Environmental Impact Assessment: Reducing Taiwan’s Virgin Plastics

Post-consumer recycled plastic is finally gaining the value it should have had long ago, due to its environmental friendliness compared to virgin material

  • By Steven Crook / Contributing Journalist

Household appliances contain plastic components. Sterile plastic medical devices, such as disposable syringes and plasma bags, are essential to 21st century healthcare. By preventing bruising and contamination, plastic packaging reduces food waste. Plastic cups and dishes are less fragile than ceramic tableware. PVC pipes and window frames have made building houses cheaper.

But not everyone who benefits from this miracle material knows that producing plastic requires enormous amounts of energy, most of which is generated by burning fossil fuels. Plastics factories are also a source of harmful pollutants, including benzene.

Also, not all consumers appreciate how much plastic waste pollutes the natural environment. Microplastics (fragments no larger than a fifth of an inch, 5.08 mm) have been found in soil, snow above sea level, and even in bottled drinking water. These bits often break down even further, into particles called nanoplastics, which are so small they can enter human organs and tissues.

Photo: Steven Crook

Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) is trying to wean the public off single-use plastics such as straws and disposable cups. They’ve had some success, but no one expects the daily torrent of discarded plastic to slow down anytime soon.

POST-CONSUMER PLASTICS

Fortunately, other trends are converging to make humanity’s reliance on plastic less environmentally damaging.

Photo: Steven Crook

Plastics are derived from petroleum, so the cost of virgin materials rises and falls with the price of petroleum. In the past, this meant that whenever oil was cheap, companies avoided post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic, preferring virgin plastics because their quality is higher. When the price of oil was high, the costs of recyclers increased, but the demand for their production increased, as virgin plastics became more expensive than PCR plastics, says Philipp Moede, business development manager at Remondis Taiwan Co.

Remondis Taiwan is a subsidiary of Remondis Group, a German company that provides recycling and other services in more than 30 countries around the world.

In recent years, however, the value of recycled plastic has decoupled from the price of oil. Because major brands are embracing sustainability strategies, post-consumer recycled plastic is finally gaining what Moede calls, “the value it should have had a long time ago, due to its environmental friendliness versus the virgin material”.

Photo: Steven Crook

In 2018, Nike said that 75% of Nike-branded footwear and apparel contained recycled materials. Patagonia has been recycling plastic bottles into jackets for over 20 years.

Moede describes Taiwan as “an outlier” because the country has a large and long-established textile industry keen to use PCR plastic.

“These companies want to buy as much PCR as possible, and we certainly don’t have enough PET bottles to satisfy their thirst for recycled plastic,” he says.

Photo: Steven Crook

By weight, PET accounts for 49% of the plastics processed by the company’s plant on the outskirts of the city of Nantou. Most of the rest is PE (34%) and PP (13%).

Taiwanese companies provided jerseys incorporating recycled PET to 16 of the 32 teams participating in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The demand from local textile companies is particularly important, as regulations do not allow the use of recycled materials in the manufacture of food containers that will be used in Taiwan. In the United States and India, recycled plastic in food packaging is allowed on a case-by-case basis.

According to Remondis Taiwan’s website, recycled plastics from its factory go into making sportswear, shoes, shampoo bottles, cutting boards, flower pots, plastic seats and other goods. .

Because these are valuable and easy-to-handle products, the government doesn’t need to encourage paper and metal recycling, said Jimmy Hu (胡志明), deputy general manager of Remondis Taiwan. However, Taiwan’s impressive plastics recycling rate (95% in the case of collected PET containers, according to a July 31, 2018 Executive Yuan press release, but significantly lower for other types of plastic) depends on monitoring. by the EPA of a system that collects royalties from manufacturers – an example of what the OECD describes as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

That money is funneled through companies like Remondis Taiwan to collectors who ship truckloads of plastic waste to recycling plants, of which there are more than a dozen across the country. These collectors use the money to buy recyclables from neighborhood garbage collectors.

Each time a delivery is made to Remondis Taiwan’s Nantou plant, an EPA representative unbundles the bales. If they find an unacceptable level of impurities – ordinary garbage mixed with recyclables, for example – they will withhold part of the grant.

Moede describes this as a “strict and labor-intensive, but necessary step”, to ensure that dealers in recyclable materials do not engage in dishonest stuffing.

“We handle almost any container you’ll see in a supermarket or convenience store. The only limit is size. We can’t process anything over 17 litres,” says Moede.

Besides beverage bottles, shampoo and lotion bottles, and clamshell boxes, the factory can process circular lids for take-out soup containers, but not bento boxes (these are made of a special cardboard covered one side of plastic wrap), bags, plastic wrap or straws. They also do not recycle optical media such as CDs. According to Hu, some larger items, including food trays, helmets and motorcycle shells, fall through the gaps in today’s recycling ecosystem.

In a typical year, 25,000 tons of used plastic arrive at the Nantou plant from all over Taiwan and its outer islands, and approximately 20,000 tons of PCR plastic flakes leave the site. Impurities—metal rims on some types of containers, glue behind labels, and organic matter—explain the difference between these two totals.

Despite improvements in recycling technologies and manual sorting by employees, the percentage of recovered plastic compared to the weight of materials transported by truck has slightly decreased. Since PET bottles are thinner than before, the proportion of non-recyclable elements is greater.

Recycled flakes can be sold for at least NT$30 per kg, and Moede expects demand to push that price up. There is a market for recovered metals, but other scraps like tags and treated wastewater end up as sludge that needs to be dewatered and incinerated.

Since 2016, this has become a huge expense for Remondis Taiwan, Moede says. Taiwan’s waste incinerators now charge over NT$9,000 per ton to treat sludge. That’s more than triple what it costs in Europe, and as expensive as disposal in a hazardous waste incinerator in Germany, he says.

A further increase in costs could force Remondis Taiwan to close its Nantou plant, jeopardizing the island’s entire plastics recycling system, warns Moede.

RECOVERED SOLID FUEL

When the company’s new facility, currently under construction in Changhua County’s Fangyuan Township (芳苑), becomes operational in 2024, such waste will no longer be a liability. Instead of having to pay for it to be incinerated, it will be recycled into a product called solid recovered fuel (SRF).

SRF’s high calorific value, low moisture content and controlled quality mean that it can be burned in boilers as a replacement for fossil fuel.

Compared to municipal incinerators in Taiwan, which are less than 20% efficient in generating electricity by burning waste, SRF offers energy conversion efficiency of up to 40%. Using the SRF will also reduce Taiwan’s dependence on energy imports, Moede said.

Not only does recycling plastic keep it out of landfills and garbage incinerators, it also reduces the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. According to data presented by Moede, the production of 1 kg of virgin PET generates more than four times the amount of carbon dioxide compared to 1 kg of recycled PET.

If recyclers have access to renewable energy to offset unavoidable carbon emissions, plastic could soon become, if not carbon neutral, then very close, Moede says. In terms of electricity and water consumption, the Fangyuan plant will be significantly more efficient than the Nantou plant.

On its Nantou site, the only chemical input is alkali, for washing used plastics. The plant consumes around 250 tonnes of water per day, some of which is heated to high temperatures. This not only cleans the plastic, but also helps the bottles return to their original uncrushed shape, making it easier to remove labels.

Consumers don’t need to wash PET bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, Moede says. However, he urges good citizens to clean up food scraps (including yogurt and tapioca pearls) before throwing away their recyclables, as organics complicate wastewater treatment.

Better communication between authorities, recyclers and manufacturers would help increase the recycling rate and bring Taiwan closer to a true circular economy, according to Moede.

Plastic products must be designed with recycling in mind, he says.

“We recyclers need to be involved from day one. Manufacturers need to realize that they are not just producing for the consumer. They also produce for the recycler.

Steven Crook, author or co-author of four books on Taiwan, has followed environmental issues since arriving in the country in 1991. He drives a hybrid and carries his own chopsticks. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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