The Case for Local Plastic Recycling

Recycling (& incinerating) plastic is a nightmare... but one northern Alberta community group is building a template for a safe, small-scale, local alternative

Jule Asterisk

small-scale plastics remanufacturing equipment and raw materials

Image via Precious Plastic

What if we could remanufacture plastic at the rural and remote locations where it becomes waste? What if ordinary people had the information they need to be able to work with plastic safely? What if rural, remote, and Indigenous communities in Canada could safely carry out plastic recycling – making plastic “waste” into new products and artwork that their community can use, sell, and enjoy?

When the Society of High Prairie Regional Environmental Action Committee (REAC) started northern Alberta’s first rural recycling program back in 1988, our membership transported our clean, post-consumer products and those of thousands of other local people about 350 km to recycling centres in Edmonton.

REAC is an organization made up of both people of Indigenous ancestry and settlers, about half and half. We agree with traditional Indigenous philosophies about the materials humans use during our time here on Earth – these materials are part of the earth, the same way we are, and no material is a “waste” in nature.

We transported the recycling because we recognize the inherent value in the resources considered “waste” after a period of use by humans. Humans mined the metal for tin cans, cut down the trees to make paper and cardboard, and refined the oil and gas into plastics. Just because the individual, organization, or family who bought the original item or package doesn’t need it anymore, doesn’t mean the resource itself is not still useful. We understand the inherent value in post-consumer resources, and we don’t believe it’s realistic to consider anything disposable in today’s world.

“I wonder if that’s [plastics] a place where the disconnection began, the loss of respect, when we could no longer easily see the life within the object.”
—Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass (2015)

Our modern recycling systems began with metals, rags, and paper during the Second World War. These programs have been successful worldwide. Metals can be recycled over and over again without loss of quality. For example, over 75% of all the 1.5 billion tonnes of aluminum ever produced is still in use. Paper and cardboard can be recycled between five and seven times before the fibres get too short to adhere to each other anymore.


Plastics are a whole different story. The ability to recycle various types of plastics is not the same. To make it even more complicated, some plastics now contain large amounts of chemical additives, and many of those chemicals are toxic.

We the public, also known as “consumers,” have absolutely no say over how or what types of plastic are produced except through our purchasing power, but how are we to know which plastics contain cancer-causing chemical additives? This information is definitely not contained in the recycle arrows circle.

Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass (2015) said, “I wonder if that’s [plastics] a place where the disconnection began, the loss of respect, when we could no longer easily see the life within the object.” Another Indigenous scholar, Max Liboiron, holds that pollution is colonialism, and that thresholds (allowing pollution up to a certain amount) double down on a colonization that includes people, animals, and the entire planet.

Today, there are 400 million tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide each and every year, with four million of these tonnes produced in Alberta. This material will never be anything else. Plastic “degrades” into tiny pieces (aka microplastics); it will never biodegrade or decompose, change its characteristics, or contribute to the circle of life.

While recycling volumes are up and landfill volumes are down, waste incineration has almost tripled.

Alberta is moving towards “extended producer responsibility” (EPR), whereby producers and manufacturers take on the financial responsibility for recycling, instead of municipal governments. It’s tempting to want to heave a sigh of relief – finally, the corporations who make plastics will be paying to recycle them. But in Europe, where EPR has been in place for the past 25 years, people are actually making more “waste” per person than ever before. While recycling volumes are up and landfill volumes are down, waste incineration has almost tripled.

Do not burn

“Waste-to-energy” schemes have extreme health risks because incineration always produces two types of emissions: “allowable” emissions (usually around .00001% of the total volume to be incinerated) and “unplanned releases” (when the facility has some kind of accident, fire, explosion, or other type of release, generally considered an immeasurable release). Also, our precious non-renewable resources are being burned.

Photo from inside Strasbourg Urban Community Incineration Center showing plastic waste and tractor

Strasbourg Urban Community Incineration Center | file via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of, or at least in addition to, the cute recycling arrow circles, it would be great to have realistic warnings on all plastics. A really important warning on all plastic containers, bags, even on plastic cigarette filters, would be “Do Not Burn.” When people casually burn plastics in barrels, waste is openly burned in landfills (still protocol for some northern Canadian communities), or even when cigarette butts are tossed into a fire pit, toxic chemicals are produced. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as dioxins and furans, affect human hormones – and can potentially affect generations of the family of the person who was originally exposed. Of great concern to us and our membership are companies trying to claim that chemical recycling and waste-to-energy facilities don’t have pollution outputs.


Another warning on all plastics should be “Do Not Expose to Sunlight.” When plastics are exposed to UV rays, greenhouse gases are emitted and the plastic becomes brittle, breaking into microplastics.

In today’s world, microplastics have become a scourge, contaminating or colonizing our bodies at the rate of up to a credit card each week. We eat plastic (it’s in our food). We breathe plastic (it’s in the rain  and snow). We release millions of microfibres into the water with every load of laundry. People who use teabags made of plastics drink millions of microplastics with their tea. Anyone drinking from plastic bottles, or using plastics for hot drinks or microwaving food, is ingesting microplastics.

Preliminary research shows that microplastics inside living organisms act like tiny sponges for dangerous chemicals.  We are living in a world of hurt when it comes to the health effects of having so many microplastics in our bodies. More research on microplastics and human health is needed. (Some will be coming out soon; in January the feds announced $2.1 million over four years to McGill University, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Toronto to increase research on microplastics’ potential impact on human health.)

Precious Plastic

REAC created the Plastics Remanufacture Project to prove and/or improve existing research by Precious Plastic, who are providing templates for plastics recycling around the world. We aim to answer health, safety, and environmental questions on how we can safely work with plastic, with short informational videos.

REAC joined Precious Plastic Canada in 2020 because we believe in the importance of solution-based approaches. Precious Plastic started in the Netherlands in 2012, and there are now about 3,000 companies around the world using their open source, small-scale plastics recycling equipment. In Canada, we have a group of machinists, plastics recyclers, businesses, and entrepreneurs who meet regularly on Discord, including a great technical support group with channels for each province.

REAC also formed a research partnership with Smart Labs at the University of Alberta department of mechanical engineering. We wanted to make sure that the small scale plastics recycling equipment we would recommend didn’t produce the dangerous endocrine-disrupting chemicals that occur when plastics are burned. It turns out that the melt temperature of various plastics during recycling is generally less than half of the burn temperatures, and dioxins and furans are not being created by recycling using the small scale equipment we propose.

Temperature is something to watch, as are possibilities for microplastic pollution. For example, without proper filtration, when shredded plastics are washed up to 10% of the volume can be lost down the drain as microplastics into the water.

Our model calls for new Precious Plastics businesses to buy directly from community members, who will clean their own waste plastic. Since 2020, we have been conducting interviews with experts in the field: scientists, plastic recycling specialists, waste management personnel. These can be viewed on our YouTube channel, along with our research and “on site” videos.

Local remanufacture

REAC’s Plastic Remanufacture Project invites rural, remote, and Indigenous communities to consider starting a new business. It would buy clean plastic from community members and make it into  items that they can use or sell. This enables community participation in plastic recycling at the location these materials first become waste. This project also facilitates the community learning more about the ongoing risks and effects of plastics on our world and in our bodies.

REAC would supply the equipment, training, technical support, renewable energy infrastructure, and help with community engagement resources, while communities can provide the business plan, space, and personnel for such an endeavour.

Many actions must be taken to ensure plastics are better managed in our world. Global calls for less virgin plastic to be produced each year must be heard and implemented. Industry needs to deal with the increasing amount and dangerous characteristics of chemical additives in plastic, plastics that can’t be recycled, and the use of plastics instead of less hazardous materials for packaging. Microplastic filters should also be standard on all washing machines.

REAC submitted our notes to the UN Conference on Plastic Pollution in Ottawa in April 2024 through colleagues who were in attendance (Keepers of the Water, EcoJustice, and GAIA), and raised our concerns about waste-to-energy schemes that were yet addressed in their documents. We owe it to our children, grandchildren, and future generations to continue recognizing (and acting to prevent) the dangers presented by so many plastics, and to find continual improvement and better management of plastics.

image collage showing plastic bottle waste on beach, remanufacturing equipment, and remanufactured tote bags

Images courtesy of Precious Plastic

Jule Asterisk is a director of the Society of High Prairie Regional Environmental Action Committee.  REAC accepted funding from Dow Chemical to pay for its research. 

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