How sustainable is recycled plastic?
Did you know that we produce and use twenty times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago? Plastic has become part of everyday life- it is a household staple and is an essential material for sectors such as healthcare, e-commerce, and food. While many recyclable plastic solutions have emerged in the past few years to tackle the plastic waste issues, we would like to debunk how sustainable recycled plastic really is by looking at how its made, as well as its life cycle, and other important statistics.
1. How plastic is manufactured
Plastic is formed by polymers consisting of smaller units known as monomers. According to research from the Environmental Law Review Syndicate, a vast majority of monomers are produced from petroleum which is non-renewable. In addition to this, chemical additives such as plasticizers, flame retardants, heat and UV stabilizers, biocides, pigments, and extenders are added to improve their basic mechanical, physical, and chemical properties.
Plastic has various processing methods depending on its use and type. Common methods include Extrusion, Injection Molding, Blow Molding, and Rotation Molding. These include heating up plastic to soften it into its right form, which allows toxic chemicals to be emitted such as Benzene, PAHs and Styrene. Styrene, specifically, is highly linked to lymphohematopoietic cancer among workers with high exposure, while the rest damages aquatic life, and have a long term negative impact on the environment.
2. How plastic is recycled
The first step in recycling plastic material is to collect it from public and private organizations. The consumer’s separation of recyclable and non-recyclable plastic is crucial as plastic that is disposed of in the normal black bags are treated as common waste and will not be recycled.
After plastics are collected and transported to a recycling facility, the next step is machine sorting. This can be through material and quality types. Plastic going through machines also gets washed and resized to pellets. Plastic material can also go through chemical recycling where plastics are broken down into its constituent parts and are made to produce building blocks for new plastics. Unfortunately, the technologies for this are still being developed.
The government is also putting considerable efforts into creating a circular economy for packaging. BPF revealed that 99% of local authorities in the UK offer recycling schemes for plastic and most of the recycling banks can be found in local town centres. For more details on plastic recycling locations visit BPF’s recycling locator and North London’s recycling locator.
3. The reality of plastic recycling
There are more than fifty different types of plastics, but they can be categorized into seven main categories. Plastics have overlapping densities over a very narrow range and because of this, there are some types that are not as easily recycled as the others.
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 reality of this is that only two out of the seven have the potential to be widely recycled: Most cities only recycle plastics printed with a number one or two symbols. Depending on the technologies offered by your local recycling facilities, some also accept low-density polyethylene represented by the number four. Another factor that also affects plastic recycling is contamination such as food debris which slows down the processing and uses a lot more energy.
Another setback to recycling plastic efficiently is that UK citizens are often confused about what materials they can recycle and how to do it. To help with this, the UK government and plastic producers plan to make recycling less confusing by changing how products are labeled and giving clearer instructions.
Lastly, given that plastic has reached its designated sorting facility, another disadvantage to plastic recycling is the incineration process. Plastic is petroleum-based, therefore when burned it releases pollution. It contributes to the rising of sea levels, increased ocean and air toxicity, and destruction of coral reefs and other marine life.
4. Unrecycled plastics end up in landfills and oceans
The complex systems of recycling plastics are not always in favor of time, energy, and the quality will not be the same as it was before it was recycled. As the economy continues to inflate prices of raw materials such as oil, so too does the price of plastic. The reality is that it is cheaper and less time consuming to buy raw plastic than to get plastics to be recycled.
At most, it ends up in landfills and oceans. According to North Yorkshire County’s report, 79% of the plastic waste ever created is still in our environment. The UN also reported that plastic waste constitutes between 60% and 80% of marine debris, about 80% of which originates from sources on land.
Another prevailing problem is that plastics start to accumulate up in the food chain. According to a published journal in Scientific Report, it is highly likely that microplastics remain inside seafood in which humans will later ingest.
5. Prevention is key
From those four points, we see that plastic is impacting human and planet health throughout all the stages of its life cycle- from the materials used, to production, consumer use, to recycling, and the way it enters our food chain.
In the long term, it is more practical to reduce the production of plastic rather than creating more problems related to recycling it. The best way for businesses and to do this is to use 100% plastic-free packaging that manufactures, sources, and transports sustainably too.
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