Why can’t we recycle All Plastics? Is Recycling Worth It?

“Recycling plastic helps save the environment” Is it the truth or just a myth? From an environmental viewpoint, recycling helps the environment in several ways. I don’t disagree with that, but there isn’t just one type of waste and not every waste is recyclable.

Is recycling plastic worth it?

I’m sure most of us believe that recycling plastic is an efficient way to make the environment a better place as it conserves natural resources, energy, and landfill space. This is what I used to believe too until I found out the other side of the story which is disturbingly new. Is recycling plastic worth it or is it all just a misconception? That’s what I wanted to discuss.

Shredded plastic for recycling

Mass production of plastic started 6 decades ago and has been increasing since then. It has led to plastic pollution in the ocean with dreadful outcomes. So, to reduce plastic pollution, various strategies have been brought to action at different levels and recycling is one of them. But is recycling plastic worth it or not? Here’s the truth about it.

Recently, global analyses were done to tally all the plastics ever made and their fate. As a result, it was found that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced and most of them are disposable items that end up as waste. Moreover, out of the 8.3 billion metric tons, 6.3 billion metric tons have been reported as plastic waste.

Out of 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste, only 9% has been recycled.

Recyclable plastic

What happens to the rest of the plastic waste? It will either mount up in the landfills or pollute our natural environments via littering or incineration. Usually, much of the plastic waste ends up in the final sink i.e., oceans. According to an estimation, if this trend continues, 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will end up in the landfills by the year 2050.

Why can’t we recycle the remaining 91% of plastic waste?

We can’t recycle all plastic waste because there are several types of plastic. Some are recyclable and some are not. Let’s take a look at the types of plastics to have a better understanding.

To classify plastics, the US Society of the Plastics industry introduced a Resin Identification Code (RIC) in 1988. It also designed a symbol to indicate RIC that has a number enclosed within three chasing arrows cycling clockwise. Resin codes are sometimes mistaken as a guiding tool for the number of times plastic can be recycled. But in reality, the numeric value indicates the number of resins used in the respective plastic’s manufacturing. Hence, it becomes easier for recovery and recycling facilities to sort and separate plastics according to their resin types. In 2013, to eliminate this misconception, resin codes were revised in which chasing arrows were replaced with a solid triangle.

Resin Identification Code: old and new symbols

Here are the seven types of plastics along with their resin codes:

  • Resin code “1” indicates plastic made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) such as water bottles.
  • “2” indicates HDPE (high-density polyethylene) such as milk jugs.
  • “3” indicates PVC (polyvinyl chloride) such as pipes.
  • “4” indicates LDPE (low-density polyethylene) such as plastic bags and squeezable bottles.
  • “5” indicates PP (polypropylene) such as yogurt containers.
  • “6” indicates PS (polystyrene) such as egg cartons and Styrofoam.
  • “7” indicates plastic made of other materials such as polylactic acid and nylon.

Resin codes help identify the type of plastic for recycling. Each plastic has different chemical and physical properties. Therefore, their recyclability varies.

Out of the seven types of plastic, PET and HDPE are relatively easier to recycle.

Plastics other than PET and HDPE are difficult to recycle. According to the Greenpeace report, they make up about 69% of the total plastic waste. Additionally, their recycling requires more energy and expenses. Which means that it does more harm than good.

Most of the recyclers don’t accept plastics other than PET and HDPE.

This is because the rules regarding their recycling vary under different authorities. The market and government are the two main bodies that decide which plastics are recyclable and which are not. Therefore, it’s important to ask your local recycler or waste management authority before finalizing which resin code is recyclable and which is non-recyclable.

We can’t say that all plastics are composed of a single material. I’ve mentioned just seven resin codes above, but there are thousands of different plastics. It is because of the use of several dyes and additives in manufacturing to obtain the desired quality.

Therefore, plastics of the same resin code may also vary.

Each plastic has its specific composition and hence unique properties. One plastic may slightly melt whereas the other may completely burn at a specific temperature. Such variations in plastics make its recycling a very complex procedure. Any recyclable plastic that causes hindrance in recycling is rejected and left for disposal.

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so, What are the Problems with recycling plastic waste?

Recycling has little potential for reducing plastic waste because of the various problems it faces in the process. Here are some of those problems:

Sorting plastic is not easy and takes a lot of resources

Before recycling, the recycler must know what type of material he has to recycle. And with such a diversity in its types, as mentioned above, it becomes difficult to sort them in the first place.

Take the example of Saint Paul where only bottles with ‘neck,’ that are labeled with resin codes ‘1’ or ‘2,’ are allowed for collection. If a bottle is without neck, even if it is labeled with resin codes ‘1’ or ‘2’, it is not considered as recyclable. Why? Because these two were manufactured using different additives, therefore, they can’t be mixed for recycling. Otherwise, who knows in what way and at what stage they may affect recycling.

Can you imagine manufacturing a finely-recycled plastic from mixing two plastics that have different melting points or different reactions to chemicals?

Recycling is a labour-intensive job

Recycling plastic is not possible by using machinery only. It is a labor-intensive job because sorting plastic is a challenging task. Plastic bottles, for example, take a lot of space, it’s hard to collect them, and they don’t contain any significant amount of plastic. Also, their caps must be removed as they are made out of different plastic which requires more labor.

There are only a few plastics that are feasible for recycling.

Furthermore, after separating recyclable plastics, it is the labor that transfers the non-recyclable plastics to an incinerator or a landfill.

What will happen if we melt all types of plastics without sorting? 

They’ll separate and set into layers. The resulting plastic will be unstable and difficult to mould. Theoretically speaking, it is possible to melt and separate these layers. But it will increase the total cost as more energy will be required for melting. Therefore, plastics must be sorted first and for that labour is essential.

Sorting bottle caps before recycling

Sorting plastic creates new job opportunities but can you imagine the hassle when there isn’t enough labour available and no one is willing to import your plastic waste? A recent example of ‘China plastic ban’ lies in front of you.

Some of the recyclable plastics are recycled only once before ending up in a landfill or an incinerator.

For example, most of the plastic bottles, soda containers, and jugs are not recycled into new products. Instead, they are turned into lower-grade items such as fleece, jacket fill, toys, carpets, etc. Plastics that are recycled several times also end up in a landfill or incinerator eventually. In landfills, they don’t decompose and burning plastic in incinerators emit harmful chemicals. In other words, recycling plastic causes a delay in the disposal of plastic waste.

Harmful health effects should not be overlooked

To recycle means to transform waste into a usable form. Reprocessing plastic waste to manufacture new products releases several harmful chemicals such as vinyl chloride and benzene. These chemicals can cause cancer. Take PVC for example. PVC (resin code 3) is used in making plastic pipes. During production, it releases dioxins in the air. Dioxins are carcinogenic in nature. So, if you think that all you’re doing is helping the environment by recycling plastic then it’s not completely right. Recycling plastic comes with a price that humans and their environment have to pay.

So, is recycling plastic worth it? Here’s the bottom line

Recycling plastic reduces plastic footprint but the outcomes aren’t as rosy as we hoped. Due to all the drawbacks and problems, recycling plastic has only limited potential to reduce plastic waste. It is less effective and more expensive than other waste recycling.

Nevertheless, it is still a better option than landfilling or incinerating. Is recycling plastic worth it? It will be worth so much more if we make advances in recycling all types of plastics. But it will not end plastic pollution completely. The only possible solution right now is to help the environment by reducing plastic production.

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