Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Does Recycling Plastic Really Work?
More and more reports, of recycling being dumped in other countries, are emerging. Does recycling plastic hold any real benefit in the fight against plastic pollution?
In this blog we will look at what recycling plastic involves, what's supposed to happen to recycled plastic, and what actually happens.
After that, we will look at alternatives to the current recycling system, by seeing what compostable bioplastics have to offer.
What is Plastic Recycling?
Currently, the process of recycling plastic involves reprocessing used plastic waste, to form the building blocks for new plastic.
When we refer to plastic, we are talking about conventional plastic. Conventional plastic is produced from fossil fuels, and cannot biodegrade. Later on, we will talk about bioplastics which provide more sustainable alternatives to conventional plastic.
What's supposed to happen?
Let's take a common example: PET bottles.
PET, or Polyethylene Terephthalate, is a common plastic to use to make disposable plastic bottles. If we use the typical process for recycling PET bottles in domestic waste, the first step is the sorting of the plastic.
(There's going to be a lot of 'if's, and we will comment on those later.)
If the plastic waste is separated correctly, the kerbside collection will pick up the waste and drive it to a recycling centre. Here, the first stage of sorting at the centre takes place. Bottles are sorted according to colours and materials. Contaminants such as metal are removed, if done successfully.
The next stage is grinding (nothing to do with the dating app). The PET bottles are ground to create pieces of plastic with a surface area far smaller than the original plastic bottle.
These small plastic chunks are then washed in high temperature water. A cleaning agent is added to the wash, to ensure that any residue, glue and dirt is removed from the plastic stream.
The plastic flakes are then rinsed, to get rid of the cleaning agent used in the high temperature wash. To separate PET from other common plastics used in bottles such as HDPE and PP, the flakes are put into a water bath.
The reason the bath separates the plastics are to do with the ability of each plastic to float. PET will sink, while HDPE and PP will float.
The final sorting process involve resorting the flakes by colour. The sorted flakes are then melted and extruded into a final product (extrusion). Finally, a new PET bottle is created.
What are the potential problems with plastic recycling?
In theory, plastic recycling is great. Taking used plastic, and using it to form new plastic is supposed to reduce waste going to landfill. The first statistic that stands up to this dream ideology is damning.
How much plastic is recycled?
9% of 8.3 billion works out to be 747 million tonnes, or 747,000,000 tonnes.
This is a ludicrous number, and one that is hard to fathom.
If recycling plastic is such a successful process, then why is it that only 9% of all plastic has ever been recycled?
How many times can you recycle plastic?
If we continue to look at plastic bottles as the example, the rough number is 10. This is because every time plastic bottles are recycled, the polymers in the plastic lose quality through damage.
Dr Karl Williams, head of the centre for waste management at the University of Central Lancashire said:
“A plastic is made up of very long chains, and every time you process them these chains will break, and as they break the plastic is degrading. So there is a finite time that you can keep recycling the plastic.”
This number is potentially more when virgin plastic is added, though. Adding freshly produced plastic to recycled plastic, increases the longevity of the combined plastic structure.
So even if you see a 'recycled' plastic bottle, it potentially could have virgin plastic added to increase the quality of the bottle.
Reverting back to all those 'if's', what happens if stages in the process go wrong?
If plastic, at any stage, is placed into the wrong waste stream, that whole batch surrounding the outlier will be sent to landfill. This is because plastic recycling relies on a single type of plastic being untouched by other types of plastic.
Let's take the example of an outlying PVC item being mixed in with a batch of PET. Due to the high temperatures needed to soften and mould the PET, the PVC will start to break down into Hydrochloric acid.
This acid can degrade the whole batch of PET, potentially rendering it below the required quality to recycle. This means the whole batch of damaged PET will be sent to landfill, or incinerated.
Plastic vs Aluminium Recycling
Compared to plastic, aluminium has far better metrics when it comes to practically all areas of recycling.
As we can see from the charts above, aluminium surpasses PET plastic in the following areas:
- Average recycled content of beverage containers
- Consumer recycling rates of beverage containers
- Value per ton of recyclable material
As mentioned previously, every time plastic is recycled, the quality of the polymers in the plastic degrades.
This results in a finite amount of times that plastic can be recycled. Aluminium doesn't have this problem; aluminium cans can be recycled continuously in a 'closed loop' recycling process.
The last problem is to do with the economic viability of recycling plastic. In developed countries, there is such a low value for recycled plastics that it's hard for recycling centres to make a profit.
Alternatives to Plastic
We previously compared aluminium to PET plastic. In all the comparisons, aluminium outdid PET quite substantially.
However, both aluminium products and PET bottles have one thing in common: they are produced from non-renewable resources. Aluminium has to be mined, while PET plastic is produced from crude oil.
What if there was an alternative to fossil fuel based plastic that could be produced from sustainable, renewable resources? You're in luck, welcome to the world of...
Bioplastics are materials similar in characteristics to fossil fuel based plastics such as PET, but they have the ability to be produced from renewable resources. As well as this, certain bioplastics have the ability to biodegrade. Even better, they have the ability to be composted, with zero waste going to landfill. Let's take a look at a bioplastic that we love: PLA.
Polylactic acid is a biobased, fully biodegradable and fully compostable bioplastic. It is typically produced from cornstarch in western countries. Let's break down the terms just mentioned.
PLA is biodegradable, again in contrast with PET.
If a material can biodegrade, it can:
"Break down into CO2, biomass and water with the aid of microorganisms."
However, just because a material can biodegrade doesn't mean it will biodegrade in a reasonable time frame.
Or, for that matter, in the marine environment or landfill.
This is because in those environments, the required microorganisms needed to break down the material are not guaranteed to be available. What's needed to solve that problem is the next characteristic, which we love the most about PLA.
The most important quality of PLA is it's ability to be composted. This means it can be produced from renewable resources, composted with zero waste going to landfill, and then have the resulting compost used to grow future crops.
This cycle can continue in a closed loop system, which makes PLA an extremely environmentally friendly, sustainable material.
PLA is industrially compostable, which means it needs certain conditions not found in home composting bins.
To access industrial composting plants to process any compostable goods you purchase, simply use our free post back scheme, LFHP Zero. We have partnered up with an industrial composting partner to ensure any compostable goods we provide, are fully composted with zero waste going to landfill.
To us, this is what true recycling is. To have the ability to continuously grow new renewable resources, to manufacture them into compostable items, and then fully compost those items to regrow the next generation of crops. All with zero waste going to landfill.
Should we recycle plastic?
If we look at the statistics, the answers show we should move away from using fossil fuel based plastics altogether. We need to move to a green economy, where renewable resources are used to manufacture sustainably produced items.
Bioplastics such as PLA have the answer to all the problems that fossil fuel based plastic has produced, and continues to do so. Recycling plastic only gives the illusion that it's not going straight to landfill or incineration, or ending up in our natural environment.
Recycling plastic might delay the inevitable, but the evidence has caught up with the recycling illusion long ago.