Is Recycling Plastic Really Good for The Environment? Or Is It a Lie?

Is Recycling Plastic Really Good for The Environment Or Is It a Lie

You may recycle plastic out of caring for the environment. But recycling plastic is not cost-effective—for now.

Governments, teachers and environmentalists consistently tell us to recycle plastic and the importance of 3Rs (i.e. reduce, reuse and recycle). However, have you ever pondered whether these strategies are effective in saving our environment? Have you ever had the chance to witness how the workers manage the so-called “recyclable plastic”? If not, don’t worry; we’ve got you.

Undoubtedly, recycling can bring several benefits to our lives, such as reducing the waste sent to landfills and conserving natural resources. But, what are the bad sides of recycling? Let’s discover.

Not all plastic is recyclable

We probably learn about recycling for the first time in school. However, the education on recycling is not in-depth enough, and many of the essential details are left out. For example, recycling programs in school teach students about the importance of recycling, what items are recyclable and how the recyclable items are reused. However, the whole concept of recycling is not that simple, as there are even finer distinctions between recyclables and non-recyclables beyond plastic, metal and paper.

When it comes to plastic, first off, not all types of plastics are recyclable. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that the recycling industry only recycled approximately 9% of the plastic used worldwide. The low recycling level of plastic has to do with the recyclability of different plastics. Some non-recyclable plastics include styrofoam, bubble wrap, grocery bags and plastic containers for cleaning products. Recycling plants usually recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) found in water bottles and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) in bottle caps and water pipes. 

Mostly, schools only teach students that they should recycle plastic without telling them what kinds of plastic is recyclable. In reality, most of those recycled are just sent to the landfills or incinerators. As long as the public is not aware of the truth, they may continue to consume plastic in their daily purchases thinking that they can just recycle them after use, which will exacerbate environmental pollution. 

The pollution caused during the recycling process

What the education system and the government focus on is how the public should divide their trash. However, the government puts little emphasis on how the recycling plant operates and its environmental cost. 

The recycling process requires energy input, mainly for breaking down old materials and turning them into new materials. However, the energy required for the process mainly comes from burning fossil fuels, which will prompt the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that would trap heat in the atmosphere and ultimately cause global warming. This is somewhat ironic as the recycling was meant to be eco-friendly.

Apart from the energy source used in powering the plant, the industry’s logistics may also produce pollutants. Recycling companies transport recyclables to the plant via bulk trucks or cargo carriers. These heavy-duty trucks only make up about 5% of the vehicles on the road. However, this type of vehicle is responsible for 25% of the global warming emissions from the transportation sector since these fossil-fuel-powered trucks, which use diesel, propane or gasoline, will contribute to carbon dioxide emission.

Not to mention the fuels wasted from delivering materials that are actually not recyclable to the plant, such as disposable cups and oily takeout containers, which are common items that are incorrectly recycled. They would need an additional trip back to the landfill. Thus, the logistics of recycling can worsen the global warming situation. 

Recycling plastic is not that cost-benefit 

What is even more problematic than the emissions is that recycling is not a cost-benefit process, at least for now. It is more expensive than simply dumping the materials at landfills and producing virgin plastic. Take the U.S. as an example—the country’s millions of tons of recyclables used to be bought by China to offset the cost of local recycling schemes. However, China stopped doing so in 2018 when the National Sword policy was implemented to ban foreign recyclables. The reliance on China to buy recyclables caused the scrap material prices to drop after the ban, and countries were left with waste that they could not process, adding to the cost of recycling. 

Another reason for the high cost of recycling has to do with the kinds of recycling programs in place. Multi-stream recycling, where recyclables are separated into different categories by consumers themselves, are relatively easier and more convenient for the recycling plants to process the collected materials. However, many American cities use single-stream recycling, where all recyclable materials all collected in the same bin and are separated by machine and staff at the recycling plant. Plus, don’t forget that those who are identified as non-recyclables at the recycling plants have to be sent to the landfills. All these, coupled with high oil prices, only make recycling more and more expensive.

What’s more, even for recyclable plastic, like PET and HDPE mentioned above, their quality will degrade over time. This means that they will not be recyclable and usable anymore after a certain rounds of recycling, which is about two to three cycles. The same applies to paper products as well, though they can roughly be recycled six times.

With the high cost of recycling, it is just not a very effective process. Take a flight from New York to London as an example. To compensate for the carbon emission of a passenger flying economy class, it would require recycling 40,000 plastic bottles and 100,000 for business class. Recycling plastic bottles is not as effective as you imagine to cancel out the harm we are causing to the environment.

This is not to say that we should stop recycling altogether. Rather, we ought to pay attention and educate ourselves more on the topic of recycling, such as what can be recycled. More importantly, we should remember the goal of recycling, which is to minimize the damage our everyday actions caused to the environment. Perhaps the most effective way is still to produce as little waste as possible.

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Header image courtesy of Pixabay

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