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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin John

Is Recycling Plastic Actually Eco Friendly?

What is Recycling?

I mean, you probably already know what recycling is...

Essentially: using something old again, often in new ways.

Using your old sock as a cleaning rag is a form of recycling, as is using your old iphone as a tv remote. [1]

We often think of recycling as a new and progressive concept, but in reality its old hat.

Humans have been reusing old things as new things throughout history, with accounts of Japan recycling paper from 1031 , and dozens of instances occurring throughout the industrial revolution. [2, 3] There is even evidence of recycling from prehistory [4].

We'll be exploring recycling in the context of waste disposal: The process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects, an alternative to "conventional" waste disposal. [5]

In the UK we have the ability to recycle just about everything if you're committed enough [6], and council rubbish collections generally accept paper & card, foil, glass, metal cans and some plastics [7].


Open Loop vs Closed Loop Recycling

You might have heard the terms open and closed loop recycling being used more and more, but what do they actually mean?

What is Closed Loop Recycling?

Closed loop recycling refers to waste being collected and then used to make the same product it came from [8]. For example, recycling glass bottles to make new glass bottles or recycling old aluminium cans to make new aluminium cans. This means the material has the potential to stay in use indefinitely.

What is Open Loop Recycling?

Open loop recycling refers to waste being recycled into both new raw materials and possibly new waste materials [9]. Open loop practices usually involve collecting and processing various products of similar materials and changing the properties of the material itself. Almost all government recycling programmes are open loop.


What Happens To Your Plastic Recycling?

Exactly what happens to your plastic recycling depends on what kind of plastic is is, and this can get super confusing! [10] Regardless of what type of plastic it is, you might be surprised by what actually happens to it after you drag your green bin to the curb.

It is thought that in the UK we only actually reprocess one third of our plastic recycling domestically. [11].

Just think about that.

Of every three plastic bottles you put in the recycling bin, one will be reprocessed domestically. What happens to the other two? They will be sold on the international commodities market and shipped around the world. If you're lucky your bottles will be "down cycled" and used to create something new, like fleece clothing or drain pipes, (though these products can't generally be recycled themselves). If you're unlucky you're plastic may end up being burnt or dumped anyway.

Whats worse is that some of the market favourite countries for exporting our recycling, places like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia, are some of the countries with the highest rates of waste mismanagement [12]. Your bottles may be burned in open landfills or disposed of in illegal ways.


The Fundamental Problem With Plastic Recycling

Okay, so one third of plastic we put in the recycling bin ends up being recycled domestically. That's better than nothing right? But the glaring issue with plastic recycling remains: plastics are not indefinitely reusable.

Plastics cannot be recycled infinity. In layman terms, the long chains that plastics are made from break down with each cycle, degrading the plastic [13].

As such, we can view plastic recycling as simply delaying the conventional waste disposal of the material: regardless of how many times it is recycled, its eventual fate remains the same. landfill forever or incineration.


Concluding Thoughts

  • Is plastic recycling perfect? No.

  • Is plastic recycling even good? No.

  • Is plastic recycling eco friendly? Not really.

  • Is plastic recycling more eco friendly than conventional waste disposal? Yes.

If you have plastic waste, you can dispose of it in two ways:

  1. Conventional waste bin: Chance of domestic recycling, ~0%

  2. Recycling wast bin: Chance of domestic recycling, ~33.3%

Its clear though, as I'm sure you're aware, that the best thing to do is to resolve is to move away from using all but essential plastics in the first place.

And certainly don't be swayed into thinking that the terms recycling and eco friendly are synonymous.



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