Can all plastics be recycled?

With plastics, specifically disposable plastics, creating significant harm to the environment the world over, a number of measures are being attempted to mitigate such pollution. One of these measures is to recycle the plastic into something that can be used once again.

Recycling does sound like a reasonably sustainable concept – and is practical too.

So, recycling should take of most of the plastic pollution and in turn bring that plastic back into circulation, shouldn’t it?

In theory, yes. In practice, no.

Why indeed not?

Here are some reasons.

Market Acceptability

Firstly, we should appreciate that recycling is both a social and a commercial activity. In fact, it is more of the former than the latter, as things stand today in most countries. Thus, what gets recycled and what does not to a certain extent depend on the market fundamentals, such as:

  • Material – The actual plastic resin that the item is made of. The market is willing to accept recycled products only from specific resins – for instance, items made of polystyrene do not find market acceptance and hence are not recycled.
  • Shape/contour – Odd-shaped products/containers sometimes do not get recycled while the common bottles and other plastic containers with common shapes get recycled. To a certain extent, this is because of the market perception that the common water bottles and other commonly used bottles are not contaminated by unknown products, while who knows what was in the bottle with that odd shape!

Economics

  • Some of the flexible packaging plastic used are so thin that it simply will not be economical to recycle them. In fact, you will find such thin packaging in some of the really flimsy flexible films you get, and also in many cases as a laminate on the insides of the paper cups or on paper plates. These are so thin that you will need to spend some to actually distinguish them from the paper!

Difficulty of Recycling

  • In addition to lack of market acceptance, difficulty of recycling prevents from plastics made of materials such as styrofoam (a form of polystyrene) from being recycled.

Accessibility

  • A good amount of plastic never reaches the recycling facility but instead ends up in oceans,  in the soil or in dump yards. This is more so in developing and underdeveloped countries.

Owing to all the above reasons, recycling is not (yet) a complete solution for the plastic pollution problem.

A few months back, I happened to meet some folks connected to plastics recycling in India. What I heard was that, less than 25% of plastics that can be recycled actually gets recycled even in urban India. I am not aware of the statistics in other countries, but this estimate does not sound encouraging at all. We should do better!

Related Posts from Cleantech Guide

  • What are the most practical avenues to reduce plastic pollution? – Link
  • Can I burn plastics for energy? – Link
  • Are bioplastics a good substitute for conventional plastics? – Link

Other useful links

  • Can I recycle plastic bags in the recycling bin – Link
  • Here is a simple guidance provided by the city of Plymouth in the state of Minnesota, USA – Link
  • Recycling: You May Be Doing It Wrong – As more things are able to be recycled, the world of recycling grows ever more complicated – a report from the Smithsonian – Link
  • Why isn’t all plastics recycled in Toronto? – Link

 

 

 

Can all plastics be recycled? - Cleantech Guide