Very few topics have gotten as much play in the public arena as plastic recycling. These days, it is such a hot topic that merely searching the word ‘plastic’ online will return a ton of results devoted to recycling. It’s time we step back and ask an honest question: does plastic recycling merely delay the inevitable?
The question is rooted in a basic understanding of chemistry and physics. Plenty of plastics are easily recycled with the right processes in place. But recycling reduces quality and integrity when it involves transforming the state of the plastic waste in question. For instance, transforming scrap plastic into regrind by running it through a series of grinders and shredders reduces the material’s integrity. How many mechanical cycles can a typical plastic endure before it is worthless?
I am not sure anyone has answered that question. Yet common sense dictates that every piece of plastic eventually reaches end of life. Then what? Unless we have a way of reducing plastic to its most basic components – without reducing the quality and usefulness of those components – plastic that has reached end of life is little more than trash.
Producing Regrind in Tennessee
Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that buys scrap plastic from industrial customers in seven states. Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio are among the states where they do business. All the plastic they buy is reduced to regrind through mechanical processes. The regrind is sold to manufacturers who mix it with version plastic pellets.
There is a reason that manufacturers go with a mixture rather than all regrind. Mechanical recycling reduces the strength and integrity of the plastic. And because the resulting material is not as strong, manufacturers cannot rely on it exclusively. So they create a mixture based on the specifications of each product they produce.
Now, think about this scenario in isolation. What if we closed the loop so that Seraphim purchased only scrap plastic produced by manufacturers who purchased their regrind. Every subsequent cycle would theoretically produce a lower quality regrind despite virgin plastic being mixed in. At what point could the regrind no longer be used with confidence?
Upcycling Is Questionable, Too
Let’s leave Seraphim Plastics in favor of a Canadian company that upcycles marine waste to keep plastics out of Canadian waterways. One of their big things is plastic fishing nets. They will turn the nets into all sorts of things ranging from handbags to backpacks and articles of clothing. They will even allow customers to come to their plant to design their own upcycled plastic gear.
Imagine you were to purchase a plastic backpack from this company. Granted, they are doing very good work keeping post-consumer plastic waste out of waterways and off beaches. But your backpack will eventually wear out. It will eventually reach end of life. Then what happens to it? Is it recycled again or sent to the landfill?
It’s Not All Sunshine and Roses
Do not misunderstand. The point of this post is not to decry plastic recycling as a bad thing. Recycling is never bad among people who want to do it. But recycling isn’t all sunshine and roses. To date, our best efforts at recycling plastic are limited in what they can accomplish. And it could be that we are simply delaying the inevitable.
Plastic will eventually reach end of life and need to be discarded. If we were to take a more pragmatic approach to the whole recycling thing, we might be able to find better ways to do it. For now, though, we continue doing the best we can do with what we have.