The truth about recycling plastic
Much of the plastic deposited in recycling bins does not get recycled. Currently, more than 300 million tons of new plastic is produced annually and less than 10% of it recycled.
A whopping 91% of plastic is not recycled
Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated to creating 8.3 billion metric tons – most of it in disposable products that end up as trash.
Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Most single-use plastic – like those shopping bags as well as water bottles – never gets recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that only about 9% of plastic bags are ever recycled in the U.S. And a mere 7% of all plastics end up being recycled.
The vast majority (79%) is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Eventually, much of it ends up in the oceans. If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.
It’s not hard to see why the concerns about plastic is a growing global phenomenon. The seas are unquestionably heavily polluted with plastic, as are some rivers and streams.
Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, recently declared war on “single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce, are used for five minutes, then take 500 years to break down again.’” It’s utterly depressing to think that plastic bags, yoghurt pots and disposable cups will be the chief archaeological relics of our age.
Plastic recycling realities
The truth about which plastics can be recycled, how many times they can be recycled, how few can be reused and what is actually accepted, starts with the ubiquitous recycling symbols that we have all seen at some point in our lives.
These chasing arrows on the bottom of plastic bottles or containers have become synonymous with the ability to recycle the item on which they appear, but this is not the case. The small number (from one to seven) stamped in the symbol denotes the resin used to make the product, not the ability to recycle it. The identification codes are as follows:
Only two out of the seven have the potential to be recycled. And shockingly, those two (Polypropylene and PET) are rarely accepted at recyclers.
Sorting and processing difficulties
Most of what’s extracted from our end-of-life stuff, if it makes it to a recycler, are the metals. Probably over 90% of the metals are going to be recovered and reused for another purpose.
Metals are very easy to recycle from other materials and from one another. They have very different densities, different electrical and magnetic properties, and even different colors. So it’s very easy for either humans or machines to separate these metals from one another or from other materials.
Plastics are a whole other story. Most of it is incinerated or landfilled because of the massively complicated system of finding and sorting the different kinds. Plastics have overlapping densities over a very narrow range. There are more than 50 different types of plastics, making them more difficult to sort and reprocess than other recyclable materials.
Many plastic packaging also consist of more than one polymer type, which makes them more difficult to recycle. For instance, a bottle and a food tray can’t be recycled together as they melt at different temperatures. Problematic plastics also include black plastic food trays, which are used by many supermarkets. They are generally not collected as sorting machines are not able to detect them; the carbon black makes them invisible. If they are collected, they are likely to be rejected at the sorting plant.
The recycling of plastic is also managed locally, rather than the central government. What each council decides to recycle depends on the resources available. For example, in Greater Manchester in the UK, the only plastic recycled is plastic bottles because they don’t have the technology available to sort between different types.
The economics of recycling plastic
From the most basic environmental point of view, all materials are worth recycling, because this reduces the need for energy-intensive mining and smelting of virgin materials. That makes a huge difference for some things – notably aluminium – but even recycling glass leads to a small energy saving and consequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling can also provide a reliable, non-imported source of scarce resources such as the rare earth metals that are crucial parts of touchscreens and other high-tech devices.
However, the answer gets increasingly complicated when we consider economics. As oil prices fluctuate, so too does the price of plastic. When those markets are depressed, virgin plastic becomes far cheaper to buy than recycled.
In addition, many plastic products degrade each time they’re processed – unlike metal or glass, which can be perpetually recycled, making them progressively less valuable. Recycle for Greater Manchester, part of England’s largest Waste Disposal Authority, says it focuses on plastic bottles as they are in demand by manufacturers that make new products, whereas there is low demand for plastics like yoghurt pots, margarine tubs, and plastic trays.
Moreover, materials like plastic bags, polystyrene packaging, and coffee cups can in theory be recycled, but for logistical and economic reasons, recycling only makes sense when clean material is available in quantity. This is not the case for post-consumer household waste, so for most recycling plants these are impractical materials to collect for recycling. If they are collected, the extra effort and expense required to separate them from general waste means they often end up in landfill.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that recycling rates have fallen in half of local authorities in the UK because councils are increasingly throwing everything into the incinerators to save money.
From landfills to the ocean
Without a profitable market in which to sell, it is not cost-effective for many recycling companies to process plastic, so many sell it to other countries at a loss.
In 2011, plastic trash was America’s primary export to China. About 45% of plastic waste from throughout the world has gone to China in the past quarter-century. In countries like India, waste pickers sort through the trash to find the pieces that are most valuable – thicker plastics and metals. The remainder becomes landfilled or incinerated, creating a health crisis for communities. Local waterways act like conveyor belts, sending plastic straight out to sea.
Eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Countries like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam contribute to 60% of ocean plastic due to mismanaged landfills.
As of 1 January 2018, China has banned imports of plastic waste, following its announcement to ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste.
The ban was hailed as a big win for global green efforts by environmentalists, who said it would not only clean up China, but also force other countries to better manage their own trash. Since then, different ideas have been proposed: The European Union said it’s mulling a tax on plastics usage, the UK was looking to divert some of its trash to Southeast Asia, and the United States asked China to lift its ban, according to media records.
In the long term, the problem has to be solved at its source. Rather than looking for the next place to dump plastic waste, we need to bear the responsibility of cutting waste generation through sustainable practices.
In 2018, we are witnessing a revolution in shopping culture, as the charge for plastic bags in many countries has led to a dramatic decline in use. Reusable mugs for tea and coffee appear to the be next frontier, and the campaign against plastic straws will most likely follow. New materials are also being developed from natural sources that could eventually provide viable, biodegradable alternatives to petroleum-based plastic. These include methane, mushrooms, and even milk. Meanwhile, to reduce the amount of plastic that we contribute to this colossal problem, pledge to #BeatPlasticPollution.