As stewards of the environment, we’re responsible for preserving and protecting the planet for ourselves and future generations. Most of us know that single-use plastic has severe environmental, social, economic, and health consequences.
And, easy as it is for countries to blame one another and for individuals to feel helpless against plastic pollution, we’re facing a global problem that calls for worldwide cooperation.
With 11 million metric tons of waste polluting oceans annually, the onus is on everyone to act. While not the only solution, recycling helps conserve resources, reduce energy consumption and pollution, and create employment.
Let’s investigate the intricacies and difficulties of recycling, including how it operates, what obstacles and possibilities it presents, the percentage of plastic actually recycled, and how we can collectively increase recycling rates.
How Does Plastic Get Recycled?
Plastic gets recycled via a complex process. The point of recycling is twofold. Firstly, it reduces plastic pollution from harming the environment. Secondly, it transforms discarded items into functional and useful products again. Here’s how the process works in a nutshell:
Collection and Sorting
The first stage involves collecting items from residential and commercial properties, recycling centers, or recycling sites by a local authority, usually a waste management contractor. It’s their job to transport recycling to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) or a Plastic Recovery Facility (PRF)
The Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) separates recyclable plastic from other materials before sending it to a Plastics Recycling Facility (PRF), where it’s further divided into different types of plastic.
The techniques and tools used for sorting recyclable plastic products are determined by the plastic’s size, shape, composition, and facility resources, which may range from manual selection to machine separators.
Cleaning and Shredding
Cleaning plastic trash is necessary to remove contaminants from labels, adhesives, dirt, and food residue that can otherwise damage the recycling process by clogging machines or contaminating other recyclable materials.
Once washed, the plastic items are fed into shredders and cut into smaller pieces that are easier to process. Sometimes these are used without further processing, such as being added to asphalt or sold in raw form.
After shredding, the remaining contaminants, such as metal, are collected with a magnet. If you recycle, your plastics should be free from as many impurities as possible before disposing of them, as this speeds up the recycling process and reduces overheads.
Melting and Reforming
The last stage of plastics recycling involves melting and compressing shredded plastic into pellets (called nurdles) sold to manufacturers to create new products like beverage bottles and so on. Notably, not all varieties of recyclable plastic are compounded at the same recycling facility. Some grades are delivered to other centers to complete the final step.
Global Plastic Recycling Statistics
What percentage of plastic is recycled? Of the seven billion tons of plastic waste generated globally, less than 10% is recycled. The global plastic recycling rate should be higher. This low percentage has much to do with supply chain transparency and capturing the full range of plastics flowing through supply chains, not just focusing on plastic packaging alone.
Regional Recycling Rates
According to the circular economy investment firm Closed Loop Partners, 11.5 million metric tons of plastic packaging are sent to landfills in the US and Canada every year. While the US fares better than global averages, sadly, the recycling system currently recaptures only 18% of recyclable plastic, meaning a whopping 82% of plastic doesn’t even get collected for recycling!
Moreover, the current supply of recycled plastics meets only 6% of the demand for the most common plastics in North America due to technical and market barriers.
Commonly Recycled Plastics
Two of the most common recyclable plastics are polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). PET makes food and beverage containers, while HDPE is utilized for detergent bottles, shopping bags, and milk jugs. New recycling technologies are making it much easier to recycle polypropylene (PP), which was previously difficult to recycle.
Least Recycled Plastics
Plastics that contain hazardous materials or are too heavily contaminated cannot be recycled. These include PVC, polystyrene, and polycarbonate, referred to as “non-recyclable” plastics. Some food packaging, medical apparatus, car components, and manufacturing materials fall into this category and cannot be sent to recycling facilities.
Factors Affecting Plastic Recycling Rates
Socio-economics, government policy, geopolitics, and consumerism affect plastic recycling. They’re bound together like a web, impossible to separate. The only way to improve recycling rates is to tackle sustainability holistically from a global perspective.
Government Policies and Regulations
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) posits there are several ways government can aid recycling, such as:
- Restraining plastic demand: Producing less plastic reduces health risks and the need for recycling.
- Introducing plastic taxes and incentives: Taxes, recycled content targets, and extending producer responsibility (EPR) with fee modulation schemes offer financial incentives for corporations to reduce use and invest in a circular economy.
Consumer Awareness and Behavior
Getting consumers to recycle is another hurdle. Increased awareness doesn’t inevitably get people to change their behavior. A recycling bin won’t magically fill itself. This is where brands play an indispensable role in motivating consumers to act at scale.
Several companies have adopted the ‘Nudge Theory’ that introduces environmental changes to persuade people without removing freedom of choice. For example, Ireland was one of Europe’s first countries to put a levy on plastic bags. This policy resulted in a 90% drop in consumption and the generation of more than US$9 million for a green public fund.
Recycling Infrastructure and Technology
Wealthy countries have historically produced the most plastic waste in the world per capita. Before the UN adopted the Basel Convention in 1989, wealthier countries shipped their waste to Africa and Asia.
However, this “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” solution didn’t solve the global issue of plastic waste. It merely made it a problem for developing countries. Yet, many didn’t and still don’t have the financial resources necessary to build and maintain waste collection, disposal, and recycling systems.
In fact, according to the Tear Fund, “between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases caused by mismanaged waste”.
In developed countries, new materials already outpace the capacity of existing recovery infrastructure, so there’s a critical need to address the misalignment between production and end-of-life to ensure recyclable plastic waste collected does not end up in a landfill.
Challenges in Plastic Recycling
The plastics agenda is here to stay, and solving the challenge will require scaled-up business action and engagement across the entire plastics industry value chain. Why isn’t plastic recycled? Currently, we face three main challenges:
Putting materials in the incorrect recycling bins and not cleaning them thoroughly leads to contamination. The recycling industry calls this “aspirational recycling” because consumers do it hoping the plastic will eventually be recycled.
Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. It is only acceptable to mix recyclables if your recycling service provider allows it. Contaminants such as food waste, oil, and grease should not be added to the recycling stream unless specified by your recycling company.
In many countries, there is no infrastructure for waste collection, and even if there is, the level of awareness of recyclable versus non-recyclable waste is low, leading to high contamination in bins.
Managers of waste management dedicate a lot of their resources to manually categorizing waste. Consequently, collecting plastic is the most expensive and resource-intensive of all waste processing techniques, making up a huge part of the overall cost.
The cost of collecting, sifting, moving, and reprocessing plastic waste is very high; therefore, recycled plastic is more expensive than brand-new plastic. Additionally, the petrochemical industry is increasing, which will reduce the cost of making new plastic even more.
Those against recycling cite high short-term costs, but recycling will be a long-term measure as long as we continue to produce harmful plastics. The real solution to the plastic industry problem is to boost recycling rates and cut down on the utilization of plastic altogether.
Innovations and Solutions to Improve Plastic Recycling
Because plastic waste is a systemic problem, governments, businesses, and individuals need to work together to improve recycling efforts.
Circular Economy Models
The circular economy model focuses on eliminating waste and creating a closed-loop production, consumption, and waste management system. It aims to reduce the number of resources used and keep them in use for as long as possible before they are recycled and reused.
This model encourages the development of products designed to be remanufactured, reused, repaired, and recycled, with the ultimate aim of reducing the amount of waste produced. It tackles some of the most significant social and environmental challenges of our times and has the potential to unlock $4.5 trillion in economic value by 2030.
An example is how we at Renegade Plastics produce the industry’s only fully recyclable coated fabric. Instead of throwing the material away once it’s beyond repair, it can be recycled into something else.
Advanced Recycling Technologies
Advanced recycling alludes to new technological advancements made to supplement mechanical recycling, which has been the go-to approach to recycling for the last 30 years.
Advanced recycling breaks down polymers into monomers or hydrocarbons to create new plastics, fuels, or other products. In other words, these processes recycle solid plastic into its gas or liquid components, which are used to make new plastic products or packaging.
While advanced recycling has yet to live up to its hype as a panacea to the plastic waste crisis, it has the potential to broaden the sorts of recyclable plastics and generate plastics with tailored molecular weight distributions and co-monomers for advanced applications, such as flexible packaging for food. While limited, many of these technologies are still developing and increasing.
Many companies are exploring bio-based plastics, biopolymers, and compostable alternatives to align their products and packaging with waste reduction and climate impact goals after pursuing strategies to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics.
Biodegradable plastics can be broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi in a reasonable amount of time. Unlike traditional plastics made from petroleum, biodegradable plastics are derived from renewable plant-based sources such as cornstarch, vegetable oil, or cellulose.
When exposed to natural elements, they break down, leaving only water, carbon dioxide, and biomass behind. They are an eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastics, as they do not accumulate in landfills or the environment and can be used as packaging, food containers, and cutlery.
How to Make a Difference: Tips for Reducing Plastic Waste
The more we recycle plastics, the less garbage ends up in landfills and incineration plants. In this sense, recycling is part of an ethic or resource efficiency, i.e., using products to their fullest potential. As an individual, you have not directly caused the plastic pollution crisis, but you can be part of the solution.
Reduce Single-Use Plastics
When shopping, using your reusable bags is a great way to reduce single-use plastic. This is especially important when getting groceries, as plastic bags are often used. Additionally, when buying household items, try to find items without plastic packaging.
To lower your plastic consumption even more, you can use reusable water bottles and containers for food storage instead of single-use, plastic containers. Practicing mindfulness when it comes to plastic and choosing alternatives can help lower your plastic footprint.
Reuse and Repurpose
One of the best ways to reuse and repurpose goods to reduce single plastic waste is to find creative ways to upcycle items, like using plastic bottles as planters for small plants or turning old jars into storage containers for office supplies.
Old furniture can be repurposed into new furniture, and so can old clothing. Additionally, you can purchase things made from recycled materials and recycle existing items where possible. You might also want to consider buying second-hand items; this, too, sustains a circular economy.
Support Sustainable Brands and Policies
Ensure products and services you purchase are from companies committed to environmentally friendly practices like using sustainable materials and processes. To be more proactive, you can invest in companies and brands working toward sustainability.
Taking these steps supports businesses and governments in further protecting our planet. One of the most critical aspects is understanding how recycling fits into broader economic interests. The cliche is true: knowledge is power.
Take the “plastic straw ban controversy.” It’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction and has significantly increased consumer awareness about environmental plastic waste; however, National Geographic found that of the eight million tons of plastic that flow into the ocean yearly, plastic straws only comprise 0.025%.
Clearly, there’s always more than meets the eye.
Recycling is an essential part of solving the plastic waste crisis. It helps reduce the amount of plastic sent to landfills and oceans and can also be used to create new products.
Now that you know how much plastic is recycled, you can tell recycling alone is not enough to solve the plastic waste crisis – individuals, communities, businesses, and governments must take collective action.
This could include reducing the use of single-use plastics, participating in beach clean-up events, and supporting initiatives to recycle more plastic. With concerted efforts, we can make a meaningful impact on the plastic waste crisis.
At Renegade Plastics, we are committed to eliminating hazardous plastics. Our fabrics have a much lower environmental impact than PVC-coated and laminated fabrics. If you need plastic materials for commercial purposes, please contact us. We’d love to help you help the planet!