Many of us agree that recycling plastics is a major step towards reducing our environmental footprint. Nonetheless, considering that less than 10 percent of approximately 300 million tons of new plastics produced every year are recycled, plastic recycling is obviously only a part of every viable solution to the global plastic pollution crisis, while making the difference. What are the reasons why we can not recycle more? What's going on with most plastic waste? Can plastic recycling vary in different places?
Plastic fate Humans are estimated to have produced around 8.300 million tons of plastics by 2015. Around 70% (5.900 mil tons) of plastic were only used once and discarded and only about 6% (500 thousand tons) of the total was recycled. A slightly bigger portion of incineration–9.5% (800 thousand metric tons); the majority of it–has actually been accumulated or pollutes the atmosphere.
How do different grades of plastics affect recycling processes?
The reasons behind the poor plastic recycling rate are varied. We sometimes throw all plastics into the recycling bin, but not all of them can be recycled due to the material properties of plastics. Roughly 90 percent of global plastic production is thermoplastics that can be melt and recycled over and over to produce new plastics that are potentially recyclable to all thermoplastics. The remaining 10% of global plastic production is thermoset plastics that combust, making it impossible to recycle, when exposed to heat instead of melting. Types of materials used for such plastics include electrical insulation, cords, belts, pipes.
Thermoset plastics are omnipresent and represent a large share of new plastic production, and given the many problems associated with their use, their long-term nature means that thermosets are, in principle, also less commonly disposed of because of environmental contaminants that do less harm to thermoplastics. The problems associated with thermoset disposal include the fact that they contribute significantly to microplastic pollution of water and the fact that combustion contributes significantly to GHG emissions and decreases air quality. It is difficult to recycle these products and therefore to recycle just part of the solution to the plastic pollution crisis.
The question that happens with most recyclable plastics remains unanswered even when we consider plastics from thermoset. An all-embracing answer would be for waste management and post-consumer commodity economies to determine the fate of recyclable plastics. Read here about the general idea and certain ideas on the topic: rePurpose Blog
What is the role of consumers and recycling facilities?
Let's take the problem into account at an individual level. Say that you are a conscientious customer who discards his recyclable plastics in the jar in question. Say, you threw away an empty container of plastic oil, thinking you've done your job. But the fact is that plastic containing food contaminants can't be recycled in or on it. Also plastics of good quality can be recycled. Sometimes you could do a recycling plant, but most of the time the plastic is deemed useless, bumped into the other garbage and dumped into a waste disposal or an incinerator. Recycling is an energy-intensive process, which increases costs by adding additional measures such as post-consumer processing and washing.
The new plastic is very cheap to produce and creates a competitive environment where additional cost to the process significantly increases recycled plastic costs. However, in countries with high electricity prices, incineration may be more economical rather than recycling. However, the market is fragmented, which makes it difficult for people to sell recycled plastics to find buyers. In certain regions, recycled plastics can not be recycled as there is no equipment that enables sufficient collection and recycling. Recycling facilities are distributed unevenly.
Recently, global economic policymaking has also had a significant impact. However, China introduced a ban on low-quality recyclable imports, due to the rising costs of China's labour and the abundance of domestic recycling to be dealt with. The shortage of recycling facilities in the USA and Europe means that customers are mostly using sites and incinerators for more than a year now. All this has reminded us once again that recycling can only be part of the solution. Through its robust infrastructure and its growing recycling culture, India has become a leader in sustainable approaches to plastic waste management.
New and alternative strategies are desperately needed to prevent the limitation of our wasteful behaviors. The rePurpose team has collaborated with local recycling and waste management cooperatives in India to provide the world's most effective and safe market impacts. Find out what you can do to minimize your plastic footprint (here).