That’s James McCall, chief sustainability officer at HP. Yes, I’m back in the desert, but this time I’m taking about ocean bound plastics. Specifically the stuff HP is using in 99 percent of its new devices.
You see, plastic manufacturing is actually a bit of a scam.
On 18 July 2017 the sovereign nation of the People’s Republic of China filed a notification of technical barriers to trade with the World Trade Organisation.
This is a routine process and the WTO gets dozens of these a week.
No stress, right?
Because the items listed under the standardized codes were all targeted at things that have polymer in its name. Namely, plastics.
Pretty much all plastics cannot be sent to china for recycling.
And ever since then the world has been in an arms race to make plastic recycling profitable.
The uncomfortable truth of plastic recycling is that new plastic products cannot be made only out recycled plastic.
The other truth is that most plastic is not easily recyclable.
You know that triangle arrows with a number inside? That’s not a recycling sign, it’s a polymer ID code.
South Africa only has the technical capacity to recycle three of the seven polymers within our borders.
Well, to be fair we can process the others, but it gets tricky.
The codes you should look out for as perfect recycling targets are one, two and four.
One (PET) is pretty much all detergent bottles, juice bottles and those blue plastic water bottles.
Two (PE-HD) covers milk and shampoo bottles, almost all plastic bottle tops, and all your household container – off brand Tupperware stuff. And plastic crates.
Four (PE-LD) is all your packaging bags like milk sachets, bread packets, the plastic covering the 18 pack of toilet paper and the frozen vegetable bags – this is the main stock that our bin bags get made out of.
The tech industry, however, is targeting something called ocean bound plastics.
Samsung gets even more specific and uses fishing nets, for instance.
HP sources its recycled plastic stock from an organization called The Plastic Bank. They’re based in Port Au Prince in Haiti, a nation that didn’t have a functional waste disposal system until a couple of years ago and the waste was just dumped wherever.
These guys are fighting crushing poverty and this crazy rubbish problem at the same time.
A wrinkle in the grand plan of plastic recycling is that in Haiti the cost of recycled plastic goes down in lock step with the cost of natural gas.
In other countries there’s a similar problem where its just easier and cheaper to keep making virgin plastic from oil – it’s a biproduct of fuel refining after all.
Samsung partners with a number of smaller organisations across the Indian ocean.
But back to China.
The about turn in its recycling stance is all about the drag processing the world’s plastic waste was having on the healthcare system.
Even when countries sort the waste and then ship it, the energy intensive recycling process is also terrible for the environment and overall human safety.
So as it stands only about 10 percent of our plastic that we use actually gets recycled. It’s a bummer and a major economic waste, but it is better than nothing. So kudos to Samsung and HP for leading in respective industries.
You know what would be great, though? If these technology giants started making fewer products more thoughtfully. Devices crafted out of more premium materials that are easily recycled numerous times – think metal and glass – and last a really long time.
But that’s a story for another day
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