Eyes Wide Open on Plastics  

By Jule Asterisk for REAC January 2024 

When your local Society of High Prairie Regional Environmental Action Committee (REAC)1 started Northern Alberta’s first rural recycling program, back in 1988, we and volunteers from our membership transported our clean, post-consumer products and that of thousands of other local people about 350 km, to recycling centres in Edmonton. REAC is an organization made up of both people of Indigenous ancestry and ‘settlers’, about half and half. Our Board of Directors is made up of 5 people of Indigenous ancestry and 3 people with settler or ‘diaspora settler’ pasts. We agree with Traditional Indigenous philosophies about the materials humans use during our time here on Earth – these materials are part of the Earth, the same way we are, and no material can actually be considered a ‘waste’ in nature. 

We transported recycling because we recognize the inherent value in the resources suddenly considered ‘waste’ after a period of use by humans. Humans extracted the metal for tin cans, cut down trees to make paper and cardboard, and refined oil and gas into plastics. Just because the individual, organization, or family who bought the original item or package doesn’t need it anymore, doesn’t mean the resource itself is not still useful. We understand the inherent value in ‘post-consumer’ resources. Even ‘sanitary’ landfills are not a great long term solution for what is called ‘waste’. We don’t believe it’s realistic to consider anything ‘disposable’ in today’s world. Zero waste and ‘cradle to cradle’ recycling are great options! 

Canada to remove rubbish from Philippines by end of June | Rodrigo Duterte  News | Al Jazeera

Our ‘modern’ recycling systems began with metals, rags, and paper during the Second World War. These programs have been successful worldwide in that. For example, over 75% of all the 1.5 billion tonnes of aluminum ever produced is still in use! Metals can be recycled over and over again without loss of quality. Paper and cardboard can be recycled between five and seven times before the fibres get to short to adhere to each other anymore, similar to plastics, which get more brittle each time they are recycled2

And plastics are a whole different story. Were we duped into thinking plastics were so imminently recyclable by those cute little numbers in the recycle arrows circle on the bottom? For decades, virtually all of Canada (and many other places) were sending our plastic ‘recycling’ overseas to Asian countries where our ‘recycling’, along with their ‘recycling processes’ left a lot to be desire. Then that whole system collapsed. Our ‘recycling’ contained more and more garbage in with the plastics every year3. Also the ability to recycle various types of plastics is not the same: some types plastics are actually quite difficult to recycle, if not impossible, while other types are easier. To make recycling even more complicated, some ‘plastics’ now contain up to 80% chemical additives, and many of these chemicals are toxic!  

We the public, also known as ‘consumers’, have absolutely no say over how or what types of plastic is produced except through our purchasing power, but how are we to know which plastics contain cancer causing chemical additives? This information is definitely not contained in the recycle arrows circle. Today, there are 400 million tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide each and every year, with 4 million of these tonnes produced here in Alberta. This material will never be anything else. Plastic ‘degrades’ (into tiny pieces); it will never ‘biodegrade’ or decompose, change its characteristics, or contribute to the circle of life. 

EPR Europe.jpgAlberta is moving towards ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR), a system where producers and manufacturers take on the financial responsibility for recycling, instead of municipal governments. It’s tempting to want to heave a sigh of relief; finally, the corporations who make plastics will be paying to recycle them! But if we examine per capita waste volumes in Europe4, where EPR has been in place for at least the past 25 years, a very different picture emerges. People are actually making more ‘waste’ per person than ever before. While recycling volumes are up and landfill volumes are down, waste incineration has almost tripled!  ‘Waste to energy’ concepts have incredibly dangerous health risks because incineration always provides two types of emissions: ‘allowable’ emissions (usually around .00001% of the total volume to be incinerated) and ‘unplanned releases’ (when the facility has some kind of accident, fire, explosion, or other type of release, generally considered an ‘immeasurable’ release.). Also, our precious non-renewable resources are being burned! Does this mean that the producers and manufacturers financially responsible for recycling in Europe were able to convince governments to do something they would have never done on their own, and allow hazardous practices that would never have been socially acceptable if governments were to do it? There is currently a public outcry in Europe over the health hazards from ‘waste to energy’ facilities5

burn barrel.jpg

Instead of, or at least in addition to the cute recycling arrow circles, it would be great to have some realistic warnings on all plastics. A really important warning on all plastic containers, bags, even on plastic cigarette filters would be ‘Do Not Burn’. When people casually burn plastics in burn barrels, open burn of landfills (this is still protocol for some Northern Canadian communities!6), or even tossing a cigarette butt into the fire pit, terrible toxic chemicals are produced. These endocrine disrupting chemicals such as dioxins and furans are famous for affecting human hormones, and can potentially affect generations of the family of the person who was originally exposed7

Another important warning on all plastics could be ‘Do Not Expose to Sunlight.’ When plastics are exposed to UV rays, greenhouse gases are emitted8 and the plastic becomes brittle, breaking into microplastics. Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass (2015) said “I wonder if that’s (plastics) a place where the disconnection began, the loss of respect, when we could no longer easily see the life within the object9.” Another Indigenous scholar, Max Liboiron holds that pollution is colonialism10, and that thresholds (allowing pollution up to a certain amount) double down on a colonization that includes people, animals, and the entire planet. In today’s world, microplastics have become a scourge, contaminating or colonizing our bodies at the rate of about a credit card each week.11 We eat plastic (it’s in our food12). We breath plastic; it’s in the rain13 and snow14. We release millions of microfibers with every load of laundry15 into the water. People who drink tea from teabags made of plastics drink millions of microplastics with their tea16. Anyone drinking from plastic bottles, or using plastics for hot drinks or microwaving food, is ingesting microplastics. Plenty of people know about the ‘great garbage patches’ floating around the oceans (some great cleanup efforts are now underway there17), but how many people know about microplastics in our laundry, beverages, air and food? Preliminary research shows that microplastics inside live organisms act like tiny sponges for dangerous chemicals18 We are living in a world of hurt when it comes to the health effects of having so many microplastics in our bodies19. More research on microplastics and human health is needed and will be completed20

Precious Plastic stuff.jpgREAC joined Precious Plastic Canada in 2020 because we believe in the importance of solution based approaches. Precious Plastic21 started in the Netherlands in 2012, and there are now about 3,000 companies around the world using their open source, small scale plastics recycling equipment. In Canada, we have a group of machinists, plastics recyclers, businesses, and entrepreneurs, meeting regularly on Discord, including a great technical support group with channels for each province. REAC also formed a research partnership with Smart Labs at the University of Alberta department of mechanical engineering. We wanted to make sure that the small scale plastics recycling equipment we would recommend didn’t produce the dangerous endocrine disrupting chemicals that occur when plastics are burned. It turns out that the melt temperature of various plastics during recycling is generally less than half of the burn temperatures, and dioxins and furans are not being created by recycling using the small scale equipment we propose. Temperature is something to watch, as are possibilities for microplastic pollution. For example, when shredded plastics are washed, up to 10% of the volume can be lost down the drain as microplastics into the water22! That’s why our model calls for new Precious Plastics businesses to buy directly from community members, who will do the cleaning of their own ‘waste’ plastic. REAC accepted funding from Dow Chemical to pay for this research, in the same manner we recruited funding from oil companies to pay for solar installations in the 2010’s. 

DD for dioxins.jpg

Since 2020, we have been conducting interviews with experts in the field: scientists, plastics recyclers, waste management personnel; these can be viewed on our YouTube channel23 along with our research and ‘on site’ videos. Our Plastic Remanufacture Project24, a solutions based approach for helping improve humans’ plastics management, invites rural, remote, and Indigenous communities to consider starting a new business to buy clean plastic from community members and make it into useful items that they can use or sell. This enables community participation in recycling at the location these materials first become ‘waste’, instead of landfilling these plastics or long distance transport for recycling, incurring greenhouse gas emissions. This project also facilitates community engagement and learning more about the ongoing risks and effects of plastics on our world and in our bodies. REAC would supply the equipment25, training, technical support, renewable energy infrastructure, and help with community engagement resources, while communities can provide the business plan, space and personnel for such an endeavour. 

Many actions must be taken to ensure plastics are better managed in our world. We can’t expect producers and manufacturers to come up with all of the solutions with the same mindset that developed the problems. We need to keep our “eyes wide open” to the real and current risks, as well as the trends and opportunities around plastics. Global calls for less virgin plastic to be produced each year26 must be heard and implemented! Industry needs to know about challenges brought forward by our membership and the experts we consult with: concerns about the increasing amount and dangerous characteristics of chemical additives27 in plastic, the continued use of plastics that can’t be recycled28, and increasing reliance on using plastics instead of other, less hazardous materials for packaging. Even the big players in plastics industry are calling for chemical simplification, however29. Of great concern to us and our membership are companies trying to claim that ‘chemical recycling30’ and ‘waste to energy31’ facilities don’t have pollution outputs32. We would like to see microplastic filters33 on all washing machines as standard policy. REAC hopes to virtually attend the upcoming UN Conference on Plastic Pollution coming to Ottawa in April 202434 and raise our concerns about waste to energy schemes35 that are not yet addressed in their documents. How awful would it be to prevent plastic pollution on the lands and seas, just to put these ‘forever chemicals’, created when plastic is burned, into the air? We owe it to our children, grandchildren, and future generations to continue recognizing and acting to prevent the dangers provided by so many plastics, and find continual improvement and better management of plastics. 

1 https://www.reacinfo.ca/
2 https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-plastic-and-recycling/

3 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/5/23/canada-to-remove-rubbish-from-philippines-by-end-of-june
4 Graphic developed in 2023 by Mark 455-655 students in the Community Service Learning program for REAC

5 https://www.investigate-europe.eu/posts/burning-questions-remain-over-europes-waste-incinerators
6 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-north-garbage-burning-1.6346739
8 https://environment-review.yale.edu/more-eyesore-plastic-pollutions-contribution-global-greenhouse-gas-
9 https://milkweed.org/book/braiding-sweetgrass
10 https://www.dukeupress.edu/pollution-is-colonialism
11 https://www.livescience.com/health/humans-inhale-a-credit-cards-worth-of-microplastics-every-week-heres-
where-it-ends-up , https://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/plastic_ingestion_web_spreads.pdf

12 https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20230103-how-plastic-is-getting-into-our-food
13 https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/science/2023/10/28/how-microplastics-accumulate-in-the-rain-of-
14 https://www.cbsnews.com/sanfrancisco/news/microplastics-pollution-sierra-snow-lake-tahoe/
15 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/laundry-is-a-top-source-of-microplastic-pollution-heres-how-to-clean-
16 https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/consumer-advice/a38800082/plastic-free-teabags/
17 https://theoceancleanup.com/oceans/
18 https://www.cheminst.ca/magazine/article/microplastic-pollution-more-complex-than-we-think/
19 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10151227/
20 https://wasterecyclingmag.ca/uncategorized/feds-funding-research-into-microplastics-health-
21 https://www.preciousplastic.com/solutions/prods

22 https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2023/05/22/plastic-recycling-microplastic-pollution/
23 https://www.youtube.com/@REACinfo/playlists
24 https://www.reacinfo.ca/interviews
25 https://cit-sci.com/
26 https://www.pacificenvironment.org/press-releases/new-report-calls-for-at-least-75-reduction-of-plastics-by-
27 https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2024-01-18/health-costs-of-plastics-run-250-billion-a-year

28 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/07/31/how-recycle-plastic-labels/
29 https://www.canplastics.com/features/dangerous-chemicals-found-in-recycled-plastics-making-them-unsafe-
30 https://news.mongabay.com/2023/11/chemical-recycling-of-plastic-not-so-fantastic-report-finds/
31 https://www.nationalobserver.com/2023/11/28/news/environmental-advocates-burn-over-massive-expansion-
waste-incinerator , https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/waste-to-energy-edmonton-signs-deal-to-have-garbage-burned-
32 https://zerowasteeurope.eu/press-release/vital-amendment-adopted-by-european-parliament-on-emissions-
33 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/filters-on-laundry-machines-lead-to-significant-cut-in-microfibre-
34 https://sdg.iisd.org/events/plastic-pollution-inc-4/
35 https://www.edmonton.ca/programs_services/garbage_waste/refuse-derived-fuels


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