Cheap, sterile and easy to shape. When John Wesley Hyatt discovered plastic in 1869 as an alternative for ivory billiard balls, a revolutionary material was born. In the years following this discovery, we decided to use that long-lasting revolutionary material as trash. Trash that will last for more than a thousand years.
The optimism around plastics changed in the early 1970s when the first pieces of plastic were found in the ocean. Anxiety about waste and the environment increased and it was the plastics industry itself that offered recycling as a solution. But as cheap and simple it is to create plastic, the more complicated and expensive the process of recycling plastic is.
- There are more than 50 different types of plastic. Sorting the different types of plastic is difficult and time-consuming.
- Most plastic packaging consists of more than one polymer type, which may change the properties of and potentially hinder the use of recycled material.
- If we summarize the key categories of plastic, we end up with 7 categories. Only 2 of these can be recycled.
Studies show that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic are produced globally ever, and more than 75% has become plastic waste. This isn’t strange when you imagine 40% of produced plastic is just used once and then discarded. Only 9% of those 6,3 billion metric tons of plastic are recycled. Apart from this tricky recycling process, there are other reasons that prove that recycling plastic is not as beneficial as we think:
- Recycling plastic is managed locally. Not everyone uses the same system and many do not have the available technology to sort the different types of plastic. For paper, for example, we have been using the same recycling process for years.
- The quality of many types of plastic degrades each time they are recycled, due to the fibres getting shorter when broken down for recycling, making recycled plastic less valuable. Virgin plastic is always necessary to make useable recycled plastic. Metal or glass can be recycled infinitely without new materials or quality decrease.
- From an economic point of view: when oil prices fluctuate, so does the price of plastic. When those markets are depressed, virgin plastic becomes far cheaper to buy than recycled plastic, incentivising people to keep producing more plastic.
Countries like The Maldives have vowed to phase out all of its non-biodegradable plastic. But what does that mean? Biodegradable plastic, given the right conditions, will break down to its basic components and blend back in with the earth. But the fact is, biodegradables ends up in the same landfills as regular plastic. Biodegradable plastics need oxygen and sunlight to degrade, conditions that are not that likely to find in layers of waste in landfills.
Although there is a rise in ‘plastic shaming’, with ‘plastic-free’ as a new trend, a lot of time and resources are currently still invested in recycling plastic and using biodegradable materials. Although this is still better than burning or burying our waste, we doubt this is the best way forward. In order to really make the necessary changes, we need to go back to the source: where do our materials come from and where will they end up? Creating a zero-waste lifestyle by planning in advance how materials can be reused and recycled instead of ending up as trash. Being circular should be our number one priority. Recycling should be our last. We need to make our trash revolutionary.