The cup, the fork, the bottle, the takeaway box you are holding will be around for more than one hundred years. One hundred years! That’s a long time for a little bit of convenience.
Future generations will probably remember our time as the “plastic century,” thanks to the enormous scale of goods made from the light, durable, and relatively low-cost material. Areas where metal, wood, and even paper were once used, different types of plastics are now the rule. The question of the utilization of this “disposable” material is perfectly natural for modern industry.
The natural decomposition of plastic products takes a long time, and the burning of plastic releases toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment and human health. Obviously, the best option is recycling, the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects.
Types of Plastics that Can Be Recycled
· Polyethylene Terephthalate (used to make a plastic wrap, containers for liquids, and foods, sheets for packaging)
· High-density polyethylene (plastic milk cartons, Nalgene bottles, shampoo bottles)
· Polyvinyl chloride (packaging, liquid detergent containers)
· Low-density polyethylene (used in some bread and frozen food bags, trash cans, and garbage can liners)
· Polypropylene (packaging trays, household products)
· Polystyrene (used in a variety of consumer product applications and also particularly useful for commercial packaging)
Interesting Facts about Plastic that Will Blow Your Mind
· Bottled water companies don’t produce water. They produce plastic bottles. Ninety percent of the price you pay for a bottle of water goes toward the cost of plastic, while the water itself costs only about 10%.
· The fishing industry is one of the main sources of ocean pollution. It throws out a huge amount of plastics. About 150 tons of polymeric material enters the water annually, including packaging, fishing nets, and other debris.
· Recycling plastic requires 88% less energy than creating new plastic. When you choose recycled plastic, you are not only saving plastic from waterways, landfills, and the ocean but also reducing your carbon footprint!
· Some countries have banned plastic water bottles. Among them are Australia, China, Austria, Bangladesh, Ireland, and several other countries. Small changes make a big impact.
· Most fast-food restaurants serve soft drinks with straws made of plastic. These straws can’t be recycled and take years to decompose. No wonder they are on the Plastics BAN List, which is constantly updated by the 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit organization that focuses on reducing plastics pollution. It turns out that all these straws are the major coast polluter. Many states have either banned or are about to ban the use of these straws. Banning plastic straws won’t fix the ocean, but it’s a start.
· Disposable paper or plastic cups are neither recyclable nor biodegradable. Therefore, Starbucks offers a 10% discount for environmentally conscious coffee lovers who bring their own mugs to buy fresh java.
· Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long. Even modern water filters do not remove them. Research has shown that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in major cities around the globe.
· The more plastic you consume, the more you actually “consume.” The plastics leak chemicals, harm or kill marine inhabitants (they mistake the trash for food) if they end up in the ocean, and break down into microplastics, which we then eat, drink, and breathe. Marine litter also led to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where ocean currents bring all the thrown out plastic.
Plastic Recycling Processes
One of the difficulties encountered in recycling plastic is the process of removing impurities (metal or glass parts). The separate collection of household and industrial waste, which has already become traditional in Western Europe and North America, is also essential.
Once at the recycling depot, the plastic must be compressed into blocks or bales weighing 100–150 kg to facilitate transportation and preparation for the processing phase. This stage is often preceded by the waste grinding in special crushers.
Plastic recycling can be divided into mechanical and chemical. The chemical method involves exposing the plastic to active substances, high temperatures, and pressure. Chemical recycling utilizes processes such as pyrolysis (the thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere), hydrolysis (the chemical breakdown of substances by water), glycolysis (the sequence of reactions for breaking down glucose) and methanolysis (the degradation of polymer by methanol at high temperatures and under high-pressure conditions).
Almost all mechanical methods of recycling are focused on grinding the treated waste and then obtaining a homogeneous mass. An important difference between this group of methods and chemical methods is the fact that the resulting product does not differ in its physical and chemical properties from the primary raw material. Mechanically recycled mixed plastics can be downcycled for lower-grade uses, such as plastic lumber.
Big Problems Require Big Solutions
Polyethylene terephthalate bottles and high-density polyethylene (household chemical plastic containers) are generally safe for separate collection systems, but the recycling rates for them are still shockingly low. Only half of the plastic is collected for recycling. New PET bottles contain only 7% recycled content. Most of the plastic packaging is converted into lower-quality products and not destined for further processing.
Clearly, recycling only slightly reduces the growing amount of new plastic produced and its inevitable waste. Therefore, the efforts that most FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies and retailers make to clean up beaches, improve recycling, or educate their customers are, at best, misdirected and, at worst, masking the real problem.
Recycling is an important part of the transition to a plastic-free economy, but it’s not a replacement for an overall reduction in single-use packaging — and certainly not an excuse to increase plastic production. Any further processing must meet the highest social and environmental standards and take its rightful place in the hierarchy of waste disposal: refuse > reduce > reuse.
Yes, we do have some very big and urgent problems that we must face head-on, but if each one of us does what we can to help in our own way, then we will solve this problem together and become more united as a result.
The Voice of Plastics Recycling
Any contribution to Mother Earth is valuable. There are some examples of organizations that are addressing the plastic crisis, which demands high-level global action and policy:
· The European Association of Plastics Recycling delivers efficient solutions for the sustainable management of plastic resources and advocates for the recycling of all post-consumer plastic packaging.
· The Plastics Industry Association encourages people to give plastic a new life, incentivizes companies to eliminate waste and increase recycling, and provides education to the industry and the public about plastic.
· The Association of Plastic Recyclers aims to increase the supply and enhance the quality of the plastics recycling stream.
The Bottom Line
Plastic pollution is everywhere, but so are the solutions to get out of this unending cycle. Do yourself and the rest of the world a favor and reconsider then next time you think about buying or using plastic. Every piece matters. The mountains of trash are made of “just one fork” and “just one bag.” You and your choices matter.