Plastic is everywhere. In the everyday lives of people, the use and consumption of plastic is nearly inescapable. From cling-wrapped veggies at the grocery store to plastic lids on coffee cups, it appears that the only solution to handling plastics responsibly is to recycle. But why is recycling not working? In reality, only around 9% of plastics actually get recycled; the other 91% of plastics are landfilled, incinerated, or dumped into rivers, streams, and oceans. Since the rise of plastic production in the 1950s, humans have generated over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, which means that nearly 7.6 billion metric tons never made it back into the production cycle.
Your Recycling Isn’t Actually Being Recycled
So why are the plastics that we faithfully throw into the recycling bins in our homes, stores, and street corners not actually being recycled? Science Nordic says that the plastic market is to blame. When plastics are sent to material recovery facilities, or MRFs, they must be segregated, analyzed for contamination, re-sorted into material bails, and sold to manufacturers to be reprocessed into new materials. However, many players within the material recovery sector are finding that this labor-intensive and costly process involving some of the cheapest materials in the market is simply not economically profitable.
In fact, many plastics being produced today on a massive scale, give or take 16.5 million metric tons in a year, do not even have a market to be purchased and recycled. Plastics that have multiple layers of materials, also called MLPs, like toothpaste containers currently have no market to recycle them. This is because the energy cost to separate these layers is actually higher than to reproduce a new container out of virgin materials. We lack the proper technology and innovations to properly recover these materials in an economically and energetically feasible way; thus, toothpaste containers make their home in our landfills, incinerators, and oceans if they are sent to a recycling facility.
Another common plastic that we come across almost every day in our coffee lids, take-out containers, and disposable cutlery and then mistakenly recycle is black plastic. Many markets like the Canadian recycling market, do not recycle this kind of plastic at all because it is not economically profitable. Clear or light-colored plastics can be dyed and remade into new plastic materials, but because black plastics can only be black, the markets for them are extremely small, so many MRFs would rather kick these plastics to the curb.
In addition, black plastics pose a lot of problems in MRFs. According to the BBC, many MRFs use light scanners to sort and identify plastics; however, because black reflects light, these plastics become undetectable and end up in landfills or incinerators.
However, the greatest fundamental problem with our recycling philosophy is not the process of how but more of a matter of why: we recycle for the purpose of making profit, not for the purpose of conserving our environment. If we are to effectively conserve our natural resources, ecosystems, and wildlife, we need to radically alter what our ultimate goal is when engaging in sustainable practices.
In our current economic system, it will always be cheaper to turn a blind eye to the dumping of hundreds of thousands of plastics into the ocean rather than recovering those materials. However, what we must begin to critically look at our economic system as a whole from the producer to the consumer to the waste management worker, and understand that our linear economy is coming at a devastating cost to our environment. We need a shift in economy where the environmental cost of any product is a part of its price tag and where recycling products will always make more sense than extracting virgin materials.
Recycling Comes Last For a Reason.
In the 3 Rs, there is a reason why recycling comes last after reduce and reuse. There are many, many flaws in our recycling system, and with only a 9% success rate, we must look at solutions elsewhere. Reduction of waste such as using reusable cups, purchasing package-free produce, and eating with reusable cutlery are great first steps. We have moved into a society of conveniences; however, our plastic straws, candy wrappers, and fast fashion accessories come at a great cost to the environment.
Over 40% of the plastic produced last year was used just once and then discarded. These disposable plastics are the plastics that are deemed as uneconomical for recycling processing, but they are also the easiest ones to cut out. Alternative packing materials that have a faster degradation process and fewer adverse environmental effects are beginning to enter the market, and environmentalists, social entrepreneurs, and corporate producers are collaborating together and starting to rethink the current linear economy and pave the way for circularity. Let us choose recycling as our final option and work towards a plastic-free, sustainable planet.