Do we need plastic heroes?

09 March 2010 - Recycling

In addition to the separate collection of paper waste, organic waste, glass and PET bottles, households in The Netherlands this year have started with the separate collection of plastics waste whether they like it or not. In the best traditions of polderen, the Dutch Ministry responsible for the environment VROM, the Dutch municipalities united in the VNG and the Dutch packaging industry united in the non-profit organisation Nedvang joined forces in plastic recycling and tasked Nedvang with the collection process. An orange guy called plastic hero featured in several commercials (youtube vid here) to introduce the concept to the citizens and recycling could commence.

Ignoring for now that the mandatory bags Nedvang hands out by the millions to collect the plastic waste in are made of plastic and non-recycled plastic at that, and ignoring that these bags are transparent (collection is by the curb side, lets find out what the neighbors were having for dinner last night) , the question is if the environment is going to profit at all. Several municipalities resist the scheme and create solutions of their own. One group experiments with and are confident with the extraction of plastics waste from general garbage at the garbage collecting plant. The cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam prefer incineration. To them plastics are masked hydrocarbons and their state-of-the-art garbage incineration plants are able to return up to 30% of the energy content of the waste as electricity compared to the 20% average.

And what to do with all this plastics waste. The commercials are misleading when they speak of re-use as dashboards in cars or as computer mouse because these are high-end applications involving very specific plastics with narrow specifications. Typically recycled plastic winds up in more mundane products as soap containers, carpets and strapping. And you can only sell that much fleece jackets. And the contracts signed by the waste processors are not exactly ironclad: they commit themselves to material reuse of sorted plastic fractions or other useful applications (Uitvoerings- en monitoringprotocol 2009 nedvang website ). Hey, one of these other useful apps would not be selling the waste as high-energy feedstock to power plants?