Recycling Plastic: Key Challenges

Recycling is often touted by companies as a solution to the massive amounts of plastic waste that their products create. We often hear from FMCG and Cosmetics companies about their plans to use recycled material in a certain percentage of their overall production. Coca Cola recently refused to think about alternative materials for their beverage bottles, insisting instead that it will push for usage of recycled bottles.

Recycling, while it may be preferred when there is no alternative possible, is not a long-term solution to the plastic problem. The sheer amount of single-use plastic being produced, approximately 150 million+ tonnes, cannot be recycled sustainably. There are multiple challenges related to collection of such items where the final consumption is dispersed (Ex: If Coke is to attempt re-collection of every single beverage bottle, the costs and the resources required for this effort will be significant. Similarly, if a Unilever was to collect and recycle each of its detergent, shampoo, liquid soap bottles, the effort required will be significant) over large geographical area.

Recycling has been exposed in recent years as farce, as countries in Europe, America and Asia realized after China banned the import of plastic garbage. Recyclers in these countries were found to be exporting the trash to China and other Asian countries, where the plastic was either dumped in landfills, incinerated and some it recycled. But the rising volumes of plastic waster eventually overwhelmed the capacities of these countries and the landfills started having negative impacts on the local environment (toxic chemicals from plastics leaching into water and air). As a result, China and other Asian countries have banned such imports of plastic waste, leaving nowhere for this waste to go.

To give you a glimpse of challenges associated with Recycling, there is not one kind of plastic. You can tell the variety of plastic by looking for a number code in the packaging. Almost every piece of packaging will have this code. The key to the codes is as follows:

Plastic resin codes

Picture Credits: https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/plastics-by-the-numbers/

Plastics of different codes cannot be recycled together. Some of them need extensive cleaning before they can be recycled. There are also limits to the number of times recycling material can tolerate. Afterward, even this recyclable plastic must be disposed of as waste. Harmful chemical leaching may happen in some plastics (Like Code #3 PVC, also called ‘Poison Plastic’). All this plastic must be segregated from the waste and then cleaned so that it can be shredded to small flakes, melted, and then used again. This is very labor, resource & energy-intensive process. No wonder, that very little of plastic is recycled and these rates are not expected to improve in the coming years.  

Reducing our plastic waste and replacing plastic with alternative materials is the only long-term sustainable solution. We need to reduce the amount of plastic we use in products of daily usage. And this can start with consumers voting with their purchasing power.  Consumers need to start shifting consumption towards products & services that don’t use excessive plastic. Such small lifestyle changes are not very hard to make, since there are already alternatives emerging worldwide, aimed at reducing plastic consumption. You can check our resource library on Facebook for small lifestyle changes that you can make. Youi can also check our products page to look at some products available, that don’t use any plastic at all or use reduced amounts. 

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