At the annual conference of the Recycling Council of British Columbia in late May, local activist Helen Spiegelman presented a new initiative of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) that should be of considerable interest to readers. SPEC is proposing a recycled-content regulation aimed at stimulating the development of economic markets for recycled plastic — material currently collected in large volumes via municipal recycling programs and deposit systems across the country but which prices continue to languish.
As any recycling coordinator will tell you, recycled plastic competes with cheap virgin resin that’s currently produced in massive quantities. The market pull for the recovered material is so weak that some chemical companies have recently closed large plants they built expressly to reprocess it.
For instance, in the United States last year a pronounced drop in the recycling rate for PET bottles was masked by an increase in HDPE recycling. According a report released on June 23 by the American Plastics Council, 23.5 per cent of plastic bottles were recycled in the U.S. in 1998, a slight drop from the previous year and the third year in a row that the rate has declined.
SPEC’s proposed regulation is quite modest in scope; it would require a minimum 10 per cent post-consumer content in certain types of rigid plastic packaging, excluding packages in direct contact with food, pharmaceutical products or cosmetics. The idea is modeled on California’s system where new recycled-content legislation is driving a market for old plastic. This market is of great interest to recyclers in B.C. since that province’s expanded mandatory deposit system has achieved an impressive 80 per cent diversion rate. Recycled plastic processors worry that without more markets they may be constructing what one pundit calls “aboveground landfills.”
B.C.’s new Minister of Environment, Joan Sawicki, has stated she will present SPEC’s draft regulation at the next meeting of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME).
Not surprisingly, the plastics industry doesn’t support the draft regulation, although it’s not averse to having the matter debated (and possibly quashed) at the CCME. The Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) has developed an array of fairly predictable arguments against it that include technical challenges (e.g., transfer of fragrance from an old bottle to a new one), material integrity, added costs and Canadian industry being disadvantaged with respect to importers. EPIC has called for voluntary guidelines and points out that soft-drink and milk crates are routinely reground into new ones, some oil bottles contain over 50 per cent post-consumer content, and co-extruded bottles produced today contain in the order of 25 per cent post-consumer recycled material. These have been brand owner decisions, EPIC says, arising from market forces.
However, SPEC is a force to be reckoned with despite its fairly low profile outside B.C.
Early SPEC activist Gary Gallon says the organization was founded in 1969 in the Coquitlam living room of Gwen and Derrick Mallard, a fairly staid middle-aged couple concerned about B.C.’s first proposed large-scale coal strip mine and the route of Alaskan oil supertankers. The new group (whose acronym originally stood for “Scientific Pollution and Environmental Control Society”) quickly attracted membership from young hippies and conservative retirees alike, growing to 35,000 members and 43 branches in just three years. SPEC’s issues broadened rapidly to include opposition to nuclear power plants, DDT pesticides and unwanted freeway crossings.
Few people realize that SPEC spawned several other high-profile groups. Greenpeace — the most famous — started in SPEC House on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano and SPEC helped launch The West Coast Environmental Law Centre with funding from a local incentives program in 1973. The group also helped write B.C.’s Land Commission Act to protect farmland.
In 1970 B.C.’s Social Credit government, as part of its precedent-setting Litter Act, became the first in North America to introduce a mandatory return-to-retail deposit system for beverage containers. Interestingly, Helen Spiegelman says early leaders like the Mallards weren’t initially impressed by the deposit law, saying the system was nothing more than “a drop in the bucket” compared to much larger pollution issues. (A reasonable position in light of industry practices at the time.) Eventually, however, the deposit law was deemed a good fit with SPEC’s overall philosophy that industry mustn’t be allowed to externalize costs by dumping its packaging wastes on society. By the late 1970s SPEC was running a chain of depots that collected paper, glass and metal for recycling. More recently the group championed the province’s expanded deposit system that covers everything except milk. (Juice boxes are exempt until October 1st of this year after which time they’ll be banned if they’re not made returnable and recyclable.) The group also worked hard to achieve B.C.’s landmark product stewardship program for paint and household hazardous waste.
Industry opposition may yet stymie the initiative and it’s unclear whether or not B.C.’s new environment minister will be able to convince her counterparts at the CCME to mandate recycled plastic content across the land. But SPEC’s nationwide campaign comes on the heels of a long history of impressive successes. And the idea of establishing more stable markets for recycled plastic couldn’t be more timely. Given SPEC’s history of grassroots campaigns that eventually make a national and international impact, it would be folly to dismiss this latest one as doomed.