Where did the concept of “recycling” come from?
Back in the 1950s, big beverage companies formed a non-profit to educate and encourage individuals to be more environmentally conscious. Between multiple campaigns, the one that had a lasting impact was the one that introduced “litterbug” into our vocabulary to describe thoughtless individuals. The non-profit successfully shifted public focus towards their own recycling behavior rather than advocating for extended producer responsibility and waste management.
How does recycling work?
Plastic, in its early days, was meant for industrial use. Over time, it’s invaded every aspect of our lives and its main use today is packaging. As packaging materials have become blended and more complex, so has the recycling process.
Different recycling plants have different recycling capabilities for different kinds of plastic. While many of us are using all kinds of plastics, our local recycling plants are equipped with recycling every plastic type. Not all plastic can be recycled at any given plant.
Recycling begins with collection and sorting of plastic material. This is a manual and arduous step in the process.
If the plastic received is dirty and contaminated, it cannot be recycled and is discarded. For example, if there’s water left in the plastic bottle, it can’t be recycled.
If the plant receives plastic it cannot recycle, it’s transported again to another plant that has the capacity to recycle, or it is discarded. For example, receiving a shampoo bottle with two different kinds of plastic for the bottle and cap.
Does it make economic sense to recycle?
Because of low prices of oil, virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic. Recycling plastic – or rather, “down cycling” – results in lower quality plastic which most of the time is blended with virgin plastic to create new plastic materials.
There isn’t an economic incentive for big companies to recycle plastic. In fact, the biggest soft drinks companies in the world use recycled plastic for only 6.6% of their bottles.
Does recycling create impact or shift burden?
The focus on recycling perpetuates the use of plastic. Recycling plastic gives the impression that it’s okay to continue using plastic and hides the imperfections of the recycling process. Recycling also increases the demand for plastic as recycled plastic is low quality and needs virgin plastic to create usable plastic materials.
When is recycling actually a solution?
Recycling is not a solution at a consumer level. At a consumer level, we need to shift demand towards plastic-free and zero waste products. At a producer level, recycling acts as a solution while businesses are encouraged to move away from plastic and towards more sustainable materials.