Why plastic recycling isn’t the answer

Why plastic recycling isn’t the answer

Recycling is a feel-good activity. Most of us do our best to make sure our plastic waste gets into the recycling bin and is therefore saved from entering our landfills. Right? Not always…

Chucking a clean plastic bottle or other plastic packaging into the recycling bin doesn’t necessarily mean it will be used again. Plastics NZ, the industry association for plastic manufacturers in New Zealand, estimates that only 24% of plastic packaging is diverted from the landfill into recycling and reuse programmes. While this percentage has increased over the past 10 years, so has our nation’s consumption of plastic. And the fact that 75% of our plastic ends up in a landfill should make you think twice about the packaging you purchase.

Join SciShow as we explore what happens to your stuff after you toss it into the little green bin with the arrows on it.

Plastic waste makes up 8% of New Zealand’s waste stream by weight, but because of its lightweight character this translates into 20% of waste material by volume. Even some of the plastics that make it into your recycling bin are landfilled. Not all plastics are created equal when it comes to recycling – some are more easily reused than others. Plastics with numbers 3, 5, 6 and 7 are hard to recycle and don’t have much value to the plastics industry the second time around. Because there is not a market for these plastics, even when you put them in your recycle bin they still end up in a landfill. Plastics showing numbers 1, 2 and 4 are the most commonly-recycled plastics. But even within this category, the additives and colourants used to create the wide array of plastic products further diminish the recyclability of the material.

This two and a half minute video provides a great overview of why more recycling is needed in New Zealand and how we should go about it. It highlights the link between consumption and waste problems, and the impact this has on sustainable living and our environment.

Most of the plastic products and packaging you buy are made from virgin plastic. It is important to know that aside from a few exceptions most plastic can never be used to make the same item again. Instead, the recycling process creates an inferior product, suitable to only a handful of uses. This is called downcycling. Furthermore, once a product made of recycled plastic comes to the end of its life, it cannot be recycled again and will end up in a landfill.

So what can you do? Make sure all plastics you put in your recycling bin are rinsed clean. Dirty plastics cannot be recycled. When you have an option, choose the most easily-recycled plastics – numbers 1, 2 and 4 – over others. But most of all, be conscious of the plastics that you purchase and find ways to buy and use less of it. The less plastic we consume, the less plastic ends up in the landfill. It’s as easy as that.

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Contributor: Andrea Greene Liberatore