Plastic waste is a growing environmental concern that affects everyone, from individuals to businesses and local communities. Despite our efforts to recycle, only a small percentage of plastic waste is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills, incinerated, or littered in the environment.
In this post, we’ll explore the state of plastic recycling and the challenges it faces.
Types of Plastic and Recyclability
There are seven types of plastic, each with different chemical properties that affect their recyclability. Here’s a breakdown of each type and their typical use:
1.Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
This is one of the most widely used plastics commonly found in PET bottles, food containers, and packaging. PET is highly recyclable, and recycled PET is used to make new plastic bottles and clothing.
2.High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE is a sturdy plastic commonly used for milk bottles and jugs, detergent bottles, and plastic bags. It’s highly recyclable and can be made into new HDPE containers, plastic lumber, and other products.
3.Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is a flexible plastic used in pipes, shower curtains, and cling wraps. It’s not widely recycled due to its chemical composition, and recycling PVC can release harmful gasses.
4.Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
LDPE is a flexible plastic commonly used for plastic bags, wraps, and squeeze bottles. It’s less commonly recycled due to its low density, and recycling LDPE is often challenging due to contamination.
PP is a durable plastic commonly used for yogurt cups, bottle caps, and straws. It’s highly recyclable and can be made into new PP products or other plastic items.
PS is a lightweight plastic used for takeout containers, foam cups, and packing peanuts. It’s not widely recycled due to its low density and contamination.
This category includes plastics that don’t fit into the other six categories, such as polycarbonate (PC) and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS). These plastics are less commonly recycled due to their complex composition and difficulty in sorting and separation.
To identify the type of plastic in a product, look for the chasing arrows symbol on the packaging, which contains a number indicating the plastic resin used. For example, PET is identified with the number 1 and is commonly used in water and soda bottles, while HDPE is identified with the number 2 and is typically used in milk jugs and shampoo bottles.
Plastic waste management is a complex process that involves sorting, cleaning, and processing different types of plastic. While some plastics, such as PET and HDPE, are widely recyclable and have established markets for recycled plastic, others, such as PVC and PS, are less commonly recycled and face challenges in the recycling process.
Plastic Recycling Rates and Statistics
Most people assume that all plastic is recyclable, but plastic recycling statistics are far from it. In fact, only about 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, and millions of tons of plastic end up in landfills, incinerated, or worse, in our oceans and natural environments.
The national recycling problem is not only limited to developing countries but also developed countries, like the United States, where only 5% of plastic waste was recycled in 2021, according to The Guardian.
To understand the impact of plastic pollution on the environment, let’s follow the journey of non-recyclable plastic.
Imagine a single-use plastic straw, one of the many plastic products that are difficult or impossible to recycle with current technologies. The straw is used for a few minutes and then discarded, either intentionally or unintentionally. From there, it’s picked up by a garbage truck and taken to a landfill. Once at the landfill, the straw is buried under layers of trash, where it can take up to 200 years to decompose, according to WWF.
Over time, rainwater and other environmental factors can cause the landfill to leak, contaminating the surrounding soil and water. The plastic straw can eventually end up in nearby rivers or oceans, where it can harm marine life and contribute to ocean plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is a significant problem for our planet, and the consequences are devastating. For example, it’s estimated by WWF that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.
Products, such as paper and cardboard, can be recycled five to seven times, according to The New York Times. However, once they have turned into mixed-material, such as plastic-coated paper, they will face the same challenges as plastic packaging and require more specialized recycling processes.
The Challenges of Plastic Recycling
Plastic recycling is a complex process that involves many challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the contamination of plastic waste. Contamination can occur in several ways, such as when non-recyclable materials are mixed with recyclable ones, when food and liquid residue are left in containers, or when different types of plastic are combined. Contaminated plastic waste is difficult to process and can result in poor-quality recycled materials.
Additionally, different types of plastic require different recycling methods, which can be expensive and time-consuming. For example, some plastic types can be easily recycled with mechanical recycling, while others require advanced chemical recycling methods. The cost of recycling also varies depending on the type of plastic and location of the recycling facility.
Another challenge is the low demand for recycled plastic materials, which limits the economic viability of plastic recycling. Without adequate demand for recycled materials, the market for recycled plastics remains small, making it difficult for recycling facilities to turn a profit.
How Can the Challenges of Plastic Recycling Be Solved?
Traditional plastic recycling methods, like pyrolysis or gasification, require waste to be very clean, separated, or dried, making the process costly and inefficient. These methods are also limited to certain types of plastic and cannot recycle all carbon-containing waste.
Revolutionary technologies, such as the Thermal Conversion Process (TCP™) from SynPet, provides a solution to this problem. TCP is a unique solution that uses water as the sole reagent, allowing unsorted and wet waste to be added to the feedstock without pretreatment. It reduces plastic waste sent to landfills and increases the supply of recycled plastic materials.
In addition to Thermal Conversion Process’s unique ability to process all carbon-containing waste, SynPet’s Plastic Circularity solution has the potential to create a circular economy model that can drive change in the plastic recycling industry by creating new business models and revenue streams.
The product of TCP is Circular Naphtha, a valuable material that can be sold to manufacturers to be turned into plastics again, creating a market demand for recycled plastics. This incentivizes companies to invest in recycling technologies and infrastructure, ultimately reducing the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or the environment.
Plastic production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. By prioritizing a circular economy model, we can also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which can help reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful effects associated with fossil fuel use.
Toward a Sustainable Future
In conclusion, plastic recycling is an urgent and critical issue that requires action from individuals, businesses, and governments alike. Despite the many challenges and obstacles, there are promising developments and solutions on the horizon for the plastic industry.
Addressing these challenges and improving plastic recycling rates can significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and the environment, conserve natural resources, and mitigate the harmful effects of plastic pollution on our planet and our health.
By working together, we can build a more sustainable future and a circular economy that values the responsible use and reuse of plastics.