Your Voice: Is recycling a solution to plastic pollution?
Technology will some day be much more cost effective and easy, but in the meantime …
The annual amount of plastic waste that is produced globally is estimated to be 300 million tons. Unfortunately, 79% of the plastic waste accumulates in landfills and oceans, 12% is incinerated, and only 9% is recycled.
Almost half of the world’s plastic waste — 140 million tons — comes from the packaging industry.
Polyethylene (PE) is the most prevalent polymer found in plastic waste, accounting for 41.5% of municipal plastic waste by volume. It is a highly versatile plastic that comes in various forms. Polypropylene (PP) is the next most abundant type, accounting for 24.3% of the waste.
For example, Low Density PE (LDPE) is commonly used in plastic bags provided by grocery stores and retailers. These bags cannot be recycled due to their tendency to tangle within the recycling machine, which could compromise the entire recycling process. Due to its relatively low-cost of production, but high processing costs, LDPE recycling is not economically viable. As a consequence, many recycling plants will not recycle this type of plastic. According to Environmental Protection Agency reports, only 6.2% of LDPE waste generated is being recycled.
While it may seem low, this rate is still higher than PP, which gets recycled at a rate of 3.0%. PP is generally found in consumer products’ packaging, toys, and heavy-duty products like crates, containers, and auto parts. Despite its usefulness, recycling PP is difficult and expensive.
Another hurdle that plastics face is the size and weight of plastic products. Straws, for instance, are too light and small to be recycled and can damage the recycling equipment. Therefore, the European Parliament has decided to take action to ban the use of single-use plastic such as straws starting from 2021 in Europe.
Another hurdle is that some plastic packaging materials are made from multiple layers of different polymers. And there’s also a limit to the number of times plastics can be recycled before losing its chemical characteristics, all driving up recycling costs.
The development of new recycling technologies will hopefully overcome current barriers. In the meantime, there are some low hanging fruit that could be implemented to reduce attrition in plastic recycling, such as policies that mandate plastic packaging to be made from recyclable materials, or rules imposing the standardization of certain plastic uses, e.g., packaging and containers, to reduce layering, color, and other impediments.
— By Layla Alabdrabalnab and Daniel Colombo
Your Voice reflects the thoughts and opinions of the writer, and not necessarily those of the publication.