Why can’t we just recycle all the plastic?

Why can’t we just recycle all the plastic?

Why can’t we just recycle all the plastic? 

It is noticeable how many plastic packaged product now have widely recycled, 100% recyclable and various other guidance on recycling on their packaging. In one way this is good, but does it mean the impact of these packages is totally mitigated?

Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but sadly the answer is fairly emphatically NO. Why? Well let me explain a little bit of how such words can be a bit misleading.

You will notice that many plastic items say they are completely recyclable, but are not marked with any indication of recycled content, or if they are it is often much less than 100%. The reason for this is simple, most plastics when they are melted down lose flexibility and strength and so a bottle made out of PET plastic the second time around, is likely to have different properties to one made of new or virgin plastic.

Widely recycled does not mean it can be recycled where you live

The difficulty in recycling plastic means that while the item may be possible to recycle, each new purchase of one is pulling a significant percentage, or even 100% virgin plastic into the system, meaning an ever growing mountain of waste or recycling to deal with. Unfortunately a lot of waste never makes it to recycling as it is put into a landfill bin or simply thrown into a hedge, verge, field, river or stream, but even the plastic that does necessarily always get recycled.

The other problems that occur with plastic recycling is the type and condition of the plastic that is collected. The first issue is cleanliness, yes we know that your council website states that bottles and containers need to be rinsed out, but how many people do that, unfortunately (for recycling rates), not many. This means that one rogue tray of oily food residue can contaminate a whole box of unsorted plastic and make it unusable, so it gets sent for burning or landfill, despite being put into a box for recycling.

The second issue is with identifying and sorting the plastic into those that can be recycled at all or are economic to process and those that must be binned/burned. The Plastic Resin Identification Codes are the numbers in the three chasing arrows stamped into many plastic products. There are 7 main codes, plus one for bio-plastics (plant-based resins). Some are recyclable and some are not and sorting between these can be done by humans, machines or a combination of the two. Codes 1 (PETE), 2 (HDPE), 4 (LDPE) and 5 (PP) are all recyclable and are more likely to be accepted for recycling (although each council around the UK has different policies on what is will and won’t accept).

However, Code 3 (Vinyl), Code 6 (Polystyrene) and Code 7 (Other plastics) are not usually recyclable and the last one in particular covers a vast number of plastic products. These plastics are impossible or very difficult to recycle normally, although organisations like Terracycle may have options for them. We can see this in action with schemes like the one to recycle plastic dental products (toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes etc), although it perhaps should be noted that these multi-material items are not recycled into new toothbrushes or toothpaste tubes. Due to the complexity of separating different layers of plastic or other materials, these item are usually chipped up and the resulting small pieces of plastic are incorporated into composite park benches. While this avoids landfill initially, these mixed material items will have a finite lifespan and are unlikely to be recyclable.

So what can we do about this? Well this is why there is such a push towards reusable items like refillable water bottles or even dissolvable cleaning product refill pods like Ocean Saver, which allow you to reuse the trigger pack your household cleaners come in. We think it is good to remember that although we can mitigate the impact of plastic through recycling, it is always better to look for something reusable or to reuse what you already have if possible.


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