Finally – A Commonsense Criticism of Plastic Recycling

My job requires that I do a lot of research into plastic recycling. From municipal post-consumer programs to companies involved in industrial plastic recycling, I cover it all. As a result, I read an awful lot of criticism aimed at the plastic recycling industry. Most of it is foolishness. But I am happy to report that I finally read a commonsense criticism that actually offers a workable solution.

That criticism is offered by way of a Guardian piece authored by University of Bristol (UK) environmental chemistry researcher Dr. Charlotte Lloyd. Lloyd starts with the premise that recycling is not the answer to the plastic problem. But she also explains that banning plastic isn’t, either.

The Real Problem with Plastic

To the extent that plastics present dangers to human health and the environment – and that is debatable, by the way – the problem isn’t really plastic polymers themselves. It is the chemicals used to form those polymers and give them their distinct properties. As Lloyd explains, it is the chemicals that cause environmental damage. It’s the chemicals that pose dangers to human health.

Lloyd posits that recycling only makes the chemical problem worse. It is hard to argue the point in relation to chemical recycling. Reducing plastics to their base components through chemical means releases all sorts of additional chemicals from the waste material.

On the other hand, I am not so sure there is a problem with mechanical recycling. Mechanical recycling is what Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics does. They use mechanical grinders to reduce scrap industrial plastic to a regrind material that goes back into the manufacturing process. But let us say Lloyd is correct. Let’s say even mechanical recycling exacerbates the chemical problem.

Let’s Deal with the Chemicals

As Lloyd points out in her piece, banning plastics at this point is unrealistic. The world is too reliant on plastic as a manufacturing material. We cannot get rid of it until we find an adequate replacement. And for now, that seems pretty far off. So how do we deal with the plastics problem? By dealing with the chemicals used to produce it.

Plastic is made up of chains of polymers derived from the byproducts of petroleum processing. In its simplest form, plastic is oil. To make it usable as a manufacturing material, it needs to be arranged into long polymer chains and then treated with chemicals to give it certain properties.

Chemical composition determines plastic strength and rigidity. Some plastics are softer while others are harder. Plastics can range in terms of their texture, resilience, their ability to absorb energy, and so on. Even colors differ from one plastic to the next.

All this variation comes from the chemicals used to turn those polymer chains into plastic materials. If the chemicals are dangerous, and many of them are, let’s put our efforts into finding replacements. Minimizing the dangerous chemicals in plastics eliminates most of the hazards we often complain about.

We Can Do Better

A shortsighted approach to the plastics problem says the best course of action is to ban the material. Not only are plastic bans unrealistic, but they also really aren’t achievable at this point. But we can and should do better. We can develop better ways to manufacture plastic so as to mitigate dangerous chemicals. We can also develop better ways to recycle it.

Humanity has a long track record of cleaning up its messes. We can clean up plastic if we put our minds to it. But until we do, we are going to continue hearing the incessant calls to ban it. Lloyd doesn’t think that’s a realistic move. A lot of people agree with her.

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