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Mountains of glass and pools of plastic?

By Ken Calvert - posted Monday, 8 November 2021

Our earth is in dilemma. The western world is being pressurised to reduce its use of disposable plastic at the same time as our news media tell us that 90% of the plastic in the sea comes out of 10 rivers in Asia and Africa. The difference is the recycling ability of the 3rd world. Single use plastic bags get thrown to the wind in Africa because they have never been taught to burn it instead of walking miles to gather firewood, and there are no convenient street side rubbish receptacles, like there are outside every Starbucks store.

Rubbish collection systems belong to our capitally intensive 1st world not in the 3rd. We live in a world of two halves, the haves and the have nots. The Nots throw away everything, and create pools or gyres of plastic in our oceans. And the Haves who are able to put their plastic packaging materials in the recycle system where it never gets near the sea, are in turn heaping up so many mountains of glass wine and other bottles that archaeologists will mark our era as one the most baccalian yet. Is pouched or casqued wine that much inferior, or is it our conspicuous consumption that really calls the shots? You can't show off racks of plastic in the corner of your lounge.

The point in linking these differences together is that we all live in a monetary world where, "if it either makes or saves a buck we do it , and if it don't we won't!" Both plastic and glass are cheaper to manufacture out of raw materials than to recycle them. The new world of fracked natural gas can produce electricity cheaper than coal, which is good, but it also produces pellets of pure plastic polymers far cheaper than trying to recycle a multitude of dirty objects of different compositions and colours. PE PET PETE PETR plastics might all look alike but they don't remix very well. All our modern automatic machinery, that can extrude or mould plastic into anything and everything 24/7, likes to be fed those pure single composition little pellets that can flow out of a hopper like water.


And as for all those mountains of multicoloured and shaped glass bottles? Well it's a lot cheaper to melt pure glass out of silica sand on the beach than to recycle a stained and dirty product. The shapes and colours come further down the line of automatic machinery which operates round the clock, untouched by human hand. You can't get anything cheaper than that!

The confusing bit is that we, the developed half of the world, need plastic like never before, and the poor underdeveloped 3rd world needs glass that can be recycled in the same way as we did 60 years ago, with a small return price on fizzy drink bottles, milk bottles, and railway tea cups. It is us who now have the methodology to gather up so much rubbish, and sort it for baby nappies, green waste and food scraps, that could be processed for biosolids fertiliser and for natural gas to energy. And it is the third world that needs the glass. Furthermore, we could corral all that plastic, packaging, rubber, old tires, old furniture, wood and paper that can be burnt in high temperature clean combustion boilers in the centre of every city to generate electricity. They are already doing that in Europe.

Copenhagen produces local electricity that doesn't lose 10% in very high voltage transformers and overly long transmission lines, and can prune back the peak loading factors that determine the ultimate price of their energy. Their own electricity also has an overall efficiency of 70%, because the waste heat involved heats 70,000 surrounding homes, with piped hot water. Yes, PVC and polyurethane plastics do have some nasties when you burn them at home. But do it in a large central refined plant and it will also recover the gold from the metallic stripping when you throw out your old computers and TV sets.

95% of the petroleum crude that we extract from the ground today is burnt, as petrol, diesel and JP1 to fly our planes. Heh, that's CO2 and lots of it! Much more than plastic! So why don't we complain? OK, so why then don't we also burn the other 5% that goes into plastic and rubber, and let it all add to the greening of the planet?

A google on 'global greening' shows up how good that extra CO2 in our climate is really greening the Sahara and the Sahel. However, use it to promote anti energy socialist politics and the life stuff of our carbon based world becomes "dirty carbon". By the time we run out of crude and frack, we may well continue to use coal by Sasol processes to keep making petroleum products and allow us to slowly decapitalise the massive investment in those factories that make the internal combustion engines that power our present transport systems.

By the time we have burnt up all the coal, probably long before, we will be generating all our energy from oh so safe 4th generation nuclear, with enough surplus electricity to either keep recharging all those Tesla3 autos, or to recycle enough carbon dioxide and water to keep our fossil fuel fleets running for a while yet. Nobody died of radioactivity at Fukushima, but lots were drowned when the tsunami that caused it all rolled in over the city.


Our climate realists, often called climate sceptics, tell us that chopping down trees to burn wood instead of coal makes the situation worse because it's the trees that recycle our carbon not the coal. And the more carbon dioxide in the air the faster the trees can grow. The optimum levels for plant growth is 1200ppm, three time our present level of 400ppm. That's why horticulturists blow in the exhaust gas along with the hot air to heat their greenhouses. For animals its worse. We breathe in at 400 and out at 4000ppm. Ready to stop breathing anyone?

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About the Author

Ken Calvert is a retired waste treatments chemist/engineer and has spent most of his working life in the third world, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, and mainly with coffee processing. For every tonne of Coffee beans exported there is 4 tonnes of dirty water and three tonnes of rotten fruit pulp to be disposed of. His website is

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