Due to the global nature of plastic production and use, it is difficult to get firm numbers on just how much is used and thrown out every year. Estimates from a number of research studies, however, show that as many as 100 million tons up to greater than 300 million tons of plastic waste are produced worldwide every year. The other sad statistic is that only 5% to 9% of it is being recycled in an efficient or affordable manner that will be sustainable. The problem worldwide has gotten to the point that the well-known and respected Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that by the year 2050, if an effective way to deal with plastic waste is not implemented immediately, the ocean could contain more plastic than fish.
How This Problem Developed?
The question that has to be asked when looking at plastic recycling is this: why is so little plastic being recycled? The majority of the factors that determine how and when plastics get recycled has to do with the way it is processed and manufactured. Plastic resins are melted and formed into the bottles and containers we are used to seeing in our day to day lives. Every type of bottle uses different plastics and every kind of plastic has different ingredients, materials, and additives. Plastic water bottles have a different plastic than bleach bottles do and both of those plastics are very different from the plastic used in packaging.
Different plastics are made with additives that mean they have different melting points and require different processes to recycle. Thin clear plastic bottles won’t be recycled the same way a detergent bottle will be recycled. Chemical additives also come into play. Some help make plastic more flexible and others make them more rigid, and there are additives for things like dyes and chemicals to affect the texture of the plastic. All of these separate additions affect how plastic can be recycled. What this means is that there are thousands of variations of plastics and not all of them can be recycled due to the chemicals that would be released during the process.
The Problem of Mixing Plastics
The big problem facing many local recycling efforts in the US and around the world is that there is no single standard for plastics. Every plastic is a little different and needs different situations and settings to effectively and safely recycle. Households often lump all plastics together for recycling, which means at some point it all has to be separated before it can be recycled. This sorting process is expensive for municipals and other organizations to do and is the biggest detractor to large scale recycling efforts for plastics. Further compounding the problem is the fact that many plastic containers have a blend of two or more plastics or plastic and other material that cannot be recycled. This renders a bottle, bag, or tray unfit for recycling with the current processes and methods we have.
Are We Stuck With Plastic?
Plastics aren’t always a bad thing, as they offer a sanitary and effective way to store and transport items. The problem is not the fact that we use plastic; it is the plastic waste that is causing the problems. Because of the limited useable lifespan plastic has, the energy and pollution cost to make the plastic in the first place, and the obstacles present in efficient recycling, the best thing we can do is reduce our use, both at home and in business.
Here at Central Kentucky Fiber Resources, LLC, we are working to help improve recycling on all fronts. To learn more about plastic recycling, global recycling practices in general, and how you can make a difference, contact us today.