Most of us do our best to make sure our recyclable waste (including, and especially, single-use plastic) gets into the recycling bin. We naively believe that our waste is therefore prevented from entering our landfills or the natural environment.
And maybe we even think that the plastic bottle we recycle will have a new life as a comparable product (and that this rebirth can go on forever). Placing that bottle or package in the recycling bin makes us feel like we’ve done our part.
Here at Unwrapped Life, we believe recycling is somewhat akin to a feel-good activity (and a coping mechanism for some of us!). While we agree recycling is good, and definitely better than using virgin material, it is NOT the be-all and end-all solution to our growing waste problem.
Here are our top three reasons why we believe recycling just simply isn’t enough.
1) Recycling is a Business, and it’s a Complicated one at that
Make no mistake: recycling is an industry. Recycled plastic has to compete with virgin plastic in an international marketplace. It requires that there be a demand for the recycled product along with appropriate pricing on the supply side.
Within North America, there really isn’t much of a domestic market for recyclables (other than perhaps steel or high-density plastics) which means the majority of our plastic bottles and other items we diligently toss in the blue bin hold little more value than trash. Placing an item in the recycling bin won’t make a difference if someone can’t make money off of it.
As a business, recycling requires an enormous expenditure of resources and energy – on a global scale. This includes, but is not limited to: the monitoring of collection sites; sorting the various materials; research and development regarding recycling technology; the transportation of recyclables; and, the recycling manufacturing process itself. There is a lot of cost and work that goes into the overall process, every step of the way.
You might think that your plastic bottle is getting recycled in a facility close to you – or at the very least, domestically – but that’s generally not what happens. That plastic bottle will get grouped with other similar materials, put into huge bales, loaded onto a ship, and head across the ocean where it will be used as a relatively cheap raw material in another manufacturing process.
Previously, the majority of the world’s plastic waste was shipped to China, driven by demand for inexpensive raw materials. By some estimates, China had imported some 9 million metric tonnes of trash on an annual basis at one point.
But that all came to a grinding halt in 2017, when China decided to limit foreign trash as part of a larger anti-pollution initiative and National Sword policy. What it does still accept, it has tightened up contamination standards, which has an upstream effect on the rest of the industry. Chinese officials believe that the waste it's receiving from North America and elsewhere is simply not clean enough; harmful contaminants are mixing in with recyclable materials and polluting the land and water.
Some studies, like one in Scientific Advances, indicate that by 2030, 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced, currently with nowhere in particular to go, because of China's new law. This is equal to nearly half of all plastic waste that has been imported globally since 1988.
There’s no single country that can replace China’s recycling capacity, and this has shifted the recycling industry and market internationally. While some materials have been relocated to Southeast Asia and India, many communities around the world are scrambling with an ever increasing waste problem as there is no competitive market for their recyclables. The extent of our waste is starting to show up in our own backyards, and it’s beginning to cause a lot of problems for some people.
2) Recycling plastic results in a ‘downgraded’ product (so it really should be called “down-cycling”)
Most of the plastic products and packaging you buy are made from virgin plastic. But not all plastics are created equal when it comes to recycling – some are more easily transformed into the next product than others.
Think that "chasing arrows symbol" with the number one through seven means it can be recycled? Wrong, that's not actually the case. Almost all plastic products are imprinted with a resin code, which can be misleading, since it is not intended to indicate that the plastic is recyclable or not.
Instead, the resin code is used by the plastics industry to indicate the general type of chemical compound used to make the product. Within the seven resin code categories, there are virtually thousands of different types of plastics, which makes sorting and recycling even more challenging (and contributes to “wish-cycling”).
Generally speaking, plastics imprinted with numbers 3, 5, 6 and 7 are difficult to recycle and don’t have much value to the plastics industry the second time around (never mind a third or fourth time around!). Because there is not an end market for these plastics, even when you put them in your recycle bin, they still end up in a landfill (at best) or our eco-system (at worst).
Depending on where you live, plastics showing numbers 1, 2 and 4 are the most commonly-recycled plastics. And yet, even within this category, the many variations (additives and colourants) used to create such a wide array of plastic products further diminishes the recyclability of the material.
What makes plastic such a unique material, is also its Achilles heel in terms of recyclability. Plastic’s sensitivity to heat and light mean that its long, flexible molecules (the same ones that give it its malleability) degrade and break down when exposed to repeated thermal and mechanical processing.
Plastic degrades more and more each time it’s processed and that degradation process is irreversible. Aside from a few exceptions, most of that virgin plastic can never be used to make the same item again. Rather, the recycling process creates an inferior product, suitable to only a handful of uses, unlike glass and metals, including aluminum, which can be recycled into the same product indefinitely.
Further, contamination of recyclables - especially plastics – can be a big problem (and another reason why China tightened up their standards). Any plastic material with food residues on (or in) it can’t be recycled. In order for plastics to be transformed into recycled goods, they must be of decent quality and cleanliness. And sure, you might have washed out your plastic containers and put them in the correct bin, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else will too. If something hasn’t been washed out properly and the items get co-mingled, then it can result in everything in that bin going to the landfill rather than the recycling plant.
3) There is still no “away”
The shocking truth is that 91% of plastic isn’t recycled (WHAT!?)!
Of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic created over the past 6 decades, only 9% has been recycled, 12% has been incinerated and an incredible 79% of that material is accumulating in landfills (which is still land!) or contaminating the natural environment as litter.
And what happens when that down-cycled product reaches the end of its life? Well, it can’t be recycled again, so it will end up in a landfill, or get incinerated, or make its way into our land and seas.
As our waste problem grows (and is projected to get worse), the need for bigger landfills and the increase in incineration contributes to the production of methane gas, toxic compounds such as dioxins (linked to cancer), and other heavy metals which all add to the significant climate challenges facing us.
We need to shake the idea that plastics are recyclable or disposable, because, rather, they are virtually indestructible, taking anywhere from 10-1,000 years to break down. And when it does breakdown from becoming old and brittle in the natural environment (plastic never fully biodegrades), it ends up looking an awful lot like food for the smallest members of the food chain, like plankton.
As we have said before, we don’t think plastic itself is evil: it’s our “throw-away” mindset and behaviors towards a very amazing material that has created this mess.
As a society, we need to be more respectful of the way we use plastic in order to affect real change. Yes, recycling plays an important role, but we need to be better educated about recycling and shift our mentality towards reducing single-use plastics first and foremost.
So what can you do? Individual actions and small steps can definitely add up (remember that meme: "it’s only one straw, said 8 billion people"?). Make sure all plastics you put in your recycling bin are rinsed clean. When you have an option, choose the most easily-recycled plastics over others (check with your jurisdiction to confirm which numbers are, in fact, recyclable where you live).
But most of all, be conscious of the plastics that you purchase and find ways to buy and use less of it (like switching to plastic-free products, like our shampoo bars!). The less plastic we consume, the less plastic ends up in the landfill and natural environment.