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We asked three companies to recycle plastic and only one did (cbc.ca)
222 points by alex_young 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

There's a good case to be made that we shouldn't be recycling (all) plastics but instead sequestering much of it in well-run landfill operations. The energy required to recycle it combined with the inferior product that results make it a net-loss operation. Especially when taking into account the high levels of contamination and processing that must be done to prepare it. Reduce, re-use (and ban single-use), then sequester. [1, 2, 3, 4]

Aluminum? Definitely. Steel? Sure. Glass? probably. Paper? Cool. Plastic? shrug.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-...

[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-prod...

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/amywestervelt/2012/04/25/can-re...

[4] https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a3752/4...

I once talked to a guy who worked in a landfill for a county in Florida and I asked him his opinion of recycling. He said you can either recycle it now or recycle it later, or in other words, dig up a landfill and figure out what you can reuse. This is already being done in some places with very old landfills.

So he was not concerned about recycling at all.

What seems like it would make sense is to have landfills for specific materials. All the plastic in one place, all the food waste in another, etc.

Then if someone comes up with a more effective method to recycle plastic, there it all is in one place, not mixed in with banana peels and old furniture.

The banana peels will go away on their own pretty quick.

Accurately sorting materials is one of the bigger problems in recycling right now.

Do we have reason to believe banana peels will decompose any quicker than lettuce, hot dogs, or guacamole, which were found to be "almost as good as new" after 25 years in the ground?


I think the idea would be that if we could actually sort out the food waste, it wouldn't have to be in a 'proper' landfill, rather it could be composted. In theory nothing will really decompose in a landfill because it is a big hermetic tin can by design.

If your landfill is sealed. I came upon the knowledge that many of the the US landfills are really just dumps.

Us landfills are highly regulated and sealed at multiple layers. Your 'knowledge' is incorrect. A cursory google would have enlightend you. But never miss a chance to take a dig at the USA.

Tbh, some part of me sees a not-too-distant future where companies harvest the garbage jires for profit.

For things that can be landfilled safely, I believe this is the best option. Technology for recycling will improve over time and demand for the materials will increase until it makes total sense to recycle it rather than forcing it now.

Some items cannot be landfilled resourcefully, like metals. They need to be recycled now or they rust.

Does the recycling process not get rid of oxides? Aluminum oxidises quickly, and it's not as if many metals come out of the ground oxide free.

Energy has to get super cheap before it makes sense to process landfills just to clean them up, and that probably happens before they are an economically interesting source of materials.

Sequestering in a landfill could work, but why not melt the plastic into bricks for building? Sequestered and structural instead of all in one pile.

Different plastics have different melting points, and some (eg PVC) produce toxic gases (chlorine gas from memory) when heated enough to burn.

For plastic than can be separated into their specific types reliably enough, that does kinda make sense. But (guessing here) the heating process itself would take a bunch of energy and likely cost.

As bulk building material it wouldn’t have to be heated much

Again, the amount of heating will vary depending on the type of plastic.

Also, it'd only work for thermoplastics. Anything that thermosets instead would have to be treated differently as well.

What about pyrolysis? Anyone know how feasible that is?

I hope everyone concludes that the top level strategy everyone can implement is to reduce plastic use and demand at every level -- government, corporate, and, yes, individual.

Recycling is a tactic. Without a strategy, a tactic often won't work and can even be counterproductive.

Reducing production is a strategy. We should always focus first on the strategy, then tactics.

I recorded a podcast episode on reducing being strategic and efficiency being tactical https://shows.pippa.io/leadership-and-the-environment/episod....

Recycling was a way to get people to feel better about their consumption, and for certain politicians to tout they “did” something.

It’s never made sense since day 1. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out how the hell recycling was working because everywhere I saw, all the recycling “policies” were being violated, and unless there was a massive team at the recycling center re-sorting it all, it made no sense why we had to sort it in the first place.

Turns out, it was just getting dumped in China. Reducing consumption is the only solution.

And now China isn't even taking it anymore [1]

Most recycling programs in the U.S. are little more than a social experiment at this point.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/china...

How did you learn about recycling policies and their violations as a kid? Given the article, none of this is easy to obtain knowledge.

I meant watching people throw the wrong type of recyclables in the wrong bins, and ignoring all the numbers.

Ah the realities of the difficulty involved in recycling like for like come to the fore.

In some ways I think this situation has been exacerbated by proponents of plastic who have marketed it as "infinitely recyclable" for many years. That statement is technically true, in that there exists a process by which you can take post consumer plastic and reduce it back to its component parts for re-use. At the same time it ignores the reality that 'original' plastic, as the end product of a chemical process, is quite pure.

Thus when you build a system that uses plastic to create products, if you build it to assume the purity levels of pre-consumer plastic, then the onus is on the recycler to create the same level of purity. Estimates on the cost of doing that range from 10x to 100x the cost of creating plastic out of raw pre-cursor chemicals. The reality is that there isn't a market for $20 coffee cups over $2 coffee cups because they are "100% post consumer".

I think getting the discussion on to a more realistic footing is a good one. It is much easier to make policy when you have a shot at working with markets rather than against them.

To that end, incinerating plastic to generate energy makes a lot of policy sense in a 'peaker' plant. It isn't "reused" in the sense of making more product but it does give additional benefit to the consumer.

I am also a proponent of structural re-use of post consumer plastics. It has good insulation value, especially when foamed, and building engineered walls with the post-consumer plastic providing a better than air insulation layer has a durable long term effect of reducing baseline energy load which goes to environmental control (heating/cooling) in buildings.

It violates the stories that people have been told that their shopping bags will be infinitely recycled into new shopping bags, but it feels to me as a much more authentic way to represent recycling.

> Estimates on the cost of doing that range from 10x to 100x the cost of creating plastic out of raw pre-cursor chemicals. The reality is that there isn't a market for $20 coffee cups over $2 coffee cups because they are "100% post consumer".

Plastic cups cost about a penny to manufacture (at least I can buy 1000 for £10). Many people will certainly pay 10p for recycled cups, and possibly more.

> I am also a proponent of structural re-use of post consumer plastics.

Wouldn't the flammability of plastic make this a non-starter?

Adding fire retardant to plastic is straight forward [1,2]. One of the things about the NIST presentation [2] that is also relevant is that it discusses the additives that are added to plastics for one reason or another. Those additives add additional difficulty in processing post consumer plastic into precursors for new things.

[1] https://sciencing.com/burn-potassium-nitrate-7708552.html

[2] https://www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/documents/el/fire_r...

It’s feasible to think that additives would reduce the flammability of plastics to at or below drywall. Add to this that extrusion can create a beam that can take the place of the much more flammable lumber, and it’s worth exploring at least.

"To that end, incinerating plastic to generate energy makes a lot of policy sense in a 'peaker' plant"

Whilst I don't disagree, I do have concerns A) That the need for fuel will see unsuitable material diverted to incineration. B) That to help with the payback, it wont just be run as a peaker. C) That it will be sold by politicians as a solution, rather than the least worst option.

Basically it's the same dynamic as waste to power plants.

My understanding of the situation is that recycled plastic is an inferior product, so there isn't much demand for it. NileRed did an interesting demonstration of recycling bottles here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLftqtsiFBs and he goes into some of the details about the resulting product that the recycling process creates.

I think the solution is to be careful about what we make from plastic, and what kinds of plastics we use in that case. If we don't waste in the first place, there is no need to recycle anything. And if we do need to make something disposable, we can use something that is economic to recycle, like aluminum or glass. It's really just plastic that's the problem, glass bottles are easy to reuse and aluminum cans can be melted down into aluminum that's just as good as non-recycled aluminum. (Maybe the energy cost of all that melting is high, but I think we are making strides towards more and more renewable electricity, so we might be better off using electricity instead of plastic.)

The energy cost of recycling aluminum might be high, but it's much lower (and cheaper) than refining new aluminum.

However, recycled aluminum will come contaminated with possibly unpredictable amounts of alloying elements (magnesium, silicon, copper, zinc, manganese).

Summary: one company recycled, one incinerated (which creates a small amount of hazardous waste), and one company sent the bales to landfill.

In the U.K. (at least a few years ago) councils (ie local authorities) are supposed to try to meet targets for recycling. These come in various kinds:

1. Targets for the percentage of their waste that is recycleable

2. Targets for the percentage of the waste that is recycled

3. Targets for the total quantity of kinds of unrecycleable waste

Part 1 generally means trying to reduce the amount of non-recycleable waste that is produced. Partly this can be done by reducing waste in general, and partly by ensuring that waste is better categorised (in the EU there is a complicated categorisation scheme of waste, so eg hardcore is treated differently to various plastics which are different from food or batteries. Some categories are hazardous and have to be treated differently and may only be sent to certain facilities)

Part 2 generally means trying to increase the available facilities to recycle that waste (and decrease the capacity for recycleable waste [1])

Part 3 is generally about trying to guess how much waste will be produced (eg population/large construction predictions)

[1] in the eu waste is typically handled by companies where one must pay a fee (or sell—the fee may be negative) for another company to handle the waste. By reducing the supply of landfill (or by giving incentives for recycling), the price for recycling can become low enough that it is preferable. If the price decreases sufficiently then further sorting of mixed waste may become profitable. In general the main method for trying to control recycling is trying to change market conditions (ie prices) rather than trying to impose and distribute quotas. There are various arguments among economists about which method is better (and whether the methods are actually different). Success is measured by trying to estimate how much of the waste in a local authority is recycled (by asking various waste disposal facilities, assuming no illegal disposal, and somehow figuring out what waste was sourced/handled outside the local authority)

In the UK, incineration (aka Energy from Waste or EfW) is generally considered a “good” kind of waste disposal but slightly less good than recycling.

I don't get what the big deal about putting plastic in the ground is.

It's literally oil. It belongs in the ground.

Or we can burn it for energy, and then do carbon sequestration, in which case it'll need to end up back in the ground.

The era started in 1987 with a garbage barge floating up and down the eastern seaboard due to lack of allocated space for landfill [1]. Something I just learned researching my other reply :) Dropping it into a well-managed landfill is direct carbon sequestration.

[1] https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a3752/4...

You're going to have to explain why plastic is "literally oil" in this context, because this is not as obvious as you think it might be. It's a lot harder to convert plastic to something I can put in my car, for example, and there isn't a big oil patch in the Pacific.

Plastic is oil molecules, sorted and rearranged.

I know, but that means very little. Paper is quite different from glucose, even though cellulose is just a polymer of it.

Everything's just atoms, man.

The quantity of plastic thrown away is small enough that burning it would be a very small proportion of carbon emissions. This becomes clear when you notice that plastic production is a very small part of oil consumption. The world produces 260 Mt of plastic per year but burns 7000 Mt of coal and 3000 Mt of natural gas in that same year. So even if we burn all the plastic and ignore the emissions it’s not large.

Research find: I came across this video. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=I_fUpP-hq3A

It says most plastics end up in incineration.

It also says plastics are separated using infrared technology.

I wonder if it is far from imagination to regulate the types of plastics available for use. What if all plastics for all single use purposes were restricted to a single kind of plastic.

Limiting the types is probably easier. Different types of plastic are desirable based on material properties.

At times I feel, if there's no recycling programs, people will automatically buy cheap products with plastic because it'll guilt trip them into using less plastic.

When a country like India is taking steps to ban single use plastics (I think from October 2019), why cant more developed countries / rich economies do the same?

Cities that implement 10 cent bag fee have succeeded in reducing the use of plastic carry bags.

Similarly bans on single use plastics will go a long way.

But the more such articles I read, I feel like an idiot when I segregate recyclables and trash

related video for those interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8aVYb-a7Uw

There is nothing wrong with landfill or incineration. Unlike metals, recycling plastic is not economic. So converting it to energy by incineration is a pretty good option. In the future if the oil supplies will dwindle it might be economically viable to recycle plastic and then people (or maybe robots) will excavate those landfills for material. It is us taking care of the future generations. Isn't it what all those Gertas of the world want?

Orthogonally, claiming and getting paid to provide service X while not in fact providing it, would usually come across as fraud.

Right. I think parent commenter hasn't read the article, and doesn't realize that these are _recycling_ companies, not just your average tech office with a blue bin in the snack room.

golemiprague might not be saying anything about those specific companies, just saying that in general, there's not a reason for us to want to recycle plastic.

It's a white lie. It's not really the garbage seller's business whether it is recycled into fire or buried. They aren't harmed.

It's a violation of HN etiquette to accuse people not not reading the articles.

> It's not really the garbage seller's business whether it is recycled into fire or buried. They aren't harmed.

Apparently the companies use artful language to imply certain processes without specifically naming them:

"All three companies make green promises on their websites and in promotional videos, using buzzwords like "sustainability" and "environmental solutions." One Waste Connections video goes as far as to say, "sustainability and becoming more green … have been hallmarks and backbones of Waste Connections from the day we formed the company."

But if any company specifically contracted for recycling and did not recycle, it is a breach of contract with possible repercussions.

Recycling requires that the materials return to the market at a certain point, but it does not require a short window of time between collection and processing of materials.

This is where some creative lawyering can go a long way: if you can say that you're going to process it at some indefinite point in the future, you're not comitting fraud unless the contract defines an specific time limit, specific technical processes, and an specific destination for the processed materials.

I don't think commercial contracts that meet all these criteria are viable at scale.

> Isn't it what all those Gertas of the world want?

You can defend a position without snidely representing other positions, similar or opposite to yours, but if you choose to make so, make sure you've correctly named your target.

Incineration means needlessly releasing greenhouse gasses.

I agree. These are perfect prepackaged blocks for carbon storage. Why would you go the other way?

The incinerators used in this case (claim to) recapture the emissions from the incineration. However, they do leave some amount of toxic ash, which requires special disposal.

They don't do CO2 capture. They don't have some magic technology that doesn't exist. They capture toxic particulates.

No it doesn't. They don't just burn it and release the heat, they use the heat to generate electricity.

It's a direct 1 to 1 reduction in oil usage.

Burning plastic is what we should be doing.

It would be if a 100% of energy came from oil. I would argue that burning trash is cheap and thus makes adoption of renewable energy sources lower.

The article claims if you incinerate plastic with scrubbers, that prevents air pollution. I've seen it elsewhere claimed incinerating plastic still produces a lot of really nasty air pollution. Which is correct?

The answer, as usual, is 'it depends'. Many will just burn it at incredibly high temp and hope for the best, while many advanced scrubbing systems exist, with various effectiveness, usually correlated with cost. The incentives are obvious on both sides.

"It is us taking care of the future generations"

And I suppose pumping co2 into the atmosphere is to keep future generations nice and warm? And we're helpfully clearing the rainforests for them too.

I think the "Gertas of the world" want decisions to be made by not only the fact if something is economically viable, but by what's good for the environment.


Not sure what's going on in this picture. Can I hazard a guess - the "tracking device" is a cheap smartphone?

They're wedging the bale to insert a tracker in it. The trackers look something like -


I hope that tracker was recyclable.

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