Does plastic recycling work?

By Muhammad Aidi bin Noor Azizul, Nur Umairah binti Saari and Eqram Mustaqeem

Have you ever wondered where the yogurt container you consumed for breakfast go? When you decide to recycle that yogurt container, are you really sure that it would be recycled or would it just end up being discarded in a landfill?

We have been indoctrinated to think that it does not matter how much you consume, as long as you recycle all your wastes, you are doing the world a great favour as these wastes can be reproduced into new material. It seems that if we recycle, the guilt of us using that single-use plastic yogurt container, plastic straw or plastic bag would all be absolved as recycling is environmentally friendly, no harm would be done to the planet.

Well, that is where it’s not all that straight forward. This article seeks to give the reader a tease on the system of recycling that we are practising today.

It can be said that the plastic recycling industry was doomed from that moment it was invented. Let’s look at the development of recycling in America since they are one of the biggest producers of plastic wastes.

In late 1980s, the plastic producers in America were under increasing pressures to find a solution to the rising plastic waste problems in the country. Laws were being planned to effectively ban certain types of plastic.

The plastic companies, as a last ditch attempt to save their profits and image, publicly promoted recycling as the solution to the waste crisis despite doubts from the beginning that widespread plastic recycling could ever be economically viable.

They were confident that the recycling initiatives would not end up recovering and reusing plastic in amounts anywhere near sufficient to hurt their profits in selling new “virgin” plastic products because they understood that the recycling efforts that they were promoting were likely to fail. This is because they knew that the sorting and re-processing of hundreds of different types of recovered plastic products was cost-prohibitive.

Generally, recycling is a very sophisticated process with minor margins of returns. Every time a plastic is recycled, its quality decreases, hence making the recycling process only repeatable for a limited number of times. It is also a tedious activity to sort out plastics and send them to recycling facilities. Furthermore, plastics have to be clean for them to be recyclable, and those which are dirty are automatically discredited from being recycled. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

It is a matter of fact that not all plastics are created equal. Some are easier to recycle while some are just costly and harder to sort out. For high density plastics like polyethylene, compared to others, they can be resold to manufacturers as they are valuable to create a type of plastic where sturdiness matters.

As for the medium and low quality plastics, they are either incinerated, thrown in the landfills or exported in bulk to other countries. From here on we can already tell what determines how certain plastics are managed – profit. If the recycling of plastics costs more than the profit they bring, the plastics would not be recycled, instead will be disposed of.

The types of plastics that can be recycled are determined during the separation process at the recycling facilities. Firstly, the optical sensors will separate high-level plastics of which one of the characteristics is high density and sturdy. Most of this category are polyethylene plastics such as plastic crates, shampoo bottles, and other products where robustness matters.

These types are recyclable and easily sorted out. They would be melted into raw plastic, which then is re-sold to manufacturers. Nearest example we can see in Malaysia is the dishwasher company, Glo, which recycled their plastics packaging to new one using those melted plastics.

Next category of plastics are those that cannot be processed to a usable raw material. They are often perceived as ‘negative value’. Those types of plastics are small plastics such as bottle caps, plastic bags and other scraps below three inches or eight centimetres in width, which are the hardest to be sorted by automated systems, which explains why they are always disposed of.

Last type is plastic that aren’t small nor large, unrecoverable nor valuable. They are typically mixed together and formed into large, unsorted, medium-sized, medium-value plastic bales that effectively have a free-market value named as ‘MRF Bales’.

This is where the hypocrisy of developed countries jumps out although they have developed highly sophisticated recycling rules and policies in their countries. For example, in Japan, recycling is even made mandatory. However, these countries only recycle a small portion of their plastic wastes with the bulk of it being exported to developing countries just to be gotten rid of.

A bulk of these plastic wastes would be transported to distances far away from the original source. To make things worse, plastic wastes are often exported to countries that mismanage a big portion of their own plastic wastes, so it’s a big possibility that after travelling the far distance, the plastic wastes would not even end up being recycled.

In 2017, China decided to ban a big portion of plastic waste imports. Prior to this ban, MRF Bales were recycled and it was deemed as profitable for China’s economy. However, the problem is that it produces a very slight profit. The announcement resulted in a drop of China’s plastic import volume, plummeting 99.1 percent. It had huge impact as previously where China was the world’s largest importer of MRF Bales, due to this ban the developed nations had an overabundant supply of plastic wastes.

The reasoning behind this ban was that it causes serious environmental and public health issues as the process of recycling the plastic contents of MRF Bales are very hazardous and could seriously harm those sorting them. Moreover, as the plastics in these bales are mixed up, those which are not profitable to be recycled are often discarded negligibly into the rivers.

As a matter of fact, in 2018, the Yangtze river in China deposited an estimated 55% of the world’s marine plastic pollution the most among all rivers. Besides, all these side effects would take a lot of money to solve, hence making the profit margin even thinner.

To fill in this void left by China, countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and several other developing nations have become the new global rubbish bin of the developed nations. The amount of plastics exported to Malaysia by the United States of America has tripled in volume between 2017 and 2018 (refer the chart below). This made Malaysia one of the largest receivers of plastics in the world during that time frame.

As China had previously shown, taking in plastic wastes for the purpose of recycling is neither profitable nor sustainable. While other countries might be willing to fill in the vacancy left by China, it would still not be enough to replace China’s role in recycling in the past years. Furthermore, these countries would soon realise that recycling is not worth the trouble. While it may be easy to blame China for a sudden change of policy, it should be acknowledged that this problem would have not occurred if we had a sustainable recycling industry being set up in the first place.

It is clear that the biggest reason why recycling is such a problem is due to the cost of recycling itself. While the current consumer trend is shifting towards a ‘greener’ option might be a good start, it would take more than a shift in consumer attitudes to solve the recycling and more importantly the plastic wastes issue.

Nevertheless, as consumers, we can make a change in two ways. The first is by practising the 5Rs as per the diagram below; this would relegate and reduce our need for recycling. Secondly, is to use the power of the consumer in pressuring companies. The simplest way to do this is to simply vote with our money. The products that we buy with our money can make a big difference. If we choose to buy products that are packed from plastics that are recyclable, companies are going to realise this and might make moves to ensure its plastics are recyclable.

As for the plastic recycling industry, it is in need for big technological advancements for it to be both sustainable and profitable.

The developments in plastic recycling methods such as a landmark hydrothermal plastic recycling facility in the United Kingdom indicates that all types of plastic can be recycled. In addition, there has been research made by scientists in creating an enzyme that can eat up and get rid of plastic forever.

The future of the recycling industry might change for the better.***

(This article is written as part of Feature Writing series on environmental issues in collaboration with IIUM Eco Club)

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