The Underbelly of Recycling

By Colin McGregor              

We toss tons of material into recycling bins. But are these materials really recycled? Where do our plastic wrappers go?

When I was very young we had recycling. For example, the milkman delivered milk door-to-door each morning. Sometimes his truck was pulled by a horse. The milk came in glass bottles covered with an aluminum cap. Once each bottle was finished it would be washed and returned to the milkman to be reused.

Today, recycling has become a huge industry. Green and brown bins are all over our sidewalks.

Experts say that 20 to 30% of paper is recycled. For some other materials the percentage is higher. The pulp and paper industry recycles paper into toilet paper.

Boxes stained by tomato sauce, or paper containing organic matter or fat, can’t be recycled.  Recyc-Québec says you should dump those in your composting bin, the brown bin.

According to a source that wishes to remain nameless, plastics are often sent to cement plants to be used as fuel to raise the temperature of their ovens. Paper burns at 750-800 degrees, which is insufficient to produce cement. But plastics can burn at over 1,000 degrees.    

Fully 40% of the glass that is sorted goes to create the sand that covers city dumps. Metal is easily recovered: about 90% of it is recycled.

Recyc-Quebec says that a certain proportion of plastic in the province is sent outside the country to be recycled. In 2021, a little over 40,000 tons of plastic was exported from Quebec.

Some plastic that doesn’t go to cement plants ends up legally or illegally to Third World countries. How can we know that they have the capacity to recycle all this material? Some reports say that it just piles up in garbage dumps.

Since 1970, on plastic items, a logo consisting of three triangular arrows and a number between 1 and 7 appears. This is called a Mobius strip. It signifies that the product is recyclable. These are thermoplastics, which means that they melt when exposed to heat. The number indicates they type of plastic. If a plastic item doesn’t have this logo, it probably isn’t recyclable.

This gets complicated when you see a percentage inside the logo. That indicates the quantity of recycled plastic in the item. It gives you no information on whether the plastic item, usually packaging, is recyclable.

In theory, all plastics are recyclable. In reality that is rarely the case! Plastics 1 and 2 are frequently recycled, but some plastic trash remains difficult to treat. That’s true of very thin packaging, like plastic film; composite wrapping (consisting of several different materials); and polystyrene. Toys and plates made of hard plastic aren’t recyclable.

According to our source, “The world of recycling is one of the shadiest areas I’ve ever looked at. Exact numbers are lacking. Fifteen dumps and waste treatment centres figure among Quebec’s 100 most polluting businesses.” The technical waste treatment and dump site WM Quebec, serving the Drummondville region, emits greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual output of 38,973 cars (2021 figures).

According to the Globe and Mail (October 19, 2023), Interpol has noted a steep rise in the illegal plastics trade. Unscrupulous dealers are paid to dump plastic in Third World countries.

A press agent for the City of Montreal did not respond to our queries as to whether or not the city sends plastic out of the country.

Investigator José Vicente Lopez, working for the University of Madrid, wrote in Green Innovation Magazine that Interpol arrested 22 people suspected of involvement in a plastic waste criminal ring. He stressed that in 2020 the nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), of which Canada is a member, illegally sent 1.7 billion tons of plastic waste through intermediaries or brokers.    

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