Is plastic recyclable?

Plastics are synthetic products made from organic polymers. Due to their plasticity, they can be molded or pressed into an array of shapes, hence the name plastic. 

In this article, I will go over whether plastic is recyclable. I will first explain the types of plastic there are and what are the differences. Whether all types of plastic can be recycled or not. 

Thereafter, I will explain what rate we are consuming plastic and the negative outcomes of our plastic consumption on the environment. Lastly, I will offer some solutions to the issues plastic poses to the environment. 

Can we recycle plastic? 

In most cases, yes we can. Most of the developed nations as well a great number of developing nations have plastic recycling plants. Most big cities have curbside recycle bins that collect plastic waste.

There is however a lot of controversy raised over the efficacy of plastic recycling, especially in the United States. We are finding out that plastics are not as efficiently recycled as we were led to believe. 

Not all plastic is recycled and throwing plastic into the recycling bin indiscriminately contaminates the source, in these cases, the entire batch will likely be thrown into the garbage. 

Plastic recycling is not as straightforward as glass or paper. Many considerations need to be made by us, the consumers. To understand the issues with plastic recycling, we need to first understand the nature of plastic. 

What is plastic? 

Plastic is a broad term that denotes many synthetically made organic polymers. This means it refers to a collection of different materials which vary in quality and chemical composition.

There are 7 types of plastic, each is made of a different resin and is denoted by a number from 1-7. All plastic products are required to have a number that denotes their type on the body of the plastic. This number is encapsulated within three arrows. 

The 7 types of plastic are: 

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)- This is a widely used plastic. Water bottles, jars, bottle caps are made from it among many others.
  • High-density Polyethylene (HDPE)- This is also a commonly used plastic. Grocery bags, cosmetic bottles are made from this.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)- this plastic is used to make drainage pipes, window pipes, cable and wire insulation, and other material needed around the house. It’s versatile making it a perfect candidate for a variety of uses.
  • Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE): This is used to make food packaging like bread bags, plastic films, etc.
  • Polypropylene (PP): This is generally used to make single-use plastics like plastic cutlery, yogurt cups, single-use plates and water cups, etc.
  • Polystyrene (PS): This is used to make takeaway packaging, certain toys, etc.
  • Others: This incorporates all other types of plastic that are not the first 6. Most plastic is made from petrochemicals, however, recently there are some made from plant-based sources like polylactic acid (PLA) which also fall under type 7. 

Not all of these plastics mentioned above are recyclable, and in most cases even if they are recyclable, they are not. This is because plastic is cheap to make, recycling costs more than making new plastic.

Besides the categorization of plastic into 7 types based on their chemistry, they can be categorized into 2 types based on their physical traits. These two types are thermoplastics and thermosetting plastics. 

Thermosetting plastics like melamine harden when heated, which makes them very hard to recycle. Thermoplastics do melt when heated and their malleability allows manufacturers to mold them into new material from recycled plastic. 

How plastic is recycled: 

Most plastic is recycled via mechanical means. Thermoplastics are the ones recycled in most countries, however, chemical processes are being developed in an attempt to recycle thermosetting plastic. 

The recycling process involves several steps: 

  • Collection and distribution

Plastics are first collected into recycle bins and taken to recycling centers. It is worth noting that different plastics may be recycled by different facilities, make sure you read what the policy is in your city. 

Anything that is not recycled contaminates the entire batch and results in the whole batch ending up in landfills. Plastic is collected from homes, offices, and institutions by either a private company or the municipality and transported into recycling plants.

  • Sorting and categorization

    Plastic is sorted based on type, color, and thickness, size, and use in the recycling station.
    There are special machines that sort plastic based on its shape, color, and thickness.
  • Washing

    Any extremely dirty plastic has to be washed before being thrown into the recycle bin. It doesn’t have to be spotless, but clean enough. Even then in the recycling center, there’s a washing step where the plastic products are
    washed thoroughly. All impurities and grime are removed to make sure there is no contamination.
  • Shredding

In this step the plastic products are all shredded into smaller pieces. This serves two purposes, any remaining impurities are removed at this stage. For example, iron is removed with a magnet. The other purpose is to easily transport the plastic. This shredded plastic can either be further recycled or sold to companies that use shredded plastic as a raw material.

  • Identification and separation of plastics

    At this step first the plastic is sorted based on density. The plastic is submerged in water, the plastic sink or flow depends on its density. Then a process called “air classification” blows wind on the plastics in a wind tunnel. The lighter ones get blown away while the heavier ones stay.
  •  Extruding and compounding

Now the plastic is melted and shredded into pellets. These pellets can only be used for recycling and serve no other purpose. Different types of plastic are often treated in separate plants, in which case they are sent to the designated plants.

Currently, only PET, PP, and HDPE are recycled widely. There are specialist centers that recycle LDPE, PVC, and PS, but the amount of these plastics recycled is very low.

It is important to remember that plastic can mostly be recycled once, the heating and processing degrades and cheapens the quality of plastic, which is why recycled plastic is thrown into landfills. 

Clear, transparent PET is among the widely recycled plastics, with 50% to 75% recycled PET going into making new plastics. 

Colorful PET, however, is rarely recycled. This is because these are not approved as food safe in most of the world. The high heat required to recycle plastic often releases harmful chemicals and if they mix with food it would be a public health issue. 

How plastic waste harms the environment: 

Most plastic waste ends up in landfills or our oceans. 

The buoyancy of plastic is directly responsible for giant garbage patches in our oceans. Researchers have found plastic deep in the ocean trenches. Microplastics are ubiquitous. From drinking water to ocean water, it’s impossible to avoid microplastics. 

Most of our food source is contaminated with microplastic. This means we will consume a significant amount throughout our lifetime. The long-term implications of plastic consumption on our health are unpredictable but it’s enough to alarm us. 

Aquatic life suffers immensely from plastic pollution. Marine creatures mistake plastic for food, which clogges their digestive tracts leading to a slow, painful death. 

I’m sure none of us is a stranger to the unfortunate images of plastic straws stuck in the noses of turtles, or jellyfish entangled in plastic bags. 

Each year 25 million tons of plastic are generated in Europe, only 30% of which ends up in recycling centers. The rest of the 70% ends up in landfills. 

Plastic takes between 20 to 500 years to decompose. 

The problem is recycling plastic is more costly than making virgin plastic.

Over the last 30 years, the plastic recycling system has in most part been unsuccessful at keeping plastic out of landfills. 

The average consumer feels their responsibilities end when they throw the plastic container into the curbside recycling. Moreover, it has been shown that the presence of recycling bins gives the average public a sense of accomplishment with counteractive results. The presence of recycling bins has been shown to result in higher plastic consumption among the general public. 

The oil and gas companies have been very dishonest with the public about how inefficient plastic recycling systems are, all to turn a profit. 

Nowadays, most consumers are more aware of the pitfalls of plastic recycling. There are active attempts by researchers to develop chemical recycling methods which can remove plastic from landfills. 

Private companies are arising in many parts of the world that are actively working to reuse plastic in creative ways. For example, many companies recently are working to turn plastic into construction material like asphalt or bricks. 

There are active attempts by some companies and municipalities to bring plastics into the circular economy. A system in which all waste is turned into raw material and nothing reaches the landfills. 

However, a truly sustainable solution to the plastic problem appears to be one of reducing consumption. 

How we can reduce plastic consumption: 

Public awareness,  changes in local and federal laws, developing more efficient recycling methods, and finding sustainable alternatives to plastic are all necessary to reduce plastic consumption. 

Educating the public on how to recycle properly and to reduce single-use plastic use is the first step. 

Many countries in Europe have already limited single-use plastic use, so has New York. Countries like India are in the process of banning it.

Turkey has recently imposed an additional charge on every plastic shopping bag, which was previously given out for free by restaurants and grocery stores as well as fashion outlets. 

Finding alternatives to plastics is an extremely important step to reduce plastic waste.

There are already cellulose-based plastic bags in the market, a biodegradable alternative to styrofoam is being developed that is made of fungi. 

There are many other attempts taken by environmental groups and green companies to reduce plastic use.

Nevertheless, one thing must be considered above all else, plastic is very cheap and durable. These qualities make it ideal and any replacement must be just as cheap and durable if not more. 

Conclusion:

In this article, I went over whether plastic is recyclable. I first explained the types of plastic there are and what the differences are. Whether all types of plastic can be recycled or not. 

Thereafter, I explained what rate we are consuming plastic and the negative outcomes of our plastic consumption on the environment. Lastly, I offered some solutions to the issues plastic poses to the environment. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Is plastic recyclable? 

What plastics cannot be recycled? 

Thermosetting plastics are non-recyclable. This is because the recycling method melts the plastic and then turns it into pellets. Thermosetting plastics cannot be melted. 

Is plastic recyclable, yes or no?

Yes, many plastics are recyclable. However, it depends on the type of plastic. Most thermoplastics can be recycled. Check your local municipality’s guidelines on recycling.

How can you tell if plastic is recyclable? 

Recycling guidelines vary between cities and countries. Check the plastic-type, 1-7, and your city’s recycling guidelines to make sure which are recyclable and which aren’t. 

What is the recycling process for plastic? 

The recycling process has multiple steps, first, it is sorted, then cleaned, then shredded into smaller pieces, then it is sorted again based on density and all impurities are removed, then it is melted and later shredded into pellets. These pellets are then sent to plastic manufacturing companies. 

Is plastic recyclable? 

Depends on the type of plastic. Most thermoplastics can be recycled. Check your local municipality’s guidelines on recycling.

Keep in mind that plastic items which have paper or foil are non-recyclable, so throw the paper coffee cups and plastic bag wrapping in the garbage. 

Is plastic recycling a lie? 

Not really, plastic is recycled. However, the effectiveness of plastic recycling has been overstated by oil companies to continue to sell oil to make virgin plastics. Nowadays we are more aware of this deception and most countries are taking necessary actions to reduce plastic waste. 

References:

  1. Sullivan, L. (2021). How big oil misled the public into thinking plastic can be recycled. Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled
  2. Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling). (2021). Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-plastic-and-recycling/
  3. Everything you need to know about recycling plastics | Recycle Now. (2021). Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.recyclenow.com/recycling-knowledge/how-is-it-recycled/plastics
  4. An Introduction to Plastic Recycling and the Plastic Recycling Process. (2021). Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.thebalancesmb.com/an-overview-of-plastic-recycling-4018761
  5. ‘Plastic recycling is a myth’: what really happens to your rubbish?. (2021). Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish
  6. Latham, K. (2021). The world’s first ‘infinite’ plastic. Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210510-how-to-recycle-any-plastic
  7. Advancing Circular Packaging. (2021). Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.advancingcircularpackaging.com(2021). 
  8. Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://apps.npr.org/plastics-recycling/
  9. Toronto, C., Payments, S., Recycling, O., & (Recycling)?, W. (2021). What Goes in the Blue Bin (Recycling)?. Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/recycling-organics-garbage/houses/what-goes-in-my-blue-bin/
  10. Plastic recycling. (2021). Retrieved 9 December 2021, from https://www.oregonmetro.gov/tools-living/garbage-and-recycling/recycling-home/plastic-recycling

What was missing from this post which could have made it better?

Leave a Comment