastics.
For decades, plastics producers and their biggest customers—consumer-goods giants like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pepsico, and Procter & Gamble—have argued that improving these recycling numbers is the solution to the plastic-waste crisis. They frame the problem as one of behavior—ours. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to say the problem is with plastic,” Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, tells me. “The culprit is the consumer who does not dispose of products properly.”
It’s true that recycling rates are low. But to blame that fact on consumers alone is disingenuous. The bigger problem is a huge shift in energy markets. Prices for oil and natural gas have plummeted over the past decade. That in turn has made it far cheaper for petrochemical companies to produce virgin plastics than for factories to create recycled plastic. And with big profits to be made, companies have sharply increased virgin production, further driving down prices. Recycling used plastic is labor- intensive and therefore expensive—and the shifting economics now work against recycling in much of the world.
In 2018, this ecosystem endured another major blow when China halted the importation of almost all plastic scrap, saying that its own recycling industry was becoming an environmental hazard. The decision has caused chaos in the world’s plastic-resuscitation economy. Up until then, for example, the U.S. had been sending about 70% of its plastic waste to China. Now, “recycling is on life support,” says Mike Engelmann, solid waste coordinator for Smithtown, N.Y., a town of 120,000 people on suburban Long Island.
“Hopefully things will turn around. But I am not sure how.”