Plastic recycling is not the solution.

We’re all familiar with the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. As we learnt in school, these are the best ways for us to help with managing our trash, and it is true – to a certain extent.

Let’s take a look at some stats.

When we analyse the National Environmental Agency’s Waste Statistics we can see our overall recycling rate is not bad – 59% of all waste produced in 2019 was recycled.

Many of the trash categories like metal, construction debris and wood have pretty good recycling rates. One category sticks out like a sore thumb though – plastic. One of the heaviest, yet one of the least recycled of the bunch.

Plastic waste produced and incinerated from 2016 to 2019. The difference is the weight of plastic recycled. Note that each unit represents 1 million kg. For example, this means 822 million kg of plastic waste was produced in 2016, 815 million kg in 2017, and so on.

Over the years our plastic recycling rate has hovered at around a measly 5% – and it’s not just Singapore either. Plastic recycling appears to be an issue many countries are dealing with. According to National Geographic, 8.3 trillion kilograms of plastic (16,600 times the weight of the world’s tallest buildling, the Burj Khalifa) has been made worldwide from the 1950s till 2018.

Of these, only 9% have been recycled.

With recycling being such a big part of the green movement, why the heck is the number so low? Well, we have to consider that many people don’t recycle. That and the fact that we use a lot more plastic that we need aside, there are some properties of plastic that just make it bad for recycling.

First up, plastic type. There’s many different kinds of plastic (you’ll recognize the weird acronyms like PVC, PET, PP, so on), and they need to be sorted out specially before they can be heated and moulded into new forms of plastic. It’s very important that they are separated well. Just one PVC bottle in a batch of 10,000 PET bottles can ruin the entire batch. This separation can make the process more expensive and a lot less worthwhile compared to just producing it normally.

No investments means no one wants to bother with recycling.

So into the landfills and incinerators they go.

There’s also the issue that plastics aren’t really that “recyclable”. Let me explain. With things like metal and glass, you can melt them down and reshape them as you please rather easily. With plastic though, they get weaker and weaker each time they’re recycled. Manufacturers have to add new plastic to reinforce it (which defeats the purpose of recycling) or make a form of plastic which doesn’t require as much strength. Eventually though, it’ll be too weak to use any longer and it’ll end up in a landfill or an incinerator.

This is why several experts believe that plastic recycling is not worthwhile at all. It costs too much for the limited uses that it has. The environmental benefits are often small. I’ll add some of their articles in the Additional Reading section below.

For me personally, I have to say that I agree with that sentiment. There’s far more efficient ways to deal with plastic waste and pollution – as I mentioned before, reducing your consumption of plastic, especially single-use plastic, and opting for reusable products is a much more effective solution.

So should I still be recycling?

Yes, you absolutely should! Only plastic recycling is really a big issue, and other forms of recycling like paper and metal are much, much more efficient.

With plastic, there is only a 4% chance that the stuff you throw is going to be recycled, but it is still a chance nonetheless. Just recycle plastic with the awareness that, yes, while it is slightly better than just throwing it straight into a bin, it is not the great solution to plastic waste that we all collectively thought it was before.

The point I’m trying to make is that plastic recycling shouldn’t be hogging the spotlight.

Because it really, really doesn’t deserve it.

Things are looking up, though! If we look at that bar chart from the beginning again, we can see how we produced slightly less waste in 2019 compared to 2018. Let’s keep up this trend for this year too, yeah 🙂

Additional Reading

References/Image Credits

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