• Dante Della Gatta

The reality of trash

Garbage is not the most pleasant smelling reminder that each and every one of us produces a lot of waste over our lifetime. News of the planet's oceans quickly becoming overrun with plastic isn't news anymore, and those plastic patches in the Pacific are far far away. The reality is however, that the trash ending up all the way in the great pacific garbage patch might have more to do with UvA students than most of us might think.

Last week, we asked ourselves at The Green Office 'what it means to be green' which is a big theoretical question with myriad answers. This week we ask a much more tangible (and whole lot smellier) question: What really happens to trash?

The Green Office is committed to making a more sustainable University of Amsterdam, more particularly campus portfolio holder Alissa Kerklingh is the one fighting to make your trash more sustainable.

When asked what the biggest issue the University's trash faces is, she responded with, “Well the reality is that trash becomes a big problem when it’s not separated correctly.”

Just last year the UvA Facility Services, and the school caterer, Cormet, and the Green Office oversaw a project aimed at helping to more accurately separate the waste produced by the university. This was reflected in the relabeling of trash bins to better separate waste.

But this wasn’t enough for Kerklingh. She decided to organize a day where UvA students could obtain, along with Facility Services, a clearly reality of the University's trash.

Dawning hardhats and protective shoes we set out into an industrial looking building with buzzing machinery. Located about 8km from the Roeterseiland Campus, is the Renewi B.V.'s waste processing facility. Trucks from all over the city can be see regularly unloading entire payloads of all types of trash into a large room filled with seagulls and mountains of raw garbage. Above the large room is a control room with cameras and buttons controlling a series of sorting machines. It was here in this room where the reality of our trash became clear. Evidently, there are two major streams of material flow at this waste facility.

#1 Unsorted Garbage:

This is the trash that is put in regular bins, out on the street, or comes from contaminated batches of pure plastics or papers. Sorting machines the size of industrial plants are fed raw trash, metals are collected via magnet, and organic material is separated from the rest. This material is heated and dried so that it can be molded into a pellet.

Pellets are used in incinerators around Europe. Richard van Batenburg, who guided us around the Renewi facilities, added that Dutch incinerators have plenty of trash to burn and that most of his product was shipped abroad to Sweden via barge. The pellets are grey he added becuase of the color of our trash bags which be throw garbage away in.

#2 Sorted Plastics/papers:

Continuing on our guided tour, we viewed a large covered building with more separated raw materials like plastics and papers. These are what come from the recycling bins which separate at the source. This room seemed to be absolutely enormous but relatively empty in comparison to the trash separation room.

Separating plastic is not often enough to obtain purity. The issue arises with packaging. Richard van Batenburg reports to us that plastics that are infused into food products are often contaminated with fats which make recycling them nearly impossible. Plastics used to have a better chance of being properly recycled at plants in China. The ceo tells us that recently they have had a hard time selling the pellets and plastics because China recently closed its doors to the import of trash. This affected the company in a couple of ways. Namely, that plastics used to be shipped to China and recycled by human hand because it was economically viable. No longer is that the case.

The Chinese government has refused western trash citing environmental concerns regarding the import of plastics. This ban entered into effect on 1 Jan 2018. At the moment, at sites like Renewi's here in Amsterdam and others around Europe, are facing the same issue: there is simply too much plastic to deal with.

So what can we do?

Plastic is a structural issue. The plastic revolution changed how we think about and use materials, but now we face the environmental fall-out. Frightening numbers about the percentage of the world's oceans covered in plastics continue day in and day out.

Who better to deal with the mountains of garbage than the European Union? Following the ban, the EU Commission released their first EU-wide regulations on plastic. These include 55 per cent of all plastic to be recycled by 2030 and for its member states to reduce the use of plastic bags per person from 90 a year to 40 by 2026.

While the EU plan at a surface level seems to deal with the issue, it should be noted that other regulatory bodies have much tougher regulations. Take for example the US state of California, which has banned single use plastics (such as those found in to go food packaging. The state also has a deposit system for plastic bottles and will buy back virgin plastics from state residents. This is not all good news however, the 80% recycling rate California has enjoyed is steadily dropping.

Producers of plastic are complicit in the mass production of plastics as well. Albert Heijn grocery bags were ever present in the mix with their alluring blue and white plastics bags and Gaining infamy for ridiculous amounts of plastic it produces, the grocery chain isn't alone in its practice of double wrapping Mangos and selling consumers loads and loads of unrecyclable plastic.

The reality of our trash is that most of it ends up brunt in an incinerator. Some, if sorted properly (meaning high quality plastics like bottles and packaging), becomes recycled plastic, but this is not good enough. We must figure out how to reduce and reuse our waste rather than rely solely on recycling.

Thoughts, Comments? Feel free to leave them below.

Stay tuned for next week's blog about the sustainable fashion event happening at CREA (more info here)

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