We all know what recycling is - taking waste products and giving them a new lease of life turning them into something new. These reprocessing technologies aren’t without challenge however and plastic recycling in particular is coming under increasing scrutiny.
So what’s the problem?
Of all the items we put into our recycling bins, plastics are some of the most difficult to repurpose. There’s a number of reasons for this;
Plastics are made of different types of polymers. There is no standard polymer used across all plastic packaging and different polymers melt at different temperatures. This means they need to be separated before they can be melted down to be reused. This process is labour and time intensive and some items can’t be picked up by automated machines - black plastic is one of the worst culprits for this.
You’ve heard of up-cycling, but did you know down-cycling also exists? In recycling this is where the material becomes worse after use and for plastics often means it needs to be mixed with new, virgin plastic before it can be reused.
It’s cheaper to use new plastic than to use recycled plastic. It can cost an additional £57 a tonne to use recycled plastics instead of virgin plastic. This is partly due to demand for recycled plastics but also due to how cheap virgin plastic materials are.
What can we do about it?
- There’s a reason reduce, reuse, recycle starts with reduce. The most impactful thing we can do is to try and reduce our consumption. Not only does it remove the energy, materials and water used to create the products in the first place but it also reduces the amount recycling centres need to process.
- Standardising bottle design, colours and materials would go a long way to making plastic bottles easier and more efficient to recycle.
Want to learn more? Here are some great resources…
Wrap - A climate action NGO aiming to tackle the causes of climate crisis around the world, looking at how we can change the way things are produced, consumed and disposed of. They offer a more detailed look at some of the challenges and solutions for the plastic recycling industry here.
Which - A not for profit UK organisation aiming to help consumers make better choices. They’ve broken down the different plastic types and how easy there are to recycle in the UK here.