Tossing plastic better than burning it


Plastic seems much in the news these days. Internationally a shipload of Canadian trash is returning to us from the Philippines. Their president Duterte blusters about us cleaning up our own mess, although the Philippines and other Asian nations are the main culprits behind all the plastic in the oceans – a true scourge.

Nationally, Trudeau has announced a plan to ban single use plastics some day, no specifics. Locally the plastic we were recycling at the depot downtown will now be handled by the RDBN at the transfer station, at least one local business is ‘bag shaming’ and my milkshake from the drive thru comes with a cardboard straw that becomes soggy when my lips wet it.

I have never knowingly discarded plastic directly into the environment, I’ve always put it into a proper waste receptacle or recycled it, but I’ve had a rethink about recycling. A large portion of the plastic we’ve dutifully sorted for recycling is actually just piling up due to market forces.

In our case, long distance hauling increases costs and carbon output. It can only be recycled a few times before the polymer chains degrade and make it useless. About 4 per cent of oil feedstock globally is used to make plastics, the rest is mostly burned, throwing carbon into the air and oceans. Plastic buried in a proper landfill under earth and rock is as safe as burying rocks. It won’t rot and make methane, and it won’t leach toxins. Its out of the ecosystem and degrades at a glacial pace until the next ice age, when all bets are off.

You might ask why that milkshake comes in a plastic cup, with a plastic lid while only the plastic straw has been replaced? Because we can make cardboard tube replacements for the straw cheaply and easily, the cup and lid not so much (thus Trudeau’s vagueness in his feel-good ‘no plastic’ soundbite). Plastic is actually a cheap, convenient and multipurpose material with enough feedstock to last centuries. If we bury more of it even after one use instead of burning it and pumping carbon into the air – I say that’s a good thing.

I’m now discarding my modest amount of plastic waste with a clean conscience. We have much bigger fish to fry: global climate change, local forest resource depletion. Both have been a long time coming, both need our serious attention. Plastic, despite its high visibility, not so much.

Walt Van Der Kamp

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