Plastic recycling might not be the panacea

Why have only 9% of plastics ever produced been recycled?
29 November 2021

Interview with 

Lee Bell, International Pollutants Elimination Network


A cartoon of a recycling bin.


Recycling plastics appears to be a challenge as a study from the University of California showed that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. What could be the reason for this? Verner Viisainen spoke to Lee Bell from the organisation IPEN - or the International Pollutants Elimination Network - to better understand why this might be...

Lee - Largely because there's no real market for recycled plastics. Additionally, it is because of the problems associated with the actual composition of the plastics themselves. Most of them contain a variety of additives. Additives are incorporated into plastics to give them different colours, different textures, different flexibilities. When you go to process it through standard mechanical recycling processes, the problem is that the additives don't mix well, and even different types of polymers don't mix well because they contaminate the resulting material that comes out. Even with something that's relatively easy to recycle, like your standard plastic water bottle, it can only go through a few repeat processes of mechanical recycling before it starts to degrade significantly, so there's no such thing as an endlessly recyclable plastic.

Verner - What would you say are the carbon emissions associated with plastic recycling processes?

Lee - It varies according to the process. If you convert it to an oil fuel, which is what most chemical recycling does, you'd be looking at about another 200,000 tons of CO2 from that. If you look at incineration and some people consider burning plastic and incinerators a form of recycling because of the energy recovery, you're looking at about 1.4 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of plastic entering that process. With mechanical recycling, you're essentially looking at the carbon emissions that result from operating the machinery. From a carbon perspective, mechanical recycling is the one that you'd want to support.

Verner - How would you say we can improve our rates of mechanical recycling?

Lee - I think the first issue is that producers of plastic need to restructure their operations so that they remove a lot of the toxic additives that are causing problems in terms of preventing plastics from being processed in large amounts. But at a broader level, we have to look at economic incentives to prioritize recycling using mechanical means, and that means placing some sort of a financial tax or other mechanism on virgin plastics because the cost of mechanical recycling is significant enough that it can't compete readily with virgin plastics.

Verner - And so taking all of this into account, do you believe that recycling presents the solution to the plastic crisis that we face?

Lee - No, I don't. I think the problem we have is the vast increase in production of plastic mechanical recycling cannot cope with the vast increases. I think we're looking at something like quadrupling virgin plastic production by 2050.


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