Can chemical recycling be the silver-bullet solution Canada needs?
Renowned British explorer Robert Swan, famous for being the first person to have walked on both the North and South Poles, did not mince words when he declared that, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
As a keynote speaker at the first Earth Summit for Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro—a pre-cursor to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement on climate change—the colorful OBE (Officer of the British Empire) recipient has impeccable credentials as a tireless environmental advocate with little use for climate change naysayers and refuseniks dismissing global warming as some sort of a liberal deep-state conspiracy cooked up to prevent freedom-loving citizens from exercising their divine right to pollute the earth to their hearts’ content.
While such contempt for environmental regulation and governance is becoming increasingly rare among mainstream Canadian political and business elite, there is still a vast gulf between environmental action and rhetoric that suggests Canadian consumers and corporations are not quite the crack green warriors they like to think they are.
While plastic waste was identified as a leading source of global environmental pollution many years ago, plastic recycling rates across Canada still average under 10 per cent—nowhere near the pace required to make a significant dent either globally or even nationally.
Contrary to the prevailing narrative, Canadian consumers are not the biggest culprits behind this shortfall, according to The Conference Board of Canada.
Based on the latest figures provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada, “In Canada, 55 per cent of plastic waste is produced by businesses and institution, [but] the majority of these entities aren’t obligated to recycle,” The Conference Board says in its recent findings.
“Efforts to drive our nine-percent plastic recycling rate in the right direction will be futile without businesses and institutions on board.”
While this admission does not in any way give Canadian consumers a free pass to ease up on their residential Blue Box recycling efforts and commitments, it does highlight the sense of urgency and necessity that the plastic pollution problem presents, along with the inadequate recycling infrastructure we have at our disposal to confront it head-on.
“The status quo is untenable,” The Conference Board states. “Plastics recycling in business and institutions is ripe for change.”
If true plastic sustainability and circularity are to be achieved without resorting to outright bands on their production and consumption, investing into the new breakthrough advanced (chemical) recycling processes will have to be a central part of that change, according to the Ottawa-based think-tank.
“Today’s recycling technologies will fall short of delivering a circular plastics economy,” The Conference Board says. “Developing industry-specific research is a must for chemical recycling innovation.
“Radical innovations in chemical recycling are crucial to achieving an enduring competitive advantage.”
While it’s true that chemical recycling plants are a fairly expensive proposition, considering the billions of dollars spent on traditional mechanical recycling operations to date with limited success, it may well be a gamble worth taking.
Moreover, it’s a gamble with a pretty decent chance of reward, The Conference Board suggests, if Canada can get all its levels of government working together to:
- Develop recycled content mandates for plastic products in the economy;
- Prioritize access to plastic waste feedstock for local recyclers;
- Incentivize high-quality sorting at material-recovery facilities;
- Adopt multi-stream recycling for consumers;
- Enhance extended producer responsibility programs;
- Leverage the scale of waste management firms and restrict plastic land-filling.
This may all sound like too much too soon, but when the price of inaction outweighs the cost of business as usual, stepping out of one’s comfort zone may well be the price worth paying.