Plastic waste is a hot topic at the moment, and many of us are looking to reduce the amount of plastic we use.
But if we can just recycle all the plastic that has been produced up to now, what’s the problem?
Well, it turns out that plastic recycling is actually a bit of a myth.
If Plastic Is Recyclable, Why Is it Bad?
While most plastic can be recycled, the reality is that recycling it is often an expensive, complicated and polluting process that results in a recycled product that is lower quality than the original.
This means that a lot of plastic that is technically recyclable doesn’t get recycled and instead ends up in the oceans, in landfill or being burnt.
Plastic is downgraded when it’s recycled, so recycled plastic isn’t as useful as virgin plastic.
Every time plastic is recycled, the polymer chain is made shorter, which means the resulting plastic is weaker and less flexible.
Since the recycled material is weaker, new plastic has to be added to improve its integrity.
Due to the carbon emissions involved in transporting plastic waste for recycling, it’s not clear whether recycling plastics is much more environmentally friendly than just creating new plastics.
There are lots of technical challenges involved in recycling plastic that make it less viable than recycling other materials.
It’s much easier, cheaper and more environmentally sound to recycle materials such as glass and aluminium than plastic. Unlike plastic, these materials can be recycled indefinitely.
However, plastic has a lot of useful properties which mean that it can’t always be easily replaced with more eco-friendly alternatives such as glass.
Where Does Plastic Recycling Waste Go?
Putting things in the recycling bin makes us feel like we’re doing our bit. We put plastic items in the bin and feel good about ourselves, assuming that they are going to be recycled.
We rarely think about what happens to our waste next.
While some plastic waste is processed in the UK, over half of the plastic reported as recycled is sent abroad.
China used to be the main recipient of the UK’s unwanted plastic waste, but since the country imposed a ban on waste imports in 2018, Malaysia has become the biggest importer of our plastic waste, followed by Turkey, Poland and Indonesia according to Environment Agency data.
Environment Agency figures show that in the second quarter of 2019, 108,513 tonnes of plastic were accepted in the UK for recycling while 171,083 tonnes were sent abroad. This means that 61% of plastic waste put in recycling bins was exported.
Once plastic has been sent abroad, it’s harder to track what actually happens to it.
Burning, dumping or putting plastic waste in landfill is often more cost effective than recycling it, and it’s suspected that a lot of waste sent for ‘recycling’ actually gets disposed of in this way.
Sending waste abroad for recycling offers an easy way for the government to meet their recycling targets without having to take responsibility for making sure it actually gets recycled.
Not All Plastic Is Recyclable
Lots of plastic items can’t be recycled, or are so difficult and expensive to recycle that they are practically non-recyclable.
These items include:
- Plastic straws
- Takeaway coffee cups
- See-through plastic film
- Bubble wrap
What’s the Solution?
Recycling sounds like a perfectly eco-friendly process where everything we put in the recycling bin gets broken down and reused.
We imagine this process could go on and on forever, with everything being reused indefinitely. However, things aren’t this simple.
Out of the estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced throughout history, just 9% has been recycled according to this 2017 research paper.
Rather than seeing recycling as the solution to the plastic crisis, it’s better to see it as the last step in the five R’s of sustainability:
The best thing is to refuse and reduce plastic usage where possible (see some tips here), so that there’s a smaller amount of plastic waste to deal with.
Hopefully as technology progresses, recycling plastic will become cheaper, easier and more cost efficient.
The UK government could also take some positive steps to increase recycling rates such as introducing a nationwide plastic bottle deposit scheme, where consumers could return plastic bottles to shops or ‘reverse vending machines’ for recycling in exchange for a small amount of money.
It’s an unfortunate fact that a large percentage of the plastic put in recycling bins doesn’t actually get recycled. However, it’s a different story when it comes to paper, aluminium and glass. These items can all be recycled fairly easily, so there’s no reason to lose faith in recycling altogether.