Mike Biddle explains why recycling of plastic is so much more difficult than recycling metal. He points to the plentiful and growing resource that is provided by goods which have reached the end of their life. He inspires us to believe that the difficulties of recycling plastic can be overcome so that we can learn to see an over-ground mine where others see a garbage dump. His approach was to look for environmental and economic sustainability using plastic waste as a resource for making plastics. He pleads with us to stop seeing ourselves as consumers. In showing us that the difficult job of recycling plastics can be achieved and can help us to learn to see ourselves as users of resources in one form which can be transferred into other forms when we are finished with them.
Mr Biddle has noticed that toddlers can be pretty possessive about stuff – that is, until it is broken, at which point someone else can have it. We like to think we grow out of our toddler attitudes, but how successful are we? ‘If it is broken someone else can have it’ is an attitude many of us unconsciously hold on to. Not Mike Biddle, a “garbage man” who “hates waste”. He set out to learn how to efficiently recycle one of the most challenging materials, plastics. A quest in which he and his company have succeeded.
A very small amount of our waste plastics are currently recycled, much less for example than the percentage of metal which is recycled. Metals are much easier to sort by type than plastics. They have distinct properties. Sorting the overlapping properties of plastics is an extremely complex job.
Even at the low-end, where people can be found scouring garbage dumps for anything which they can salvage and sell, it is metals which are the easiest to deal with. While it may not be a desirable way to think of fellow human beings earning a crust, low-end recycling of metals is both possible and relatively lucrative.
Low-end recycling of plastics is difficult to impossible. In attempts to find out the type of plastic they have found, people are known to try burning and sniffing. This is ineffective and highly dangerous. It is a perfect demonstration of the difficulties faced by commercial recycling.
Both metals and plastics come from finite resources the exploiting of which has environmental consequences. We have huge quantities of waste metals and plastics around the world.
Mike Biddle asks us: Do you see garbage or a resource to be mined?
Contrary to instinct, plastics are more valuable than, for example, steel, making it worth the extra effort to recycle. Recycling plastics doesn’t just make environmental sense, it makes business sense. Mr Biddle puts forward a compelling, sustainable business plan. This is not just being done for environmental reasons, it is being done because it also makes business sense.
We see how the complex process works and the audience is moved to applaud when a bucket of recycled plastic pellets is produced on stage. Perhaps the most inspiring part, though, is the site of pictures of real, modern looking, quality products which have been using the recycled plastic. We can see the potential here. Products which, when they reach the end of their useful lives, can go on to be recycled. We can see an important contribution to the possibility that we can consume less and conserve more and yet continue to provide the products which an ever growing, world market demands.
Plastics can be part of a cycle like materials we consider natural. Plastics are a product of a natural resource, oil. They are a complex natural product and their complexity has meant that breaking them down so that they can be recycled has, until recently, been impossible. It is a hugely important achievement with immense consequences.
Mike Biddle jokes that if it is broken it is his. Of course he means it is ours. Or, we should say, it remains our responsibility.