Big and small corporations alike are starting to take more responsibility for the plastics in their systems - most commonly by recycling them. While it is a positive step, it is important to note that the success of plastics recycling is contingent on many stakeholders, from the product-designer to end-users.
For instance, depending on how we use our products and in what shape we discard them, it determines the value of the plastic and quality of post-use.
It is also a system dictated by market demand, price and local regulations. For example, recycled plastics are generally of lower quality than virgin plastic. Yet, its price is comparable if not higher than brand new material. It is difficult to create market demand unless businesses recognise the value of recycled plastic and are willing to pay for it.
Here are the top five reasons why recycling plastic is challenging and not a long-term solution:
1. It is highly dependent on consumer behaviour.
How many of us sort our trash? If you have been living in Singapore for some time, it's very likely that you haven't. Singapore's waste management system has been designed such that all kinds of waste can go to the same place to be incinerated.
As such, most of us do not have the habit of sorting or cleaning our trash before disposal, and our recycling bins typically look like this:
(photo taken from Today Online)
Note the styrofoam takeaway box and 100 Plus bottle. Any plastic with food residues on them cannot be recycled. Remember that recycled materials are competing with virgin materials in the market, so cleanliness matters.
It is vastly different from countries like South Korea and Taiwan, where they diligently clean recyclables after use:
To get to the stage where everyone responsibly sort and clean their plastic waste will take a significant amount of time and that is not ideal given that the plastics problem is an urgent one.
2. It's not easy to sort plastic
Source: Infographic Journal
Plastics are a composite material. Composite materials contain more than one type of raw material and that makes the recycling process more complicated. While there are 7 official plastic categories according to the Resin Identification Codes (RIC) as shown above, there are thousands of plastic combinations.
For example, different additives can be added to basic resin to produce a desired colour, shape and texture to the final product. These additions are considered to be impurities and will lead slightly different melting points and other properties of the plastic within the same resin code. It becomes challenging to separate the material with narrow melting point ranges.
Plastics are also used in conjunction with other materials. Paper cups for instance are lined with a layer of polypropylene for insulation properties. But the multi-layered material requires a great deal of resources and time to recycle. There is little incentive for recycling companies to process such complicated products.
In Saint Paul, as with most communities, only bottles with "necks" marked with resin codes 1 or 2 are collected for recycling. Containers without necks, such as tubs and trays are not recyclable even if they have the same resin codes.
This is because plastic bottles are "blow-molded", while plastic tubs are "injection-molded". The different additives used in each process mean the two cannot be mixed during the recycling process.
3. Would you pay more for a second-handed item than new? Neither would businesses.
Buying recycled plastic is like buying a second-handed item for more than its retail price. Recycled plastic faces a weak market since its virgin counterpart is both cheaper and of better quality.
However, the demand for recycled plastic is skyrocketing. Consumer goods firms like Unilever, Nestle and Coca-Cola have all made major commitments to incorporate post-consumer resins in their products.
In desperation to keep contracts, packaging suppliers in China have mixed cheaper virgin plastic with recycled plastic to sell it as 100% post-consumer content. It is further fueled by the COVID-induced oil price plunge, setting the price of virgin plastics to an all-time-low.
Consumer good firms face the pressure to meet their goals within ambitious timelines since the pressure is on them rather than on packaging suppliers to fulfill sustainability commitments. With suppliers, they are pressured to provide recycled content even if they can't so as to not lose contracts.
It is reasonable to be concerned that these interests may cause stakeholders to overlook the existing opacity of supply chains.
4. Plastics are not really recycled, they are repurposed.
Unlike glass or aluminum, plastic recycling does not "close the loop" because most postconsumer plastics cannot be used for the same purpose again. Instead, if a plastic was previously used to contain milk, it would be turned into lower-grade products like jacket fill, fleece, carpet and plastic lumber.
The same piece of plastic can only be recycled about 2-3 times before it degrades to the point beyond usability. Even if it were to be used for the same purpose, it would be combined with virgin resin to improve its quality.
Essentially, recycling plastic only prolongs its lifespan and delays eventual disposal. The final destination for all plastic is either a landfill or incinerator.
5. Not all recycled plastics have a market demand
Globally, there is only a demand and mature marketplace for recycled rPET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and rHDPE (high-density polyethylene).
rPET is the fastest-growing segment of recycled plastic as they are the most easily sorted and collected source of used plastics. Up to 90% of PET in the U.S that goes into the recycling bin is recycled.
The demand for rPET is driven through textiles, where they are repurposed into synthetic fabric like polyester.
Consumer goods firms like Unilever and P&G recognise the demand for environmentally cleaner products and their plastic commitments drive the demand for rHDPE.
For example, Unilever has made commitments to ensure all of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, and to use at least 25% recycled plastic in its packaging by 2025. P&G has also made commitments to halve its virgin plastic use.
But there seems to be an unbalanced focus on these two categories of plastics, neglecting the remaining five. Unless there is demand for them like rPET and rHDPE, businesses have little incentive to want to recycle the material.
The situation has also been further aggravated with the Covid-19 induced oil price crash which resulted in cheaper virgin plastics. Businesses are now more incentivised to opt against recycled plastic.
So… is there still a point to recycling plastic?
Yes! The purpose of the article was to show that recycling plastic will only help us delay the problem of plastic, not eradicate it. It is still a positive step towards a healthier environment, but we must also not become comfortable with more recycled plastic use.
We must continue to push for behavioral change in our daily lives, by bringing our own bags/cutlery when possible and making more conscious choices. Recycled plastics may buy us some time to change, but the clock is ticking nonetheless.