The Ugly Truth about Recycling Plastic
If you are anything like me, you do the best you can when it comes to recycling things you know should be recycled. But no one is perfect and we all get lazy. So a lot of things end up in the trash when they should be recycled….or is there something we are not being told? We dug into this and found some scary truths. The truth about which plastics can be recycled, how many times they can be recycled, how few can be reused and what is actually accepted.
Lets start with the symbols that we have all seen at some point in our lives. The next time you grab a frappe, look at the underside of the cup, or the lid on your morning coffee cup. You will notice a small number, something like this…
Now, I always believed that arrow symbol meant it was recyclable and the number meant what kind of plastic it was. I’m sure almost all of the general population, if polled, would believe the same thing right? Ask your friends. I was half right. The number does represent the type of plastic, but the arrows are deceiving. Go ahead…google it. There are 7 numbers and each represent a different type of plastic, but they are NOT all recyclable. In fact, only 2 out of the 7 have the potential to be recycled depending on your country and/or municipality. Some of the types, like Polystyrene and Polypropylene are able to be recycled but are rarely accepted. I didn’t want to rely on google alone, so I met with the guys at Recycling Alternative here in Vancouver and they confirmed it. And if being in the recycling business since recycling started isn’t enough credibility, I don’t know what is.
Now, I have my own theory as to why recycling is not solving the problem. I think there is no money in recycling. Plastic has very little value and where there is no profit, there is no business. And when countries like China ban recycled plastic imports, thats a nail in the ‘hopes and dreams’ coffin. Add to this the facts like only 3% of Polypropylene in the U.S. is recycled, and you’ve got a serious problem with recycling as a solution (PolyPropylene is a very recyclable plastic and is reusable as well, yet recyclers reject it). Want one more nail in the coffin?….plastic can only be recycled so many times before the polymers weaken. The way that manufacturers solve this weakening issue is by dosing virgin plastic into the recycled plastic. But still, the majority of plastic is only recycled once and then is down cycled, which means it is used in clothing or lumber…weird.
Plastics like PolyStyrene (PS) and PVC are quite remarkable for their intended function, as are most plastics in general. Without PVC we wouldn’t have chew toys, piping, packaging and whole host of flexible products. Without polystyrene we wouldn’t have sushi boxes, temperature resistant cups, foam pool noodles, coffee cup lids, cutlery and the list goes on. And as consumers, we feel like we are doing our part by taking off our coffee cup lid and bringing down to the buildings recycle bin. Problem…. it is not recyclable and the recyclers are tossing it into the trash, which is more work for them than is necessary. That is fact. The cutlery, styrofoam cups, even plastic bags are not going into new product. They are being trashed. You don’t believe me? Go ask a recycler. Ask them which bags they will recycle. Or which plastics. They’ll tell you what they told me. We may accept clear bags but even that is rare. We do not accept number 3-7 plastics and rarely number 2. Most will accept PET.
I don’t even want to get into the number 7 plastic. This is the worst possible category. It consists of plant based plastic, which absolutely destroys any potential recyclable plastic if it is thrown in with PET or other clear plastics. But also in the number 7 category, are plastics containing BPA. You know, the stuff that you demand is NOT in your plastic? Thats right…someone thought it was wise to lump a renewable, plant based plastic in with a toxic plastic that poisons the material that it holds.
By 2050 scientist claim the oceans will be at such a high level of plastic waste, the phytoplankton which produce 80% of our planets oxygen, will be affected. Here is some biology for you. Phytoplankton are fed on by zooplankton. Zooplankton is food for a host of marine life and up the chain it goes. If phytoplankton die due to man made impact like plastic, the whole food chain dies. No ocean, no air. Its not something to take lightly.
There was a study that I’ve alluded to before, where it shows 79% of the worlds produced plastic is in landfills. And the portion that is in the ocean is mainly due to mismanaged landfills. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam contribute to 60% of ocean plastic due to mismanaged landfills. If the plastic had a chance to biodegrade in landfill, it would significantly reduce the chance of it ending up in oceans.
So what do we do? There is nothing I hate more than watching a documentary about something that we should be more mindful of, and then at the end you are left with no solution, just confusion. I have watched so many food documentaries about Monsanto, GMO crops, meat is the devil and plant based all the way, that I’m left confused at the door of the grocery store. And the more I research recycling and the plastic waste epidemic, I honestly start to feel hopeless. Like it is all inevitable and we should just let it happen. In order for us to actually save the planet from ourselves, it takes more than one company, or one product. We need to stop being naive and believing everything we hear. We need to stop knee-jerk reactions like ‘ban the straw’ because of one jarring image we see online. Banning straws will not solve the problem and banning plastic is not realistic.
Our big dream is to not only help plastic waste through biochemistry but to work with different organizations to tackle this issue. The only way that is going to happen is by companies and big business footing the bill for plastic cleanup entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives to this. Our company is not in the clean up business, but our hope is that we can build a non profit company on the back of our brand. Our logo can be a universal stamp on plastic that shows people that THIS is the plastic to use….that the end of life for this plastic product has been thought through and the best materials have been used. Whether its BDP, recycled plastic, more recyclable materials….we have figured out the best option. The little molecules in our logo will be a symbol of this and companies who use our products will pay a fee to the non profit, similar to FSC for paper products. https://us.fsc.org/en-us These fee’s go straight to funding the plastic waste cleanup effort.
We don’t know what else to do other than to start somewhere. If we want to make serious change, our consumer habits have to change. If we stop using paper cups and bring our own reusable cups to Starbucks, they will be forced to look at a more environmentally friendly cup. We are seeing this every day in our own business. We have companies coming to us strictly because their customers have stopped buying their products and are forcing them to think more green. That is the power of the people.