The ABC ran Plastic Wars, an episode of the United States’ Public Broadcasting System’s (PBS) Frontline series, on August 10. It highlighted why a scourge of plastic waste is contaminating land and waters — the same waste we are told is “recyclable”.
At around the 30-minute mark, PBS correspondent Laura Sullivan interviewed William Posegate, chief operations officer at Garten Services. He explained that in 1994, Garten owned a sorting machine that enabled different types of recyclable plastics to be separated to be made into new products.
A newspaper article from the 1990s talked about a new machine that sorts outs the problem of plastics. However, Posegate goes on to say: “Years later, we shut it down because there was no way to make money at it”. The camera then pans to the massive bales of plastic next to a warehouse of “the plastic that nobody wants”.
Due to COVID-19, the price of oil has plummeted and so has new plastic. It means that it is even cheaper to produce and is a far better economic alternative to recycled plastic.
The Guardian reported last year that recycled plastic now costs US companies US$72 more per tonne than producing new plastic, driven by the shale gas boom in the United States.
In Australia, a leaked document from May has shown how the federal government’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission plans to subsidise and deregulate unconventional gas which will make plastic production cheaper.
Since the 1970s, oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil and BHP, have sold ethane to petrochemical company Qenos, Australia’s sole manufacturer of polyethylene and polymers which was bought by ChemChina in 2006. It has two plants, one in Altona, Melbourne, and another in Port Botany, Sydney.
At the latter, Qenos makes ethylene from ethane to make polyethylene, which is piped through the Moomba to Sydney ethane pipeline, a 1375-kilometre-long high pressure pipeline from Moomba in South Australia to Port Botany.
It is through this process that the production of new plastics benefits gas companies as well as petrochemicals companies.
Therefore, if producing new plastic is economically better than recycling it, and multiple industries can make profit, the environmental and human welfare option to recycle becomes less tempting for companies solely seeking to make a profit.
Landfills in New South Wales and Victoria are now feeling the stresses of these high costs in recycling.
China used to take Australia’s waste and now, without the infrastructure, councils are dumping their plastics instead of recycling.
On July 6, the federal government announced a $1 billion waste and recycling plan aimed at diverting 10 million tons of mixed plastic, paper, tyres and glass waste from landfill and reaching a recovery target of 80% over the next 10 years.
However, according to the 2018 National Waste Report, during 2016-17 Australia produced 2.5 million tons of plastic waste. The current rate of waste production far exceeds how often the country recycles and even how much the government plans to recycle.
A real change in plastic production requires a change in the perspective and policies governing production.
There are readily available alternatives, such as bioplastics which are a growing market, but face economic challenges such as the cost of production and a lack of investment from business and government.
We need a change in policy. Companies that continue to produce conventional plastics are participating not only in the degradation of our environment, they are killing us.
Globally, up to 1 million people a year are estimated to have died in poor countries as a result of plastic waste blocking waterways, and spreading pollution.
When plastics are burned toxins are released: studies have shown microplastics in the atmosphere and the food we eat affect our health and can also cause people to die.
Australia alone is directly responsible for 130,000 tonnes of plastic going into the oceans and waterways. The severe impact of plastic on human and environmental health and welfare should be enough to drive a change in policy. But, as unconventional gas corporations profit from plastic production, that will require a struggle by those who place human life and a healthy environment above the short-term economic gratification of a few.
[Patrick McDonald is an environmental science student.]