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Why We Can't Recycle Our Way Out Of The Plastic Problem

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Why We Can't Recycle Our Way Out Of The Plastic Problem

In the last decade, we have created more plastic waste than all the plastic produced in the world prior to 2008. What will the next generation have to deal with if we carry on? It's great that more people are becoming conscious of the plastic problem and making an effort to recycle! But, when it comes to plastic recycling, it's a bit more complex than switching from the landfill bin to the recycling bin. Plastic recycling isn't THE solution to our plastic pollution problem. Here's why ...


The 4 Big Problems With Plastic Recycling

Problem Number 1: New plastic is dirt cheap.

Actually, plastic is cheaper than dirt, anyone who buys soil will tell you. With the relatively low oil prices over the last 10 years virgin plastic (newly made from scratch) has become the cheapest and most readily available form of packaging. This creates a number of problems.
  1. It's difficult for companies to package products using anything other than plastic if they want to remain cost competitive. Even paper is more expensive than plastic.
  2. Plastic is so cheap, it's cheaper and easier to consistently create new plastic than to recycle old plastic into new packaging. It is expensive to collect, sort, clean and transport used plastics for recycling. Plastic recycling companies are unable to cover costs when selling plastic for recycling to manufacturing companies. If you want to understand more about the challenges of recycling check our blog post titled: Recycling: Have we been doing it wrong?

Problem Number 2: Some plastics are better than others.

There are multiple types of plastic, each identifiable by the number code in the triangular recycling symbol on the packaging. Each type of plastic comes from a different manufacturer. Each manufacturer has a uniquely designed process. Plastic for recycling needs to go back to the original manufacturers. Some plastics are easier to identify, sort, clean and recycle than others. In South Africa, very few plastic types can be consistently recycled in all areas. Recycling is very location specific. Here's where the problems come in:
  1. Sorting plastic is expensive and tricky.
  2. If we can't avoid plastic we should be actively looking for the specific types of plastics that are easy to recycle in our area. We need to be able to make informed choices about the packaging we choose to support. BUT:
    • Many companies do not put the identification codes on their plastic packaging.
    • Education and details on what can and can't be recycled in each area are usually limited and hard to get hold of.

Problem Number 3: Plastic isn't recycled, it's down-cycled.

Plastic packaging is usually made up of a number of different types of plastics. For example, 1 bottle will usually consist of 3 different types of plastic: the label, the bottle, and the lid. Plastic packaging stores chemical and food products. These residues are often difficult to clean. When different types of plastic are mixed together it creates a very weak plastic. This creates a few issues:
  1. Manufacturers are limited in how much-recycled plastic they can use in the creation of new products. Technology only allows for an average of 6.6% recycled material in a new water or cooldrink bottle. This means 18 new bottles have to be made to recycle 1 bottle every time.
  2. Putting in the necessary quality checks, controls and research to control the quality risks are expensive. Most manufacturers just can't afford to take in recycled material. Refer to Problem Number 1 above: New plastic is just too cheap.
  3. The only way to recycle items that can't go back to the original manufacturer is to convert them into composite furniture or polyester and nylon fabrics. These items aren't recyclable.

Problem Number 4: Plastic takes up space.

Because plastic is light but takes up space, you need big trucks to transport relatively small amounts of plastic weight. This makes transporting plastic more expensive than the cost of the plastic itself. See Problem number 1: new plastic is dirt cheap. Transporting plastic for recycling just doesn't make bottom-line business sense. Landfills are filling up. With our local waste increase hitting almost 200% per person since 1996 this is a critical issue. If you are interested in understanding the impact of our waste explosion check out our blog post: The impact of your waste: what you really need to know as a South African. Plastic is an incredibly useful material. It has revolutionized all areas of our life from building to medicine. But, 52% of all plastic waste is single-use packaging. We can no longer continue to use something for a few minutes that is designed to last forever. Reducing our dependence on single-use plastic needs to come before recycling.