The Potential of Recycled Plastic
So far, we have only recycled 9% of all the plastic waste we have ever produced. That’s an alarmingly low number. This is especially true once you consider that we’ve incinerated roughly 12% of plastic while placing the rest (some 79%, give or take) in dumps and landfills. When we recycle, we choose to reduce that shocking number bit by bit and put more plastic into properly managed recycling programs.
The Economics of Recycling
The economics of recycling plastic are not as cut and dry as you may think. It is a multi-phase process that is labor-intensive and prone to error. But like every form of technology, it has to start somewhere. The full process of recycling can be broken down into the steps of collection, sorting and reclamation. Companies that use recycled materials often have their biggest strategic benefits in the first two levels of the chain. That’s because the cost of collection and sorting is likely offset or completely eliminated by the local municipalities that collect them. The last phase is when reclaimers buy the sorted plastic and then further process it to make it usable for commercial sale.
One of the biggest challenges is dealing with mixed plastic types; even the highest quality bales typically only reach 95% purity of the desired plastic type. This means that manufacturers have to work around limitations that mixed plastics along with residual debris bring along with them. It can be a cumbersome process. However, that doesn’t mean to say that it’s not worth the effort. Plastic can’t and won’t be recycled when there’s not much profit to be made. But there are creative ways to extract profits.
Companies like Underarmour and Nike have donned athletes in cutting edge fabrics and footwear made from recycled plastic bottles. And while the process of recycling itself is energy and labour-intensive, the resulting campaigns are paying off in the short term and paving the way for a long-term future where the same fabric processing techniques can be applied to better use. Although the eco-conscious would love to believe that other consumers are opting for more recycled products, it isn’t always that simple.
The public perception of recycled products is that they are energy-intensive to create, more expensive and sometimes lower quality. The upside is that sorting and processing plastic is an excellent potential for the emergence of entirely new markets of post-consumer plastic which could contribute to job creation.
The Potential of Recycled Plastic
We don’t just create new jobs in the recycling industry by reclaiming plastics. With emerging technologies like AI-assisted material sorting and smart polymers, it can cost significantly less to manufacture products with recycled material compared to synthesizing new materials from scratch. These technologies are contributing to markets consisting of standardized recycled material resources (often in the form of pellets) which are then purchased by companies interested in partnering with environmental efforts to boost their business and marketing strategies. One of the most commonly recycled forms of plastic is actually high-density polyethelyene (better known as HDPE). All in all, HDPE is the most widely used type of plastic, being used for everything from milk jugs to graffiti-resistant toilet partitions.
Making the most of plastics like HDPE is critical due to the fact that even a lot of recycled plastic actually still ends up in landfills due to the challenges presented by sorting and cleaning. Since contaminated plastic is almost impossible to use for manufacturing purposes, it can still easily end up going to waste even after you toss it in the recycle bin.
Plastic Cannot be Recycled Infinitely
There is a maximum number of times that plastic can be recycled before it’s no longer used. While seven to nine recycles before the material loses its integrity, any reuse at all can go a long way towards reducing waste and landfill space. Glass and metal can be recycled infinitely. But recycling these materials can have their own downsides in terms of processing time and transportation costs.
The Plastic Reality
At this point, plastic has already become an indispensable part of our daily lives. To say that most of us won’t be able to live without it would be an understatement. It’s part of everything we do. This includes our clothes, shoes, and cars, toothbrushes; the list goes on and on. Plastics play too prominent a role in today’s world to simply vanish. A better alternative simply just doesn’t exist yet. For this very reason, vilifying plastic as a material doesn’t make as much sense. However, there is enormous potential for us to try to understand this material better. It is only by developing a better understanding of how plastic can be used and reused can we take part in improving the public utilisation of plastic and minimszing its negative effects on our environment.
- https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/ which subsequently cites "“Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea” by Christian Schmidt, Tobias Krauth, and Stephan Wagner, published in Environmental Science & Technology (2017)" as the source for where they got their data.
- https://drinkingwaterbase.com/water-calculator Calculate your impact of buying plastic water bottles on the environment and your budget.
- Plastics Today:https://www.plasticstoday.com/recycling/recycling-big-business-it-profitable/19442800958772 for information on the different phases of recycling.
Article by Ryan Lundahi.