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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Recycling Plastics

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The cynic in me would argue that it is not coincidental that kerbside plastic and cardboard recycling was finally implemented in the constituency in which I live just two weeks before the local council elections. But the environmentalist in me thinks "so what," if it has a beneficial effect on the waste problem.

Over the three years we have been living the our present house, we three (girlfriend, housemate and I) have tried hard to limit our waste. The most significant step is having a compost heap, but we also rigorously washed bottles and cans for kerbside collection, and hoarded cardboard for recycling at the tip whenever we happened to be passing (for the latter is self-defeating if you are going to make a special 10 mile round trip).

We prided ourselves on the fact that our weekly waste amounted to about one large pedal bin sack a week; we also bemoaned the fact that of that waste, possibly three quarters was comprised of recyclable plastic, such as milk cartons. (Yes, ideally we would get our milk in glass bottles, but rather than the milkman we choose to get ours from the local organic farm in plastic ones - sourcing locally in plastic bottles is probably better than sourcing milk that could have come from any distance, even if its container is environmentally better.) This stacks up with the average statistics: nationally, plastic makes up 11% of household waste, and of this 40% is plastic bottles. Unfortunately for us, though, our local council did not offer any recycling of plastics, even at the central waste disposal sites.

So when plastic kerbside recycling arrived, we were pretty pleased. And, lo and behold, our throwaway waste was cut dramatically, probably averaging a little more than one plastic carrier bag per week (though we obviously try not to use these when shopping, its better to reuse the ones that are pressed upon you than it is to buy new bin liners).

However, the environmental sceptic in me wonders whether our pride ought to be deflated a little. Consulting my recycling bible, I discover that there are seven types of recyclable plastics:
  1. PET (Polythylene Teraphthalate - try saying that with your mouth full!). A strong plastic designed for containing high-pressure liquids; used for bottled soft drinks, cooking oil bottles, oven ready trays.
  2. HDPE (Hi Density Polyethylene). Used for plastic milk bottles and washing up liquid.
  3. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride). A hard plastic, used for plastic pipes, outdoor furniture, bottled water and shrink wrap.
  4. LDPE (Low Density Polethylene). A softer plastic used for carrier bags and bin liners.
  5. PP (Polyproylene). Used for bottle caps and margarine tubs.
  6. PS (Polystyrene). Used for foam trays, protective packaging, vending cups.
  7. Other.
These are denoted by the little symbol impressed or printed on to the item.

The problem is, unlike glass or cans there is no way of automatically separating different types of plastics, whilst individual items might contain two or more types of plastic. This makes recycling at best time and labour expensive, and at worst means that separating and recycling the individual components demands more energy than their initial production. Finally, even if recycling of plastic were more feasible, the whole appeal of plastic is that it is cheap to produce from the outset, so recycling may be self-defeating if the market becomes over-saturated with supply.

Although on balance it remains a good thing that recycling of plastics is available to every household, the case of plastics ultimately reinforces the validity of that mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling should be seen as the last step, a salve for the symptoms rather than the cure for the condition of the over-consuming Western world. The best thing to do is to cut down packaging from the outset, by buying food products with little or no packaging - does it really make a difference to the quality of those bananas or apples if they are shrink wrapped? I suspect not. Secondly - and still at the imaginary supermarket - if you do buy loose items but put them in those small plastic food bags, try to re-use these for your sandwiches or food storage; rinse them through, and substitute them for your usual clingfilm or tin foil. Only after the bag is falling apart should you think about placing it in the green bin.

Wrap reported in 2008 that compared to the previous year, "The weight of plastic bottles being collected for recycling in the UK has increased by 68% with 92% of local authorities offering collection facilities." This is a good thing. But it will be a drop in the ocean if the use of plastics continues to increase at the point of origin. Between 1995 and 2002, for example, my book informs me that sales of plastic drink bottles almost doubled, whilst recycling proportionately fell.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:17 am


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