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Recycling Plastic Isn't Working

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Until now, only 9% of the total plastics ever produced have undergone recycling. The remaining percentage rots in landfills and the environments, spanning across rivers and oceans. Even the most diligent recyclers shoulder the guilt for plastic consumption, while the producers take little to no responsibility for the damage caused by their products.

Plastic, a ubiquitous material that has revolutionised industries and modern life, now finds itself at the centre of an environmental crisis. With promises of convenience and durability, plastic is unavoidable, seeping into every aspect of our daily routines. However, the shocking truth is that a significant portion of the plastic we use doesn't end up being recycled, exacerbating the global pollution predicament.

Is Recycling Plastic Just An Illusion?

Recycling has long been touted as the solution to our plastic woes, but studies reveal that a staggering percentage of plastic waste never makes it through the recycling process. Instead, it continues its journey through our environment, leaving a trail of ecological destruction in its wake. Why?

Complexity of Plastics: The multitude of plastic types and variations makes recycling a complex endeavour. Different plastics require different recycling methods, and some types are more challenging to recycle efficiently.

Contamination Issues: Contaminants like food residues, mixed materials, and non-recyclable plastics can render entire batches of recyclables unusable.

Lack of Infrastructure: Inadequate recycling facilities and technology in many regions hinder proper recycling, leading to a reliance on landfills or incineration.

Economic Factors: Recycled plastics often struggle to compete with the low cost of virgin plastics, making recycling less attractive for manufacturers.

These Types of Plastic Can’t Even Be Recycled

Look for the label and see what you’ve got, there should be a code somewhere with a number. The number represents the type of plastic used in production. There are 7 categories but the bad ones are:

Plastic Type 3 (PVC)

PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride. PVC is used in a variety of products, including pipes, packaging, toys, and more. It's considered difficult to recycle due to the presence of additives, potential contamination, and limited recycling facilities for this type of plastic. PVC can release toxic compounds when burned, making proper disposal important.

Plastic Type 6 (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene is commonly used for items like disposable cutlery, Styrofoam cups, and take-away containers. It's often difficult to recycle due to its low density, which makes it less economically viable to collect and process. Expanded polystyrene (EPS), often known as Styrofoam, is even worse.

Plastic Type 7 (Other/Resin Identification Code 7)

Plastic type 7 is a catch-all category for plastics that don't fit into the other categories. Some plastics within category 7 can be difficult to recycle due to a lack of recycling infrastructure for specific types or concerns about contamination. Type 7 includes a diverse range of plastics, including some bioplastics, polycarbonates, and more. Bioplastics can have some positive aspects, but at the moment they are complex and hard to regulate.

Straws vs Fishing Gear

Remember that video of the turtle that went viral and everyone vowed to ditch straws and single use plastic? Several studies have been highlighted since then, marking discarded fishing gear to be a bigger culprit of plastic waste, claiming 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. On a global scale, abandoned fishing equipment—commonly referred to as ghost fishing—contributes to 10% of the total oceanic plastic. This abandoned gear continues to ensnare marine life unchecked, leading to further depletion of fish populations and aquatic ecosystems. When you consider the fact that a third of the world's fish stocks are already overexploited, putting the biodiversity of our oceans at risk, it becomes evident why many environmental organisations advocate for a complete halt on fish consumption.

What About Microplastics?

Even when plastics are recycled, they might not vanish entirely. Through a process of fragmentation, larger plastic items break down into tiny particles known as microplastics. These minuscule particles infiltrate our waterways, soil, and even the air we breathe, posing threats to aquatic life, ecosystems, and human health. An astonishing 92% of plastic pollution discovered on the ocean's surface manifests as microplastics, while studies indicate a corresponding rise in microplastic concentration on the ocean floor. Estimates suggest that there’s roughly 14 billion tons of microplastics currently within the ocean.

Discarded fishing gear washing up on a beach - recycling, sustainability
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen

Why Don’t More Companies Use Recycled Plastic?

While some companies do use recycled plastic in their products, there are several challenges that make this option unappealing. These challenges vary from cost to quality, availability, consumer perception, and technical feasibility.

Here’s a breakdown:

Cost: Recycled plastic materials can be more expensive than virgin plastics due to the recycling process, sorting, cleaning, and quality control required. This cost difference can deter companies from incorporating recycled materials, especially when profit margins are tight.

Quality and Consistency: The quality and consistency of recycled plastic can vary, affecting the performance and appearance of the final product. Companies may be concerned about maintaining consistent quality standards when using recycled materials.

Technical Challenges: Some products have specific characteristics that are harder to achieve with recycled plastic, such as certain textures, colours, or durability. Adapting recycled materials to meet these needs can be technically challenging.

Limited Supply: The availability of high-quality recycled plastic is limited, especially for specific types of plastics or in certain regions. Companies need a consistent supply to incorporate them into their production processes.

Consumer Perception: Some consumers perceive recycled products as lower in quality or less desirable than products made from new materials. Companies are hesitant to risk alienating customers.

Regulatory Hurdles: Different regulations and standards may apply to products made with recycled materials, affecting the approval process and marketability. Companies need to ensure compliance with various regulations.

Global Supply Chain Challenges: Companies with global supply chains have logistical challenges in sourcing recycled materials and ensuring consistent quality across different regions.

Plastic: The Legacy of Humankind

The impact of plastic on our era is undeniable. It's not just a modern convenience; it's an archaeological signature, destined to be discovered by future generations in layers of sediment. Abandoned plastic fishing gear, haunts our oceans, ensnaring marine life long after its abandonment. The Arctic, seemingly untouched, bears plastic in its snow, revealing the global pervasiveness of microplastics. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other plastic accumulations across our oceans stand as stark reminders of our plastic addiction.

A Call for Change Beyond Recycling

Taking on plastic pollution is a team effort that goes beyond pointing fingers at consumers. While the big changes need systemic shifts, but we can still share the plastic story, rally for policies that ban single-use plastics and back brands with eco-friendly packaging. Use your voice and give companies a nudge—shoot them emails, sign petitions, or make some noise on social media to add pressure and demand transparency.

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