Why is most plastic not recycled?

Did you know that 91% of plastic is not recycled? Learn the factors preventing higher recycling rates and why some plastics are not recycled.

Many of us consider recycling plastics to be a big step towards reducing our ecological footprint and protecting the environment. However, less than 10% of the plastic waste produced worldwide has been recycled to date. A somewhat larger portion (12%) has been incinerated and the rest has simply ended up in landfills and our oceans.

Recycling plastics is still the main way to manage the crisis, but as our recycling rate is currently unable to handle the amount and types of plastics we throw away, we need to look at other - more immediate - solutions to the global plastic pollution crisis.

What are the reasons that prevent us from recycling more? What happens to most of our plastic waste? Let's try to find some answers to these common questions.

About 91% of plastic is not recycled, but why? The reasons behind the low rate of plastic recycling are many.

1. We often just throw plastics in the recycling bin, however, due to the material properties of plastics, not all of them can be recycled.

About 75% of the plastics produced worldwide are thermoplastics that can be melted and molded again and again to produce new plastics, which - in theory - makes all thermoplastics recyclable. The remaining 25% of plastics are thermosetting plastics that do not soften when exposed to heat, which makes them nearly impossible to recycle . Examples of products in which this type of plastic is used include electrical insulation, ropes, belts and pipes.

Despite the many problems associated with the use of thermosets, their durable nature means that thermosets are also disposed of less often , so in theory they cause less damage as an environmental pollutant than thermoplastics. However, issues related to the disposal of thermoplastics include the fact that they are a significant contributor to water pollution from microplastics, as well as the fact that incineration makes significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and worsens air quality.

Recycling these materials is challenging, and recycling is only part of the overall package of solutions needed to address the plastic pollution crisis.

2. Consumers make plastics unsuitable for recycling

Let's look at the problem at the individual level. Believe it or not, some plastics are not recycled even though they are recyclable and put in a recycling bin!

Let's look at an example. Let's say you're a conscious consumer who puts recyclable plastics in the right bin - you put an empty oil can in a recycling bin, but some oil remains in the bottle.

The container will not be recycled because it is not suitable for recycling . The truth is that plastic with food residue in it usually cannot be recycled. Only good quality, clean, plastics can go through the recycling process . Sometimes a recycling plant will do the washing for you, but most of the time the plastic is deemed useless, it goes in the pile with other trash and is thrown into a landfill or an incinerator. Recycling is an energy-intensive process that becomes more expensive as additional steps such as post-consumer sorting and washing are added.

New plastic is still relatively cheap to produce and creates a competitive environment in which the added cost of the process makes recycled plastic significantly more expensive. Furthermore, in countries where the price of electricity is high, it may be more profitable to incinerate rather than recycle.

3. Recyclable plastic products are not always recycled

Adding to these challenges is the fact that the market is fragmented, making it difficult for sellers of recycled plastic to find buyers. Recycling facilities are unevenly distributed, which means that in some areas recyclable plastics cannot be recycled because there are no machines to enable efficient selection and recycling.

Recently, global economic policy-making has also suffered major impacts. China used to import cheap recyclables from America and Europe, however, with rising Chinese labor costs and abundant domestic recycling to deal with, China introduced a ban on imports of low-quality recyclables. The lack of recycling infrastructure in the US and Europe has meant that for more than three years now, consumers' carefully selected recyclables have mostly gone to landfills and incinerators. All this reminds us again that recycling can only be part of the solution . This development has facilitated India's emergence as a leader in sustainable approaches to plastic waste management, thanks to its extensive infrastructure and developed tradition of recycling.

There is an urgent need for new and alternative approaches to prevent and limit our wasteful habits. Many of the plastics we use every day can be replaced by beautiful and practical products that will help us reduce our environmental footprint.


Article courtesy of Repurpose Global