Plastic is a victim of its own success. It’s so practical, cheap and versatile we manufacture millions of tons of it each year. It’s used right across the board, from cheap containers for food to high performance plastics used in motor vehicles. But getting rid of it is a nightmare. It lasts seemingly forever, and waste plastic is an increasing blot, not just on the landscape but the whole environment. Why don’t we recycle more of it?
Most plastic can be recycled. It can be melted or ground up and reused, although it tends to be downcycled each time. But the process of recycling is pretty difficult. It’s difficult to sort for one thing – although there are many different types, most plastic looks like – well, plastic, at least to the untrained eye. Some products comprise multiple plastic parts (think of a laptop); and plastic waste tends to be bulky, so it quickly fills containers. As a result, the percentage of plastics recycled in the US is very small, somewhere around 5% – 7&%  and around 20% in the UK.
But recycling plastic has many benefits. It means less waste going to landfill, and less oil and energy used to manufacture new plastic, with consequent savings in greenhouse gas emissions.
Plastic is recycled in one of two ways. In mechanical recycling the plastic is first sorted by hand, either into different types of plastic, different colors of plastic, or both. This is a very labor-intensive process and although technologies exist to sort the waste by technologies such as X-ray fluorescence and infrared spectroscopy, these are costly. Once sorted the plastic is melted down then shredded into granules, which can then be molded into a new product.
Chemical recycling breaks the plastic down into its chemical constituents for use in refineries, or petrochemical production. It’s a very expensive process and needs a lot of plastic passing through the system to make it cost effective – at least 5000 tonnes each year.
As ever of course the advice is reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order. Try to reduce the amount of plastic you buy – this will often be in the form of packaging. Can you reuse it? There’s generally some use you can put it to. Recycle as a last resort, and make sure it goes into the recycling bin, not the general garbage. -MARK LEE