Many of us consider recycling plastic to be a great step towards lowering our ecological footprint and saving the environment. However, knowing that less than 10% of the roughly 300 million tons new plastic produced annually is recycled, it becomes clear that while making a difference, plastic recycling is only a part of any viable solution to the global plastic pollution crisis. What are the reasons preventing us from recycling more? What happens to most of the plastic waste? Is there any difference between plastic recycling rates in different places?
It is estimated that up to 2015, humans have cumulatively produced around 8,300 million tons of plastic. About 70% (5,900 mil tons) of all plastic has been used only once and discarded, while only about 6% of the total (500 mil tons) has been recycled. A somewhat larger portion has been incinerated – 9.5% (800 mil tons), the rest – simply ended up in landfills or still pollutes the environment.
How does having different types of plastics affect recycling patterns?
The reasons behind the low percentage of plastic recycling are manifold. We often simply throw away all plastics into the recycling bin, however, due to the material properties of plastics, not all can be recycled. About 90% of global plastic production are thermoplastics that can be melted and molded over and over to produce new plastics, which in theory makes all thermoplastics recyclable. The leftover 10% of the global plastic production are thermoset plastics which when exposed to heat instead of melting, are combusting, making them impossible to recycle. Examples of products in which this type of plastics is used include electrical insulation, ropes, belts, pipes.
Thermoset plastics are ubiquitous and represent a large portion of new plastic production and despite the many issues associated with their use, their durable nature means that thermosets are also disposed of less often, therefore, in theory, being environmental pollutant causing less damage relative to thermoplastics. The issues associated with the disposal of thermosets include the fact that they are significant contributors to microplastic water contamination, as well as the fact that incineration creates notable contributions to GHG emissions and deteriorates air quality. Recycling of these materials is impossible and therefore recycling only part of the solution to the plastic pollution crisis.
Even when we consider thermoset plastics, the issue of what happens to the majority of recyclable plastics remains unanswered. An all-encompassing answer would be that the economics of waste management/post-consumer commodities determine the fate of recyclable plastics. You can read about the general notion and some ideas on the topic here: rePurpose Blog
What is the role of consumers and recycling facilities?
Let’s consider the problem at an individual level. Say you’re a conscious consumer that discards his recyclable plastics in the appropriate container. Say you threw away an empty plastic oil container, thinking that your job is done. The truth is, however, that plastic with food residues in or on it cannot be recycled. Only good quality plastics can go through the recycling process. Sometimes a recycling factory would perform the washing for you, but most of the time the plastic is deemed useless, lumped with the other trash and thrown in a landfill or an incinerator. Recycling is an energy-intensive process that becomes more costly as additional steps such as post-consumer selection and washing are added.
The new plastic is very cheap to produce and creates a competitive environment in which added costs to the process makes recycled plastic significantly more expensive. Furthermore, in countries where the price of electricity is high, it might be more profitable to incinerate instead of recycling. Adding on top of these challenges is that the market is set up in a fragmented way that makes it difficult for people selling recycled plastic to find buyers. Recycling facilities are spread out unevenly, meaning that in some areas recyclable plastics cannot be recycled because there is no machinery that would allow for efficient selection and recycling.
Recently, Global economic policymaking has had a large impact as well. China used to import cheap recyclables from America and Europe, however, with the rising cost of Chinese labor and the plentiful domestic recycling to be dealt with, China introduced a ban on low-quality recyclables imports. The lack of recycling infrastructure in the US and Europe means for more than a year now, consumers’ carefully selected recyclables have been mostly going to landfills and incinerators. All of this again reminded us that recycling can only be part of the solution. This development has facilitated India’s emergence as a leader in sustainable approaches in plastic waste management, thanks to its extensive infrastructure and developed tradition of recycling.
There is an urgent need for new and alternative approaches to prevent limit of our wasteful habits. The rePurpose team has partnered with local recycling facilities and waste collection cooperatives in India to offer consumers the most efficient and sustainable global impact. Find out about your plastic footprint (here) and what you can do to offset it.
Bio: Andrej is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Economics and Biology. He is currently working as a business development intern at rePurpose and is very excited about the future of the plastic offsetting concept. Through his studies and work he is hoping to help in fostering sustainable consumption patterns and conservation of wildlife.