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Plastics Are Almost All Downside

Thursday, December 29, 2022  ⚓︎

This piece by Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator, and Jan Dell, a chemical engineer, in the Atlantic highlight three main problems with plastic recycling.

  1. The large number of types of plastics make sorting and recycling difficult.

Just one fast-food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic, including PET#1, HDPE#2, LDPE#4, PP#5, and PS#6 cups, lids, clamshells, trays, bags, and cutlery, which cannot be recycled together.

  1. Processing plastic waste is toxic and wasteful.

Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Plastic products can include toxic additives and absorb chemicals, and are generally collected in curbside bins filled with possibly dangerous materials such as plastic pesticide containers. According to a report published by the Canadian government, toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging.

  1. Recycling plastic is not economical.

Yet another problem is that plastic recycling is simply not economical. Recycled plastic costs more than new plastic because collecting, sorting, transporting, and reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitantly expensive. The petrochemical industry is rapidly expanding, which will further lower the cost of new plastic.

In addition, there is a growing body of evidence showing that plastics break down into microplastics that permeate the environment, and humans and animals end up ingesting them. There are microplastics in all corners of the earth and researchers have been trying to understand their effects on human health.

This is frankly alarming, and I’ve been more and more shocked every year since the plastics issue has been making it into the mainstream press. I’ve been cutting down on the amount of plastic goods I purchased and several years ago I stopped storing food in plastic containers, opting for metal or glass. Last year, I stopped buying clothing made from synthetic materials (as much as I can), since clothing releases a huge amount of microplastics into the water supply in every wash. Now I buy cotton, wool, and linen clothing almost exclusively. I find myself paying more attention to the materials of pretty much every product I plan to purchase. It definitely feels like an uphill battle because of the sheer amount of plastic that is reported to be in our surroundings.

Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work