The cheerful, singing voice inside your musical “Happy Birthday” card is enough to strike horror in the heart of your local recycler.
The musical cards, which play a recording when opened, look like plain cardboard, making them easy to accidentally throw in the recycling bin. But experts say the insides are laced with cheap electronics and toxic batteries – making them a nightmare to dispose of.
Such cards are just one example of what recyclers say is a growing trend in mixing different materials to create new types of products and packaging, which is making the work of recovering reusable products much harder.
“I call them ‘horrible hybrids’,” said Heidi Sanborn, who heads up the National Stewardship Action Council, a network of groups that seeks to get manufacturers to take responsibility for the proper disposal of the products they sell. “They are made of multiple materials or materials that are impossible to recycle. It’s a mushing of things.”
Discarded single-use plastics have become an international environmental flashpoint, as they have turned up in the bellies of birds and fish, flooded pristine beaches in remote countries with litter and even been detected in microscopic quantities in rainwater. Plastic products designed to be used for a few minutes can take decades or longer to decompose.
Studies have also shown the proliferation of single-use plastic is accelerating climate change through greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle. While environmental groups fighting to reduce the use of throwaway plastics have gained visibility in the last few years, the oil industry is investing heavily in a huge surge of plastic production – which the industry expects to grow by 40% by 2030. The increase in plastics production is to be fueled by the ultra-cheap shale gas flowing from the US fracking boom. The petro-chemical industry has already invested $200bn to build new cracking plants that separate ethane from gas to produce the ethylene needed to make plastics. Another $100bn in investments is planned.