Letter to the Editor: Government Policy and Plastic Waste
I am a chemical engineer who worked for Montreal Engineering in design engineering in Calgary and in sales, marketing and business development for Dow Chemical Canada Limited. I have been involved in environmental engineering studies since 1970 and have performed a comprehensive life cycle analysis of urethane foam products. I just don’t understand the current North American approach to making, using, and disposing of plastics. There are several reasons why plastic products have come to dominate our lives:
- They are easy to process into a myriad of finished articles
- They do the job they are supposed to do exceptionally well
- They are the most economical route to get to the desired end point
So why are governments bowing to activists who can only see plastics as contributing to an appalling array of environmental problems? My answer can only be based on the inadequate response from the plastics industry. The raw materials needed to make plastics come mainly from natural gas, which every oil and gas producing country draws from underground sources. The part of this flow that is diverted to the manufacture of plastics rarely exceeds 5%; most of the rest is used as fuel to generate electricity in large power plants, for home heating, and as a power source in some industrial applications. But the technology exists to use methanol from corn fermentation as a feedstock for plastics should that become necessary.
We understand very well how to make these useful materials so that consumers can use them in ways that make life more enjoyable. What we haven’t figured out is how to close the lifecycle loop. This is where my biggest disappointment comes in. Countries around the world such as Japan, Finland and Germany have been using waste-to-energy facilities to harness the energy component of plastics for several decades, so why isn’t this a reasonable answer? in North America? From a societal point of view, nothing should be more upsetting than municipalities getting rid of the waste generated on their territory by trucking waste hundreds of kilometers for disposal. I know there are jobs involved, but the idea of using steel to build the trucks and then fuel to transport the waste should be seen as part of the life cycle of the materials used by society . A truly responsible municipal government would understand that its task is to find a way to dispose of waste within its municipal boundaries. Instead, it’s easier to just pay someone outside the community to “truck” the problem. Where is it?
The answer is to embark on a program to convert the combustible part of the waste stream into energy. Some will be concerned about the exhaust fumes from such a facility, but the technology to remove harmful materials exists and is extremely effective. The heat generated can be used to produce steam which, in turn, can run a generator to produce electricity for use in the community. When the vapor pressure drops, it can be used in a central heating system for buildings near the installation. A side benefit is that we won’t need as many miles of high-voltage transmission lines to bring electricity from distant locations. Such a facility will not only process the plastics in the waste stream, but also the equally large amounts of wood-based products such as paper and some construction waste.
We’ve all heard of the 4 “Rs” when it comes to the environment: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover. Few products have arrived that truly embrace the “Reduce” component of this philosophy which equates to plastics. We’ve been able to make thinner, stronger films, and we can make automotive parts that last far beyond the life of the metal parts of our transportation equipment. Most people will find ways to reuse many plastic materials, whether it’s a grocery bag, a stiffer container, or even the design of a vehicle so that an older part can be reused. Much emphasis has been placed on “recycling” and it has a valid role to play, but in almost all cases there is no way to make an item from recycled materials with the same functionality and same efficiency as virgin materials. It just doesn’t work as well and it costs more. Recover is where industry and governments at all levels have failed in North America.
We stare at the solution but cannot see the forest for the trees. Not only can we clean up our local world, but we know that there are islands of waste floating in the oceans, and as the plastic components disintegrate they are ingested by marine life, of which we consume a part in our diet. The answer is not to remove plastics from our world; they do so much to make our lives better. The answer is to close the life cycle loop with an effective “recovery” program to capture the energy contained in municipal waste streams. Plastic manufacturers are expected to be at the forefront of waste-to-energy technology with the design of modular plants that municipalities can buy and install to help solve a societal problem and their own businesses.
Lyle McNair, P.Eng.