Sunday, August 17, 2008

Waste management

calcomanias NZSo, what's with those recycling numbers on plastic items? There's always confusion about what they mean and specially about their use... specially because there are also other symbols. For example, the "green dot" (Der Grüne Punkt) does not mean that a packaging can be recycled at all! It's just a fee that some German companies pay to put that label on each packaging, so that the "Duales System Deutschland GmbH" collects the empty containers on their behalf, regardless if they are going to be recycled afterwards or not. Such is the case of tetrapak for example (which is a product with horrible environmental credentials by the way).

A couple of weeks ago, we saw a TV program about food packaging, and it's just terrible that a spokesperson of either the health department or the plastics industry, made a terrible mistake saying that those numbers can be used as guideline on how safe it is to use plastic containers on a microwave. Wrong! That's one of the categorical "dont's" on the SPI information video! The number codes are only for recycling (sorting out) purposes. They can't be a guideline for consumers about health risks, simply because many resins are not used in its pure form. Many plastics are engineered to meet specific needs, they are combined with other chemicals to produce the desired qualities i.e. they contain additives, stabilizers, colorants, etc. in different amounts which are not described or stated on that ID number code. The code only serves to identify the "main" resin used in a product for sorting purposes, and nothing else. "That is all they tell us. The numbers found on bottles or containers ... do not indicate the safe or intended use for a product, and they should NOT be used for that purpose. This is false, and potentially harmful misinformation". Let's have a closer look at what they really are:

The plastics recycling number code system or "SPI resin identification code" was introduced in the United States by the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1988 "at the urging of recyclers around the country. A growing number of communities were implementing recycling programs in an effort to decrease the volume of waste subject to rising tipping fees at landfills." Almost 90% of all packaging and "throw away" plastics products are made out of only 6 kinds of resins. An arbitrary ID code numbering system would make it quite easy to identify those 6 resins and a 7th code was introduced as a "catch all category" for other kinds of plastics (the remaining 10%). To date, not every state in the US nor all countries have recycling strategies for all 6 kinds of resins, but it still makes it easier to separate which one is which, facilitating the eventual recycling: "If there is a readily identifiable supply of a given material in the waste stream, it may drive recycling entrepreneurs to explore means of recovering that material in a cost-effective manner." Categories 1 and 2 (PET and HDPE) represent 96% of all bottle containers consumed in the USA!

Recycling No. Abbreviation Polymer Name
PETE or PET Polyethylene terephthalate
HDPE High density polyethylene
PVC or V Polyvinyl chloride
LDPE Low density polyethylene
PP Polypropylene
PS Polystyrene
OTHER Other plastics, including acrylonitrile butadiene styrene acrylic, polycarbonate, polylactic acid, nylon and fiberglass.

Due to an increased interest in recycling in the last years, the code system has been already expanded to other materials and it will be probably be updated very soon to meet the recent developments in packaging and new materials like bioplastics. (Hemp products will probably be labeled with # 69 TEX dudes!) ABS was formerly labeled as #7 (other) and now it has a category of its own #9 or #ABS although some sources say that some manufacturers are using a "zero" code for ABS causing confusion with the proposed "zero code" for polylactic acid (PTA). Because the 7th group includes thousands of plastics and many of those already have potential for recycling (like PTA), many companies are labeling them with no group number, just the name abbreviation below the arrows, until a new ID numbering code is developed to include a wider variety of resins and materials.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

wzI have good news. The cartons such as those made by Tetra Pak collected under the green dot system do get recycled. The indication that they are not in the blog by Fernando is incorrect.

In fact recycling rates of cartons in Germany are up to 75% and around the world, over 22 billion cartons were recycled 2007. They are widely recyclable across the UK as well, with over 85% of local authorities collecting cartons for recycling. There is even a schools and business recycling solution available across many parts of the UK.

When it comes to the environment, cartons have a great story to tell!

They are made mainly from wood - a natural, renewable resource. This helps to lower the carbon footprint of the package in the first place. In fact, life cycle studies across the world continue to show that cartons to be a low carbon packaging choice and examples of these can be found at .

They are lightweight and resource efficient – which in turn makes them transport efficient as well – helping to keep trucks off the road. More information of this can be found in the carbon section of the website.

They do all of this whilst protecting the contents within!
• The paperboard gives the carton strength and keeps out harmful light which can e.g. degrade riboflavin in milk
• The plastic keeps the package liquid-proof
• The aluminium layer in the long-life cartons keeps out harmful air, which can e.g. degrade vitamin C. It also helps to ensure that the product can be stored without the need for preservatives or refrigeration - keeping the product until you need it - helping to minimise food waste.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Fernando Vallejo said...

Thank you PR people at tetrapak for your comment. In my defense, I remember many reportages when I lived in Germany in the 90's, that tetrapack cartons were being dumped or burned "overseas" instead of actually being recycled:

Sie kauften kunststoffverpackte Produkte mit dem Grünen Punkt in dem Glauben, der Kunststoff würde zu 100 Prozent recycelt. Dies sei falsch, Kunststoffverpackungen würden nur zu einem Teil stofflich verwertet. Ein Teil der Verpakkungen würde sogar ins Ausland geschafft und dort verbrannt. Mit dieser Täuschung des Kunden, der ein Produkt wegen des Grirnen Punktes als angebliches Gütezeichen kauft, verstößt das DSD gegen das Wettbewerbsrecht.

The UK had a similar problem recently:

More than 1,000 tonnes of contaminated household refuse disguised as waste paper on its way to be recycled in China is to be sent back to Britain after being intercepted in the Netherlands.

Dutch environment ministry officials believe that British refuse is being systematically dumped in poor countries via the port of Rotterdam, the largest container port in Europe. In one of the biggest international scams uncovered in years, they say waste companies across Europe are colluding to avoid paying escalating landfill and recycling charges.

The foul-smelling rubbish, which includes waste food, plastic packaging, batteries, drinks cans, old clothes, carrier bags, wood, paper, broken glass and vegetable matter, has been found in 54 large lorry and container loads en route to Rotterdam where they were to be trans-shipped to Asia.

Hayley Jones wrote: "Tetra Pak recycling, however, is severely lacking on a nationwide basis (in the UK), with only a few areas offering collection services. Other areas offer recycling banks, but many more provide no recycling facilities for these cartons whatsoever. Statistics indicate that ONLY 4% of the two billion Tetra Paks used each year in the UK are currently being recycled."

Compare that 4% rate to the 96% recycling rate of PET bottles and guess which one does better.

Mark Taylor has very detailed explanation of the tetrapak recycling process. He points out however, that the multiple layers of paper, plastic and aluminum are quite hard to separate. I'm not saying impossible, just hard. Imagine the plasma reactor heating up to 3 times the temperature of the sun to separate plastic from aluminum. I have no idea, but I imagine that this process may have a very large "carbon footprint" in energy usage.

Erich Staudt, a work economist says: "Was die Konsumgüterindustrie für die Sammlung, Sortierung und Verwertung zahlen muss, sei eine teure Subvention. Ohne diese Zuzahlung würden die aus Altmaterial hergestellten Produkte überhaupt nicht entstehen. Die Gefahr von Öko-Dumping vermutet indirekt auch das Fraunhofer-Institut. Es mache keinen Sinn, Zaunpfosten oder Pflastersteine aus Recyclingkunststoffen zu fertigen. Das koste wesentlich mehr Energie als deren Produktion aus Beton oder Holz (vgl. Wirtschaftsbild, Nr. 38/99, S.21). (via)

Roughly translated: the cost of the energy and subsidies required to recycle some plastics is not worth it. I imagine that the Hydroblender, the mill, and the plasma heater superheated by an electrical charge to around 15,000°C are not cheap to run. Heinz Hug wrote a book about some of those issues.

Another horror comment from Barbadosfreepress: It seems that as good as the packaging is for keeping food fresh, the darn things are almost indestructible when put into landfills. If you bury them, they will still be like new a few hundred years from now - and still doing their job too well, keeping other garbage from rotting and breaking down because they create waterproof pockets and layers in the landfill. Recycling Tetra-Paks is difficult, requires special machinery and leaves huge piles of materials that have dubious value in manufacturing new products - thus defeating the final step in “recycling”

Here's again the page where I found the information about the DSD: "The Green Dot does NOT necessarily mean that the packaging can be recycled. It is a symbol used on packaging in many European countries and signifies that the producer has made a contribution towards the recycling of packaging."

All those look like "bad credentials" to me, despite other positive PR communiqués. I'm sorry but that's the way I learned about materials... composite materials can achieve extraordinary characteristics and properties that can not be matched by simple materials, BUT, composite materials are usually almost always impossible or very expensive and complicated to separate back again... take for example fiberglass and polyester.

Sorry Tetrapak PR dudes, but those cartons are "un-hot".


1:05 AM  

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