Not all plastics are created equal, and don’t we know it. Whenever it comes to recycling collection day, we have all likely had an argument with our recycling bin as to what can go in it or not. It’s an arduous task at times and an infuriating one to boot. Think about it for a second: we are told daily that we all need to chip in and cut down on our waste where we can. This is great in theory, but frankly it isn’t that simple.
Different counties have different budgets to put toward different things and, depending on the local government will ultimately determine how much of that budget is put towards waste management. Of course, ALL counties have waste management, but how much of that goes toward sustainability or recycling infrastructure varies. You could be living in a county with some of the best recycling initiatives in the UK, only to cross the border into the neighbouring county to find the most basic versions with limited recycling capabilities. It can be infuriatingly inconsistent and gives mixed messages as to how imperative our part in sustainability is.
This doesn’t take into consideration the disparity between different types of plastic. But it also begs the question of why some plastics can be recycled, but some are resigned to the incinerator. The sheer amount of non-recyclable plastic waste is extraordinary and a very real problem, so why aren’t we able to place plastic films in with water bottles or microwavable trays?
The key thing here is to know how plastic is recycled in the first place. It’s a surprisingly laborious process compared to, say, glass or paper, but the fundamentals are the same. The recycled material is collected and sent to a local recycling plant. Once there it is sifted into the different types of plastic, which is the laborious part, thoroughly washed of any impurities like food waste, paper labels, and glue, then melted, and injection moulded into its new shape or product. When we say melted, we don’t mean the same as glass, where intense heat is used to make the product molten. This would not work with plastic as we know it’s a combustible product, therefore it is heated gently until it is malleable.
So far, so simple, and it uses few chemicals than other types of recycling, but why is it then that film plastics are exempt? They’re just as easy to melt in this process, so why do they have to be trashed? The answer to this is simple: they’re too flexible. Before plastics reach the point where they’re moulded, they first have to be shredded into fine slivers, which is much easier for the rigid kind, but the likes of cling film and pallet wraps can clog the machines to the point of breaking them. It is literally that simple a problem, and even with the best machinery in the world, it is a problem that will unfortunately continue.
That doesn’t mean there has been no innovation though. In order to help combat the continued waste from the likes of plastic bags and films, there have been advancements that allow plastics to be broken down into their component parts for use as completely different materials. There is a technique known as pyrolysis, which, according to Biogreen Energy, is when “material is exposed to high temperature, and in the absence of oxygen goes through chemical and physical separation into different molecules”. As most regular plastics are oil based, this process allows plastic that would otherwise be thrown away to be recycled back into oil. Chemical treatments, too, can also create entirely different products, for example: treating the plastic in such a way that it effectively becomes nylon. There is even gasification, which breaks the plastic down into gas that can be converted back into the power grid.
There are a number of issues with almost all of these processes though. Gas and oil as a by product still creates a substance that emits greenhouse emissions, and turning plastics into nylon just creates a new product that is more difficult to dispose of.
That is why, as the title of this blog suggests, plastics are so annoying. Unless it is rigid, it becomes difficult to recycle effectively. This is why it is imperative to move away from oil plastics and toward sustainable alternatives as soon as possible. By keeping it oil-based, we are effectively relying on a material that is causing far more disruption while being heavily reliant on the reserves of a fossil fuel.