Despite the advances in recycling and processing that have been occurring in recent years, more than 50% of waste from plastic waste continues ending up in landfills or incinerators. Therefore, being a waste of resources and raw materials. But can plastic recycling be the solution?
what happens with the plastic?
Many plastic pieces ends up in the sea, with the consequent loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution. One of the fastest solutions would be reducing the use of plastic on a global level, by implementing political measures that control the production and distribution of this material. However, the many plastic-production companies blame citizens and governments for the bad management of waste. They clame recycling as a solution, but they do not tell us anything about the real costs and disadvantages of the processed.
First of all, do you know what are the steps to recycle plastic? I’ll explain them briefly:
- Reception of raw materials
- Selection of subjects
- By the type of plastic
- By color
- Washing, to remove impurities
- Drying and spinning
- Filtered out
- Slicing (the monofilaments that appear after the extrusion)
In Europe only 42% of the plastic is collected for further processing. Specifically, in Europe 39.5% of the recovered plastic is burned to produce energy and only 29.7% is destined for recycling1. The biggest problem with incineration, is that if it is not done under controlled conditions, toxic substances are released, such as the so-called dioxins2. These are chemical substances that appear when chlorine (PVC) is burned and are considered persistent environmental pollutants since they accumulate in the adipose tissue or fat, remaining in the food chain 3.
Is recycling the solution?
Therefore, one might think that the most ecological alternative to incineration is recycling, but one of the great disadvantages when it comes to plastic recycling is the need for knowledge when categorizing it. That is why from all the plastic collected for recycling in the EU, 90% is recycled in China4. Or it was sent, since China has refused to receive more our plastic5, because they can not process any more plastic waste and prefers to use raw materials, avoiding the difficulties of processing plastic additives, which make recycling a very difficult task.
You might think that to help developing countries, the solution could be to hire these countries to be part of the recycling “solution”. But, the problem is that in these countries the environmental controls are very poor, therefore, these areas tend to end up highly contaminated 6, When recycling is done in uncontrolled environments, it can happen that harmful substances are part of the final product, such as in toys, food packaging and household products where brominated flame retardants and phthalates have been found 7,8,9.
On the other hand, metal-containing additives are responsible for the degradation of plastic during recycling or useful life10-12. During the recycling process, a method called extrusion and molding is used, which is carried out at high temperatures, 200 – 300ºC, just the range of temperature at which toxic substances are released (for example, heavy metals, volatile substances, phthalates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, furans …)13. Therefore, all these substances end up contaminating in the long term the surroundings of the recycling plant, if it is not done with the appropriate measures.
For this, among others, the recycling of plastic is a very complex mechanism that needs a modern and highly technical infrastructure, and advance chemical knowledge. Otherwise, the solution can be worst than the original problem, and although there is a good intention in giving another use to the plastic waste we are creating a bigger problem.
Obviously, we must take action, and although we do not believe it, citizen’s choice can change the course of things, we have to reduce our plastic. However, what can we do with all the plastic that is already out there? Can we pick it up and use it for something?
Well, yes, there are good ideas to recycle plastic, an example is the use of plastic to create asphalt and to convert new roads14. Therefore, they use mostly plastic bags, PET bottles and films, and are designed to last 4-6 years. However, it is not yet known what their long-term effect may be, or whether they could be a source of future contamination. It could be, that we are just post-setting the reality.
Finally, it is necessary to implement adapted measures so that the quality of the final product is acceptable for a new use. For example, in the Stockholm convention a process was ratified, of which 180 countries were part, for a manual of good environmental practices, which explains how to recycle, separate and handle the so-called “plastics with persistent organic pollutants”15. Since the biggest challenge is to preserve the quality of the final product.
But my best advice:
“Is not cleaner who more cleans, but who less messes up”.
- PlasticsEurope, Plastics -The Facts 2016 An Analysis of European PlasticsProduction, Demand and Waste Data, 2016
- R. Weber, B. Kuch, Relevance of BFRs and thermal conditions on theformation pathways of brominated and brominated–chlorinateddibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans, Environ. Int. 29 (2003) 699–710 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412003001181
- Velis, C. (2014). Global recycling markets-plastic waste: A story for one player. Globalisation and Waste Management Task Force, ISWA, Vienna.
Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/world/china-recyclables-ban.html
- Wall, D. (2013). Junkyard Planet: travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. Finanzas y desarrollo: publicación trimestral del Fondo Monetario Internacional y del Banco Mundial, 50(4), 55.
- S.-J. Chen, Y.-J. Ma, J. Wang, D. Chen, X.-J. Luo, B.-X. Mai, Brominated flameretardants in children’s toys: concentration, composition, and children’sexposure and risk assessment, Environ. Sci. Technol. 43 (2009) 4200–4206. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es9004834
- F. Puype, J. Samsonek, J. Knoop, M. Egelkraut-Holtus, M. Ortlieb, Evidence ofwaste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) relevant substances inpolymeric food-contact articles sold on the European market, Food Addit.Contam. Part A Chem. Anal. Control Exposure Risk Assess. 32 (2015)410–426.
- J. Samsonek, F. Puype, Occurrence of brominated flame retardants in blackthermo cups and selected kitchen utensils purchased on the Europeanmarket, Food Addit. Contam.: Part A 30 (2013) 1976–1986. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19440049.2013.829246
- S. Shawaphun, T. Manangan, S. Wacharawichanant, Thermo- andPhoto-Degradation of LDPE and PP Films Using Metal Oxides as Catalysts,vol. 93, Trans Tech Publications Ltd., 2010, pp. 505–508. https://www.scientific.net/AMR.93-94.505
- Z. He, G. Li, J. Chen, Y. Huang, T. An, C. Zhang, Pollution characteristics andhealth risk assessment of volatile organic compounds emitted from differentplastic solid waste recycling workshops, Environ. Int. 77 (2015) 85–94. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412015000082
- D.-Y. Huang, S.-G. Zhou, W. Hong, W.-F. Feng, L. Tao, Pollution characteristicsof volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons andphthalate esters emitted from plastic wastes recycling granulation plants inXingtan Town South China, Atmos. Environ. 71 (2013) 327–334. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S135223101300112X
- Z. Tang, Q. Huang, J. Cheng, Y. Yang, J. Yang, W. Guo, Z. Nie, N. Zeng, L. Jin,Polybrominated diphenyl ethers in soils, sediments, and human hair in aplastic waste recycling area: a neglected heavily polluted area, Environ. Sci.Technol. 48 (2014) 1508–1516. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es404905u
- I. Labunska, S. Harrad, D. Santillo, P. Johnston, K. Brigden, Levels anddistribution of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in soil sediment and dustsamples collected from various electronic waste recycling sites within Guiyutown, southern China, Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts 15 (2013) 503–511. http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2013/EM/c2em30785e#!divAbstract
- UNEP, Guidance on best available techniques and best environmentalpractices for the recycling and disposal of articles containingpolybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) listed under the StockholmConvention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; Draft January 2015;UNEP/POPS/COP.7/INF/22 2015.
An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030438941730763X