Published in the October/November 2013 issue of North Simcoe Community News.

Have you ever wondered what happens to all that plastic we consume? The Canadian Plastics Industry Association reports that plastics represent 14-20% of landfill volume.

Most people think that the plastic they throw away is benign. Unfortunately, it is not. When plastic breaks down it releases toxic pollutants – chemicals that have been added to soften, stabilize and create malleable plastic products. There is no regulation of these chemicals, which include mercury, dioxins and phthalates. So, unless very carefully managed, toxic chemicals leach from landfills into soil and water. The danger is so serious that a group of researchers, in the February 2013 issue of the journal Nature, called for governments all over the world to classify certain plastics as hazardous waste (#s 2, 4 and 5 are considered relatively safe at this time).

Obviously, we need to keep plastics out of our landfills. As much as I would like to see our consumption of plastic drop, it’s not likely to happen any time soon. We’ve become too accustomed to the convenience it offers.

Plastics #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) are easily recyclable and have a wide market. In the County of Simcoe, the sale of these plastics helps to partially offset the cost of the blue box program. It makes sense to continue recycling these valuable materials. The rest, though, are either recycled at a cost to the County or end up in the trash.

And we’re running out of room for all this waste. In the County of Simcoe, our landfills would last no more than six years if we didn’t export trash. In order to buy time, we are currently sending up to 63% of our waste to an incinerator.

What if we could take waste plastic like film, foam trays, bags, and large containers, as well as low value plastic from the blue box, and turn it into something valuable? We could reduce waste going into to our landfills or transported to the incinerator, reduce sorting and processing costs of recyclables, and generate assets that could help fund operations (like a new County-owned transfer and sorting facility currently under consideration).

A Japanese technology promises to do just that. The Blest machine vaporizes plastic and converts it to synthetic diesel (1kg of plastic produces about 1 litre of oil). As of September 2012, P&M Recycling Centre in Whitehorse City, Yukon has the first one of its kind to operate in North America. The machine, roughly the size of a pool table, processes 240 kg of plastic per day (87.6 tonnes per year), producing enough oil to continuously heat the facility with oil left over for sale. The continuous-feed machine can take just about any kind of plastic. The fuel produced can be fed directly into an oil furnace or processed further for diesel cars. The by-products are some carbon residue, water vapor, and carbon dioxide equivalent to four humans breathing normally. As of March 2013, the efficiency of the machine was reported to be better than expected at 11 cents per litre.

The County of Simcoe has enough low value or waste plastic to keep a couple of high capacity Blest machines (at 3 tonnes per day) operating around the clock. About 3,000 tonnes of recyclable plastics are collected annually. If we assume that half of the plastic materials are of low value, then 1,500 tonnes per year (or more than 4 tonnes per day) are available for conversion to oil. With this system, we could also include all the waste plastic currently going in the trash. (The County estimates that 40 million plastic bags alone are thrown out in Simcoe County each year.)

We have to be careful, though, to realize the limitations of this solution. While it would reduce the risk of contamination of our land and water, and would provide the County with a degree of energy self-sufficiency, it also encourages the consumption of plastic and the continued use of fossil fuels. The plastic-to-oil Blest machine is only a stop-gap solution in our quest for sustainability.

Although we live in an age of intractable problems, I take heart in knowing that smart minds are working on solutions, and organizations are eager to fund them. Molly Morse of Mango Materials (Palo Alto, CA) won the $630,000 first prize in the 2012 Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, “the largest annual worldwide competition for sustainable entrepreneurs who can instigate change.” Her company turns waste methane (with a global warming potential as much as 72 times greater than CO2 over 20 years) into a cost competitive bioplastic, which in turn will degrade in a landfill or a digester, releasing methane gas to start the process all over again. An eco-friendly endlessly recyclable plastic from renewable resources at a competitive price – now that will change everything!