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Issue #1868      May 15, 2019

Capitalism can’t solve our recycling crisis

The recycling industry is calling for government assistance – what does that mean – more of taxpayers’ money to prop up profits for private enterprises?

China’s ban on low-value materials from January 2018 sent the Australian government and local governments into a spin, because China has been the biggest importer of Australia’s waste materials. But now China has lifted their game and do not want dirty waste that has caused much of the air pollution from burning plastics and textiles.

The Chinese economy is outstripping the world on growth of GDP and is generating their own materials for recycling and have closed sorting plants that received our dirty waste.

European countries packaging reuse

The European Union Parliament and Council in 2018, after the Chinese ban of their waste, have a provisional agreement to phase out problematic single-use plastic items by 2021. The new EU Directive on single use plastic will be the most comprehensive piece of legislation yet at the global level to tackle plastic pollution. The directive will totally ban single use plastic products from the EU, including cotton bud sticks, plates, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks, Oxo-degradable plastics and expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers and cups.

Additionally, the new rules stipulate that EU Member states must take the necessary measures to achieve a measurable quantitative reduction in the consumption of other single use plastics not covered by the ban, such as take-away containers and coffee cups and lids.

Since the Chinese ban, both federal and state governments have been dumping truckloads of recyclable plastic, glass and paper on waste land. This huge pile of a valuable resource would be much greater if Australia had not increased waste exports to our near neighbours, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia; 52,000 tonnes of Australian waste has been shipped to Indonesia’s East Java. Plastics are burnt or dumped into the Brantas River where marine life ingest it. Indonesian environmental groups do not want their country to be used as a recycling bin. In Indonesia 55 percent of all fish species have evidence of manufactured debris similar to America which reported 67 percent. However, the majority of debris in Indonesia was plastic, while in North America the majority was synthetic fibres found in clothing and some types of nets. The implications that fish are being contaminated with microplastics and chemicals will ultimately bio accumulate in the food chain.

Toxins from plastic burning

Burning plastics in backyards in incinerators is most dangerous: the emissions are harmful dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemicals. Dioxins are the most toxic to the human organism. They are carcinogenic and a hormone disruptor and persistent, and they accumulate in our body fat and mothers give it directly to their babies via the placenta. Dioxins also settle on crops and in waterways where they eventually wind up in the food chain.

Burning of waste plastics is more harmful than first thought, it can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and cause rashes, nausea, headaches, damage to the nervous system, kidney, liver, the reproductive system. Burning foam cups, meat trays, egg containers, yogurt and deli containers releases styrene gas which can be readily absorbed through the skin and into lungs.

At high levels styrene vapour can damage the eyes and mucous membranes, and long term exposure can affect the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, weakness, and depression. The Indonesian public who burn the Australian-made waste plastics are unlikely to be aware of the health dangers to themselves or to family.

Microplastics in marine mammals

The occurrence and accumulation of microplastics in the aquatic environment is nowadays an undeniable fact. It is also undeniable that a large number of organisms are exposed to these particles and that this exposure may cause a variety of effects and threaten many different species, the ecosystem they live in and ultimately humans.

All plastic materials over time will break down to smaller and smaller particles of 5 mm or less, to as small as 10 nanometres (1 nanometre is a thousandth of a micron). Human activity has led to microplastic contamination throughout the marine environment. Evidence regarding toxicity and epidemiology is emerging.

Plastic’s big profits

Plastic manufacturers will fight tenaciously for continues access to their source of gigantic profits; they will use all their influence to urging the government to maintain the plastics manufacturing industry and even supporting more recycling which will reduce the use of virgin resources. Presently there are little known human health risks from nanoplastics and microplastics, and what is known is surrounded with considerable uncertainty. There is an urgent need to understand the potential modes of toxicity for different size-shape-types, combinations of different plastic before robust conclusions about risks to human life can be established. When in doubt extreme caution is the best option.

A small study in 2018 conducted on eight individuals from Europe and Japan found microplastics in human faeces for the first time. All participants were found positive for at least one type of microplastics after all of them had consumed plastic-wrapped food and consumed water from plastic bottles, while six had also eaten seafood.

Plastics production is expected to double in the next 20 years according to a report issued by the World Economic Forum. The recycling of plastics has been sluggish; around 30 percent of waste plastics is recycled in Europe, just 9 percent in the US, and zero or close to it in much of the developing world.

The 2016-17 Australian Plastics Recycling Survey by the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy published in May 2018 shows our recycling of plastics at only 11.8 percent.

The plastics monopolies will not give up their profits for the sake of the environment or the health of the human race.

Next article – Review – The Twilight Zone

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