We’re sure our regular readers are totally ready to dive deeper into the plastic recycling issue. But before we start, here’s a quick reminder on the position recycling takes in the waste management hierarchy.
After concerns about plastic pollution were raised in the 60s and 70s, the plastic industry offered a solution: recycling. But the thing is, plastic cannot be recycled eternally. Its value and strength decrease every time it’s recycled. Besides, there are still plastics that can’t be recycled, and recycled plastic has limited options for use due to safety concerns.
That’s why waste prevention, in the form of consuming less and reusing things you already have, always goes first. So now that’s clear, let’s find out why recycling is still a very important waste management component (albeit not the most preferable).
Many people get discouraged when they start recycling and learn that out of all the plastic packaging and products they want to recycle, only a small percentage can actually be recycled. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, “plastic” is not one material. This word refers to various synthetic or semi-synthetic materials with similar qualities, such as being lightweight, durable, flexible and most importantly, having a plasticity that allows it to be moulded, extruded or pressed into solid objects of different shapes.
Despite the similarities, plastics differ in properties: one material may be extremely tough while another may be flexible enough to make cling film, for example. But more importantly, different types of plastics have different melting points, which means that while one plastic will be unaffected by heat, a second will melt and a third will burn.
Let’s take a look at the 7 most common plastic types you face in your daily life and find out how they are recycled.
Type 1 - Polyethylene terephthalate or PET. Water bottles and beverage bottles are examples of items produced from PET. This is the most easily sorted and recyclable type of packaging. These types of bottles are sometimes collected with a deposit system. Thanks to this system, up to 90% of bottles can be collected and recycled (as is the case in Estonia, Germany and Sweden, for example).
Type 2 - High-density polyethylene or HDPE. Thanks to its durability and rigidity, this material is particularly suitable for the production of detergent and chemical containers in the packaging sector. It is also used to produce boxes, caps, drums, technical items, household items, toys and furniture parts. This type of plastic often contains residues (pigments or additives) from its past use that can affect the quality of the recycled output. However, recycled HDPE has many uses. Today's sorting and recycling technologies ensure that a large proportion of HDPE packaging can be recycled, as long as it doesn’t contain extraneous elements that complicate the process.
Type 3 - Polyvinyl chloride or PVC. PVC is widely used in the packaging sector, cosmetic containers and bottles, labels and blister packs. It is also widely used in the construction industry, including for the production of outdoor materials and components such as flooring, cladding, building pipes (such as gutters and water pipes), window frames, tarpaulins and rigid films. PVC is also widely used in the medical and hospital sectors, chemical and automotive industries and agriculture. It is rarely recycled as creating a recycling system for this type of plastic is a complex task.
Type 4 - Low-density polyethylene or LDPE. Retail store bags are an example of an item made from LDPE. This plastic loses transparency during recycling. Also, a lot of LDPE packaging has been printed on, the packaging is metalised or laminated with aluminium, or it forms a multi-layered structure together with other polymers. All these things make recycling complicated, expensive or impossible.
Type 5 - Polypropylene or PP. PP is used for various products such as reusable plastic food containers, ropes, ice cream packaging and certain toys. Recycling it is complicated and varies depending on the product. It is very often not recycled.
Type 6 - Polystyrene or PS. Polystyrene has many different areas of use, especially in the individual packing of items and in the production of single use fast-food containers, office supplies, and. It is very hard to recycle and therefore rarely is.
Type 7 - Other plastic. Uses include disposable cutlery, CD and DVD cases, clothes, LCD screens, kitchen sponges, etc. Such plastic is rarely recycled, as it contains a large variety of plastics, which are hard to collect and recognise at the sorting centre. In theory, this type of packaging could be sorted, but the quantities available in one location tend to be too small to make this process sustainable and cost-efficient.
The main reason that plastic is not recycled is economics. Recycling, like any other industry, tends to be profitable. That’s why the plastic recycling business, in general, jumps on PET and HDPE plastics, which allow them to process post-use materials with the best economical and environmental output.
In the production of plastic, energy is the resource with the largest share, accounting for 72-91% of the total resource requirement of this material. The production of recycled plastic products is less energy-intensive than plastic obtained from primary raw materials: PET by 62-92% and HDPE by 77%. But if film and other lightweight packaging are contaminated with biowaste, the energy and water required for cleaning may not be economically or environmentally justified, and the system can be toppled like a house of cards.
And the last plague is composite materials. A composite material contains layers of plastics, paper or metals. The majority of food packaging is made from composite materials, for example, crisp packets, tetrapak cartons, single-use coffee cups and so on. Very common combinations are paper-polyethylene, plastic-aluminium and plastic-paper-aluminium. Composite materials are basically impossible to recycle profitably, because the paper, plastic and other materials cannot be separated out into pulp and plastic resin without substantial contamination — the materials pollute one another, making recovery expensive, and so costly that most composites end up in landfill.
As you see, very few plastics and very little plastic-containing packaging is recyclable. While producers bear their responsibility for designing non-recyclable items, governments are responsible for allowing such products to be produced and sold, and your share of responsibility lies in the choices you make. Here are the effective ways to fulfil your environmental duty:
If the first step is impossible, choose:
We believe one day you will buy no plastic to recycle or even worse, to send to landfill. But while this transformation plays out, we’re here to remind you that the key link in the recycling chain is you, who can:
Municipal waste management facilities and big recycling plants cannot cope with every type of potentially recyclable plastic. It is not economically efficient. That’s why the demand for small local recycling initiatives is growing.
Many producers run free recycling programmes for their customers through their partners, which specialise in the recycling of uncommon post-use materials. The question of whether producers can do more with the often great levels of money and power money and power they have is a question for a separate article. But it is better to have these opportunities nonetheless.
Non-profit organisations and individuals also play an important role in the recycling process. For example, the Dutch initiative Precious Plastic develops and shares plastic recycling schemes that don’t require millions in investments, a big team and a large space. They now offer over 1000 workshops around the world that introduce recycling to communities lacking well-developed municipal recycling facilities, experiment with recycling new types of plastic, and promote a mindful attitude toward plastic use. With their support, you can even run a recycling workshop in your garage!
Have you learnt anything new from our article? Share it with your friends so that more people will be aware of plastic recycling and, most importantly, will practice it!