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Plastics Pile Up


China has effectively banned the import of waste paper and plastic, throwing recycling efforts around the world into chaos.  But what appears to be a crisis could turn out to be a good opportunity to question how we recycle.

I recently wrote about the impact of China's ban on Australia's recycling industry, and the dangers of stockpiling recyclable materials.  Here in Melbourne alone we've had a recycling plant fire last month, a paper and plastics stockpile fire that burned for multiple days in 2017, and a huge tyre fire in 2016.  Each of these fires was in an urban area, and I can remember smelling the smoke at the University of Melbourne in the heart of the city.  Alleged health impacts because of smoke from the 2017 Coolaroo fire form the basis of an ongoing class action lawsuit.

An alternative to dealing with paper and plastic waste is to burn it for energy.  Waste-to-energy incinerators are not ideal - they produce carbon dioxide and their emissions need to be filtered to mitigate their impact on air quality - but they do not present the acute air pollution threat that uncontrolled fires do.  Waste incinerators are much more common in Europe, where land is at a premium, but even in Europe they are struggling to deal with China's waste import ban.  This has led to the out-there suggestion that countries bury and store recycled plastic as a "future mine" to dig up and reuse when the technology becomes available.  I can see a raft of potential issues from going down this path, but at least we are being forced to think about what we do with our recycled material.  This is a good reminder that recyling is not perfect; it is still waste and we should be trying to reduce it as much as we can.


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