Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: What Happens To Plastic When You Recycle It?
We are told on a daily basis to recycle plastic, and not to throw it away in the black bin.
But with more and more reports coming out of recycling not working, does recycling actually make a difference? In this blog, we're going to look at what happens to our recycling when it leaves our homes.
We're also going to give a case study on how we are reducing waste in total, including waste sent for recycling, with our Pampering Gift Sets.
How Much Plastic Is Recycled?
To start with, we want to clarify by what we mean when we say 'plastic'. When we use the term 'plastic', we are talking about conventional plastic.
Conventional plastic refers to polymers produced from non renewable sources such as petroleum. Conventional plastics also do not have the ability to biodegrade.
Common conventional plastics include PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and PP (polypropylene).
In terms of recycling, only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. This leaves the other 91% in landfill, our natural environment, or has been processed by incineration.
With the estimate for the total amount of plastic being produced since it's creation in the 1950s standing at 8.3 billion metric tonnes, the amount of plastic not being recycled is worrying.
All of these numbers are on a scale which is difficult, if not impossible to comprehend. It's hard to capture the scale of the plastic pollution problem we face.
Mainstream Waste Management Options
In the UK (where we are based), there are generally two ways in which plastic can be disposed of through proper channels. These two options are recycling, and the black bin.
The trash bin, garbage bin, or black bin is picked up by waste management companies who take the waste to landfill, or to be incinerated.
Recycling takes the waste to a recycling centre (or it's supposed to), where the waste will be processed and turned into useable materials to make new products. In theory, recycling is a much better option.
Having the choice to make new things out of recycled waste, as opposed to throwing it in landfill or burning it, is a great idea in principle.
What Happens To Plastic When It Is Recycled Properly?
There is sadly a difference between what is supposed to happen to plastic when it is sent to be recycled, and what actually happens. We have used a point by point step guide from PLASgran to briefly outline the recycling process. The key stages for the recycling process begin with sorting.
Sorting the various types of plastic from one another is crucial. A whole batch of plastic can be contaminated if the wrong type of plastic is mixed in.
When this happens, whether it be at the first stage of putting plastic in the wrong bin at home, or at a recycling centre, the contaminated batch will have to be thrown into landfill or incinerated.
The next stage is size reduction. Through industrial processes such as shredding and granulating, the plastic products being recycled are reduced to small surface area plastics.
The third stage is separation. Plastics needed to be seperated from contaminants that could be attached. Contaminants such as glue, grit or paper are commonly found stuck to plastics.
The last step is compounding the processed plastic into pellets. Through pellets, plastic is far more easily transported, and are more easily used to manufacture plastic products.
What Are The Problems With Recycling Plastic?
Even if the intentions to recycle plastic properly and domestically are present, there are still a few issues with recycling plastic.
Recycling plastic is still...plastic.
It is still the same stuff that has been created from a non renewable resource - crude oil. Using crude oil as the source material for plastic means that every process is carbon intensive. Methods to extract source materials for plastic include fracking, which has been linked to earthquakes and gas leaks.
Plastic can only be recycled a maximum of three times.
Each time plastic gets recycled, the quality of the plastic degrades. This is due to the polymer length decreasing every time the plastic is recycled.
What happens to the plastic then? Landfill, and incineration - it's still the same result, but maybe a couple of years later. No real difference.
On top of all this, in order to make recycled plastic of a high enough quality to recycle, additional virgin plastic is added. So recycled plastic might actually not be all recycled.
Considering recycling as a remotely plausible solution to our plastic problem enables large companies to take advantage.
As soon as the onus is off the company producing mass amounts of plastic bottles, because it's now the consumer's responsibility to get rid of the bottle properly, it cleans the hands of the companies making the plastic in the first place.
To them, it's just a big game of pass the buck. Recycling was invented by the very same companies producing the waste in the first place. 'Keep America Beautiful' was the start of mainstream recycling, and has arguably led to our mindset of a western throwaway culture.
As mentioned before, once contaminated, the whole batch of plastic is now not recyclable.
It goes straight to landfill or incineration, and attempts at salvaging the recyclable waste are abandoned. This includes food - so any dirty food stained plastic containers will not be recycled.
An example of recycling contamination comes from mixing PVC with PET. In order to recycle PET, high temperatures are needed to soften and mould it.
At these same temperatures, PVC starts to break down into hydrochloric acid. This acidity renders the batch of PET non-recyclable, which means the whole batch will not be recycled.
All these problems are still real, regardless of if the plastic is recycled properly or not. This is how recycling plastic is supposed to be done. However, more and more reports are coming out of how plastic is regularly and deliberately not recycled to save money. Let's go onto...
What Really Happens To Plastic When It Is Recycled?
The ideal scenario is for the plastic in our recycling bins to be collected by councils. This waste will then be taken to domestic recycling centres, which is processed into usable plastic for making new products with.
However, a huge amount of plastic waste is exported to other countries. This takes the responsibility for ensuring the waste is recycled, out of the developed countries hands.
If 1 Kilogram of plastic waste is exported to be recycled, that means 1Kg has been classified as 100% recycled. The fact that the plastic waste might be exported, and not recycled in the country it arrives in, is somehow not considered.
This is clearly a flawed system, and one that is not working.
The reason that developing countries take waste from developed countries is a financial one. Huge amounts of money can be generated by taking plastic waste in, and recycling it.
But this only works if the plastic is of a high enough quality to be recycled. If it is contaminated, or has degraded enough that it is not recyclable, it cannot be processed. This leaves the unusable plastic to go to landfill.
The mass incorporation of this tactic originated from China shipping vast amounts of exports around the world. These shipping containers were effectively only being half used, as they were empty on the way back from China. The solution: pay developed countries to import recyclable waste.
Most developed countries claim to have high rates of recycling waste, and recycling plastics. However, these statistics used by governments and councils take into account the amount of waste that is sent to other countries.
In the year 2017 alone, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic waste to be recycled. Developed countries were happy with the 'out of sight, out of mind' methodology when it came to plastic waste.
Send it abroad, and it will be recycled. A quick, magic fix with no strings attached.
Pampering Gift Sets: Case Study
One of our Eco-Friendly Gifts that is designed to create minimal waste, including waste sent to recycling, are our Pampering Gift Sets.
Instead of using a conventional single use hamper, we use beautifully constructed wicker baskets. These baskets can be reused indefinitely as a keepsake, as well as for future cosmetics.
By using reusable packaging, including the wicker baskets, as well as reusable tins, our Pampering Gift Sets reduce the total amount of waste sent to landfill, recycling and incineration.
The Chinese Ban On Importing Plastic Waste
This all changed in 2018, when China introduced a "garbage ban" on importing foreign waste.
This ban is known as the 'National Sword'. This meant not accepting any more plastic unless it was 99.5% pure, a figure which very rarely occurs. Up until that point, the UK had annually been exporting 500,000 tonnes of plastic to china for 'recycling'.
No one knows how much of the 500,000 tonnes of plastic actually gets recycled when it arrives in the country it's been exported to. There are many reports of plastic arriving in China, and just being dumped or burned illegally.
The exact cause of the ban on foreign waste imports is unknown, but it is thought to be the result of a documentary film studying the Chinese imports of waste. The film 'Plastic China' was shown around the world, and gained widespread recognition.
It was available in China, until the Chinese Government took it down from their internet.
Which Countries Are Importing Plastic Waste Now?
Since the ban in 2018, many developed countries have found new destinations for plastic waste. In particular, Malaysia, Vietnam and India have taken the brunt of this plastic onslaught.
After the Chinese ban, Malaysia accepted the exports from many developed countries. This mass import was shortly followed by Malaysia returning up to 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste that was either contaminated, or not a high enough standard to be recycled.
The Environmental Minister for Malaysia, Yeo Bee Yin, commented saying "Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world … we will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied by developed countries.”
She also commented on the UK recycling industry, with the evidence she sees from living in Malaysia. "What the citizens of the UK believe they send for recycling is actually dumped in our country".
With the Chinese ban coming into place, it means that materials that were once recyclable, purely because China was buying it, are now not so. This just increases the amount of plastic going directly to landfill in both domestic and foreign countries.
As a result of the Malaysian ban on importing plastic, the material is now smuggled through ports. Illegal plastic processing plants are being built in the rural areas of Malaysia. Workers are exposed to appalling conditions, as well as surrounding villages being exposed to toxic fumes from burning plastic.
In conclusion, the evidence is clear that recycling plastic does not work.
The only reason citizens of developed countries believed it was working, was because our Governments were selling it to countries such as China and Malaysia.
Now these countries are not accepting any plastic waste, apart from plastic which is 99.5% pure, it has become apparent recycling never worked.
We need our Governments to actually do something significant to reduce this endless cycle of production and waste. Mass legislation needs to be put in place that:
Requires companies to have a complete life cycle assessment for all their products and packaging.
Invests in infrastructure to massively reduce the amount of waste being produced that ends up incinerated or in landfill.
Rewards companies for creating zero waste solutions.
Invests in the circular economy.
We can start by reducing and reusing. By doing both of these things, it reduces the demand for plastic. This means plastic producers will make less money from selling plastic, as the demand won't be there anymore.
Reducing and reusing will also give global waste management systems a good opportunity to rebuild systems that work efficiently.
We have developed LFHP Zero to fully compost any compostable gifts you order from us. This guarantees zero waste goes to landfill.
So Is It Worth Trying To Recycle Anything?
In landfill and incineration, plastic is guaranteed not to be recycled. If plastic is put in the recycling bin, at least it has a chance (a very slim one) of being recycled. Is it worth trying? We think so.
But don't get your hopes up that your plastic will actually be recycled.
Gifts For Eco Warriors
Our unique collection of gifts for eco warriors are built around finding creative alternatives to single use plastic, both in the gifts themselves and the packaging they come in.
Whilst our gifts for eco warriors are sustainable in the materials used to make them, they are also environmentally friendly in the entire life cycle, from cradle to grave.
If you would like to read more about plastic pollution and the steps we can take to stand against it, feel free to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.