Khamis: Recycling the once un-recyclable: My push for a dirty plastics recycling facility
File photo courtesy of Jonathan Pow/PA Wire URN:36191362.

On Tuesday, San Jose took a large step toward environmental sustainability when my colleagues on the City Council voted to include my recent proposal for attracting a Polypropylene Plastic Purification & Recycling Plant (PRP) to San Jose on the list of approved city priorities for the coming six months.

I am especially grateful to my colleagues Dev Davis and Pam Foley for co-sponsoring the memo to promote this endeavor. The only plant of its kind is presently being built in Ohio and it’s our goal to replicate this facility, which would be the first of its kind on the West Coast.

This new plant, if built in San Jose, will be a game changer in the way we process and dispose of plastics. Its cutting-edge technology has the potential to be a positive disruption in current plastics waste stream. Currently, only 1% of Polypropylene plastic waste — such as chip bags, pump dispensers, utensils, condiment bottle caps, and the like — can be recycled, since such plastics are contaminated with oil, food residue, dyes, gel and other currently-non-convertible particles. What does get recycled is degraded into a dark, odorous substance suitable only for industrial uses like car parts and public benches.

Now, however, Procter & Gamble has patented a new plastics purification technology that will enable us to recycle once-unrecyclable dirty plastics. Using a special chemical cleaning process, contaminants can now be removed from Polypropylene, converting it back into near-virgin-quality plastic suitable for reuse. The waste cycle is then transformed: Dirty plastics can now be recycled into the same product over and over instead of piling up in our landfills.

The projected reduction in plastic waste is remarkable. The under-construction facility in Ohio, when in operation, will process and filter 119 million pounds of dirty plastic into 105 million pounds of near-virgin-quality plastic in its first year. That is an 88% reduction in plastic waste — enough pounds to equal the weight of a large ocean-going cargo ship! Furthermore, by reducing our dependence on virgin plastic production, we reduce our dependence on the oil and natural gas used in the creation of the plastic, making for cleaner air and oceans.

The need for this technology, on a global scale, has increased exponentially in the past two years as China, India and Southeast Asian countries have banned importation of all but the cleanest plastic waste.

We cannot and should not export an enormous volume of waste overseas, especially if we burn fossil fuels doing so and can’t guarantee it will be disposed of properly. In the meantime, plastic waste that we once expected would be exported is instead accumulating in warehouses and landfills. In contrast, the Ohio facility has already pre-sold 20 years’ worth of processing capacity to Nestlé, so the demand exists and we have the potential to dramatically increase the scope of Polypropylene recycling to help offset our increasingly problematic plastic waste situation.

According to the San Jose Department of Environmental Services, 10% of the city’s waste stream is plastics and we discard an estimated 1,000 tons of it, yearly. That is equivalent to the weight of eight blue whales! San Jose has always been a leader in environmental sustainability and we must continue to lead.

Our local waste and recycling companies agree and stand ready to support this enterprise. California Waste Solutions, Zanker Recycling, GreenWaste Recovery and Republic Services joined me for the news conference on Tuesday and shared their commitment to the application of innovative technological solutions to our pressing environmental challenges.

The need is here, the solution is here, the time to act is now!

Johnny Khamis is a San Jose councilmember first elected in 2012 to represent District 10, which spans Almaden and Blossom valleys.

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