When we think of recycling, we imagine the blue bins that line the hallways and are tucked away in a corner of our home. We dump our cardboard boxes, junk mail, and plastic bottles in these bins, feeling assured that we have played our part in reducing waste and saving the environment. But seldom do we wonder – what happens to the recycling that leaves our homes?
According to the US Environment Protection Agency, in 2017, only 35% of the total 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste was recycled. Recycling is not some magical process that turns a waste item into a useful product. All the recyclables that you discard are commodities that have a market. Paper is the most recycled waste. Most paper and cardboard can be recycled five to seven times until it becomes so degraded that it can no longer be used – a process known as “downcycling”. Other materials such as glass or metal are also highly recyclable. However, it is the plastics that are a major issue. According to the National Geographic, 91% of plastics do not get recycled. They end up in landfills where they get converted to dangerous microplastics or incinerated which produces toxic chemicals and pollutes the air. The 9% that does get recycled are always downcycled to flimsy plastics that cannot be reused. In Canada, 8% of plastic waste is recycled, 6% is incinerated and 86% goes to landfills.
Big corporations that produce plastics, such as Dow, Imperial Oil and Nova Chemicals, have successfully sold us the idea that their plastic bottles are not causing any harm just because they have the precious “recyclable” symbol printed on them. This is far from the truth. Plastic recyclables have different grades assigned to them from 1 through 7. Grade 1 and 2 plastics are the ones that have the greatest potential to be recycled. Hence, they also have the highest price in the market. However, plastics marked as numbers 3 to 7 are not as recyclable and often have a negative value which means you would have to pay money for someone to take them away to be recycled.
Contamination of plastics is another pressing issue being faced by the recyclables industry. Often plastics that are used to package degradable items, such are food products, render the plastics unrecyclable irrespective of their grade. Ignorance of proper waste separation methods means that a lot of garbage enters the recycling bins. Rigorous separation of such waste is needed and requires money, infrastructure, as well as labor. While single-stream recycling, where all recyclables including paper, plastic or metal are combined in one bin, has made it easier to recycle on our end, it has made the downstream recycling processes extremely challenging. For instance, paper contaminated with oil from food or containing shards of glass is no longer recyclable.
Since 1992, almost half of the world’s recycling is shipped to China. This practice seemed feasible as it fueled China’s booming manufacturing industries. But there was an issue. Plastics from Grades 1 and 2 were mixed with the lower grade plastics when large shipments of recyclables were sent to buyers in China. This was polluting the Chinese countryside and doing more harm than good. In 2018, China imposed regulations curbing the import of low grade and contaminated plastics. This has forced the world to rethink their recycling infrastructure and become self-reliant in processing their recyclable waste.
The world at large is working towards a greener and cleaner future, building innovative technologies to tackle the plastic recycling problem at the forefront. Pyrofuel, a Jordan based startup has used pyrolysis to develop a plastic-to-fuel system. Scindo and Depoly are companies that work to convert plastic polymers into monomers pure enough to repolymerize into high quality plastic. Ecoplasteam, an Italian startup has developed an infinitely recyclable plastic. From waste sorting to degradation and creating reusability, every aspect of plastic recycling is being refined and upgraded by scientists and innovators around the world. Ultimately, the onus lies upon each one of us to seek out information, reduce consumption of plastics and to incorporate good recycling practices in our lives. Afterall, it all starts from our blue bins!
- Milbrandt, Anelia, et al. “Quantification and evaluation of plastic waste in the United States.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 183 (2022): 106363.
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