By Tom Kelly
A worker using a wooden stick presses plastic bundles into a hopper, where it melts into a grey mass. The plastic is mixed with a colouring agent and tipped into a moulding machine, where it is formed into coat hangers. Nearby, other workers sort wastes without gloves. The workers wear no protective clothing and breathe air heavy with noxious fumes released by the molten plastic.
Small-scale plastics recycling operations, with their inevitable impact on human health and environmental quality, are common in many parts of Asia. Domestic plastic wastes from households and businesses are collected by organised waste scavengers and brought to small processing firms, where they are sorted, melted and remoulded into products for sale.
These domestic plastic waste recovery systems provide' a ready market for some imported plastic wastes, and a pretext for the export, from highly industrialised countries, of large amounts of plastic wastes unsuited for recycling.
Greenpeace investigations, documented in 'The Waste Invasion of Asia", found that imported plastic waste meets a number of fates. While some is melted and reprocessed, some is burned, some is disposed of in dumps and some is discarded, turning up in rivers and fields.
Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals such as lead and cadmium. Dioxins and furans, which are perhaps the most toxic synthetic chemicals on the planet, can also be released from plastic by burning, and although in small quantities can be extremely harmful.
Plastic recycling facilities almost inevitably will dispose of some waste: plastic that is either contaminated or has incompatible resins, non-plastic waste imported along with plastic waste and residues from melting and washing. Greenpeace estimates that 25-40% of imported plastic waste is not actually recycled.
Many plastics were once packaging for pesticides and household cleaners and therefore contain a variety of toxic ingredients. Since the most contaminated imported plastic is most likely to be discarded, this contamination is likely to be transferred to scavengers and dump sites in the importing countries. Plastic wastes and associated contaminants also find their way into waterways and the marine environment, where they are ingested by birds and fish.
Industry has responded to consumer pressure by encouraging plastic recycling, rather than reducing wasteful packaging. In Australia the use of plastic for packaging more than doubled between 1980 and 1989, to over 250,000 tonnes per year.
US Environmental Protection Agency data show that three of the five industries with the largest total toxic emissions and off-site disposal of toxic chemicals are involved in the production of plastics. These three industries — plastic materials and resins, industrial organic chemicals and petroleum refining (which provides the raw materials for almost all plastics) — emitted and disposed of over 1.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals in the US in 1991.
Responding to growing public awareness about the environmental impact of plastic production, the industry devoted its energies to improving its public image. Hence its promotion of the virtues of recycling.
One such promotion, used in Germany, involves plastic being marked with a green dot that assures consumers that the waste will be collected and recycled. Although it is collected, much of it is exported. Greenpeace found German plastic wastes with green dots in several abandoned plastic recycling sites in Indonesia.
Those who promote plastic recycling usually fail to explain that, unlike glass, plastic changes during use and when it is heated; there is a consequent loss of quality of the material over time and with processing. Thus the scope for plastic recycling is very limited (usually just once), and even then it can't be recycled into a product of a quality comparable to the original.
As the Greenpeace report points out, recycling plastics doesn't remove the dangers of plastic packaging; it just moves them around until the plastic ends up in an incinerator, land fill, ditch or ocean. "... nothing really changes, except the public feels better about buying polluting, non-degradable, and unnecessary plastic products and packaging."