From a young age, we are taught that recycling is the right thing to do. Many of us ended up learning in school how to recycle properly but it turns out there are plenty of things nobody told us about recycling. In recent years, it’s starting to become clear that plastic recycling is not a solution to the world’s plastic crisis. That’s because the plastic recycling system is flawed in many ways and actually stands as one of the biggest contributors to plastic pollution. Did you know that less than 10% of all the plastic that has ever been produced has been recycled? The size of our plastic problem is suddenly becoming clear.
Most of the plastic we use ends up in the landfill or, even worse, in the environment. In both of these situations, the plastic keeps polluting the earth as it releases microplastics (tiny plastic particles). Additionally, if the plastic waste winds up in the ocean, the situation is even more severe. Discarded plastic waste presents a serious danger to marine animals, which can ingest it or get entangled in it.
Let’s sort out the terminology
Did you know that plastic can’t actually be recycled in the true sense of the word? It can only be downcycled, which means that it loses its quality as it is processed and cannot be made into the same item again. Plastic material is therefore only ‘recycled’ once before it cannot be used anymore. Usually, most good quality plastic is transformed into garden furniture, fabrics, or pipes. The low-quality plastic, on the other hand, gets dumped.
So why is plastic so rarely ‘recycled’?
The first question that comes to mind about plastic recycling is: what makes it so hard and why can’t it be done more? There are several factors contributing to this. Firstly, while we refer to them all as plastic, there are actually many different plastic materials. Some of them are recyclable and some are not. Often, we cannot tell which is which and so we throw them all in the recycling bin and it is up to recycling facility workers to sort them, making plastic recycling more expensive.
Secondly, as you just read – not all plastics can be recycled. In some plastic items, it is the material that makes them unrecyclable and in some, it’s other factors such as color. Take, for example, toothbrushes or plastic straws. They come in so many different color varieties that can’t be mixed together. To recycle them, the facility would have to put aside storage space for, let’s say, red toothbrushes, and wait until it fills up. However, since recycling facilities are, after all, just another business, it does not pay off to do this. If the facility does not have enough plastic waste that can be recycled together, it is simply discarded and ends up in a landfill, an incineration plant or, worst of all, the ocean.
The majority of waste set aside to be recycled in western countries is not actually recycled locally but sent abroad to be recycled in facilities where labor is cheaper. This results in a massive carbon footprint of the recycling industry and a substantial contribution to, you guessed it, climate change.
When DOES recycling work?
While plastic recycling is not very effective, we should not completely reject recycling as a whole. In some cases, it can actually be very beneficial. If you stay away from the plastic and choose glass or aluminum packaging instead, recycling is a very good choice! That is because both glass and metals are materials which can be recycled practically indefinitely, making them great sustainable alternatives.
Some ways plastic can be effectively repurposed is by utilizing it as a downcycled material to create clothing, shoes or other items. This way, a material which would probably be thrown away and forgotten about in the landfill can get a new use and help out for another few years. However, we all need to be careful not to justify our plastic usage by the fact that old plastic bottles can be downcycled into leggings or sneakers. These are great ways to get rid of existing plastic pollution, but it would be even better if they were not needed in the first place.
What can we do about this?
The world’s plastic pollution crisis is serious, but thankfully, there is a lot that we can do to tackle it and help make the world free of plastic waste. Firstly, start by thinking of where your plastic waste is coming from. Look through your trash and recycling – seriously – and see what plastic items accumulate there the most. Is it food packaging? Cosmetics? Something else?
Most likely, food will be the biggest source. To start with, stop using plastic produce bags. Either buy yourself some washable ones or ditch them altogether! I am sure you do not need to wrap most of your produce in a layer of plastic. Along with produce bags and shopping bags, start eating more whole foods which you can buy without packaging. Don’t forget to check your neighborhood for zero waste and package-free shops, which will dramatically help reduce the amount of plastic coming out of your home!
Think of easy substitutes for the items you use daily. Swap a plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one or liquid soap in a plastic bottle for a simple bar of natural soap. Make smarter simple purchases, rather than going out of your way for a solution.
And don’t forget that plastic can hide in unexpected places! Your clothes, the lining of your takeaway coffee cup, as tiny particles in cosmetics, or even in the food you eat! Did you know that whenever you eat a fish or seafood, it most likely contains plastic particles released into the ocean from all the plastic floating around in it?
For a longer comprehensive guide, check out last week’s article about zero waste living, where you can find some tips on how to get started with a more sustainable lifestyle!
A marketing and media student with a passion for all things sustainable and zero waste living. While studying, Lucie also works as a freelancer, writing articles about sustainability and helping eco-businesses with their marketing needs. In her writing, she hopes to inspire people to make small changes that can create a big difference in the world.
The Imperfect Blog
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to have it all figured out in order to lead a sustainable lifestyle. In fact, it's better to make small conscious choices when possible, than none at all. We explore every topic under the sun around kindness to our environment, wildlife, other people and ourselves.