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Our society’s relationship with plastic is complicated. Over 100 years, the man-made, petroleum-based polymer has gone from miracle material to environmental villain.
The status quo for decades, a recent shifting in consumer preference, advancement in materials sciences, and legislation protecting the Earth have given rise to a world of “eco-friendly” plastics. From packaging to the products themselves, bio-based, biodegradable, and recycled materials are finding purchase.
While considered an exciting and positive development by most, the recycling process for these products isn’t as simple as “green means go.” With new, sustainable materials come new rules for recycling—and you’ll need to learn them fast.
Since plastic first hit the mainstream in the 1950s, the world has produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of it. And because plastic is engineered not to break down, the great majority of it is still around today.
A 2017 study estimated that of this staggering amount of plastic, 79% of it resides in landfill or the environment, while 12% has been incinerated and only 9% recycled. Adding to the heap, global factories add nearly 308 million metric tons more virgin material per year.
Astoundingly, some suggest this number will double by 2050, ballooning in the ballpark of 756 million metric tons per year.
However, this forecast could be drastically affected by a rather dynamic variable: Human conscience.
Making inroads on the traditional petrochemical plastic industry, the biodegradable or “eco-friendly” plastic market hit $3.27 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow 9.4% YoY, effectively doubling by 2027. This could be accelerated even further by legislation and government mandates that restrict the production and usage of virgin plastics, as well as consumer attitudes toward more sustainable alternatives.
Sensing the souring of consumers on freshly pressed petrochemical plastics, companies around the planet are shifting their products and packaging to a host of “eco-friendly” plastics. But what does that phrase mean?
By definition, eco-friendly plastics refer to a group of engineered polymers designed to break down or be recycled in a circular fashion. Generally, this group breaks out into three categories: bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, and recycled plastics.
Bioplastics are a family of polymers created with renewable resources and capable of breaking down naturally. Bio-based (also known as “plant-based”) plastics include starch-based material derived from potatoes or corn, polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), and innovative new materials like Notpla, a solution made from seaweed.
One of these in particular, PLA (derived from corn), is rapidly gaining acceptance with producers. Compared to traditional plastics, it only uses one-third of the energy to produce, emits 70% less greenhouse gasses when degrading in landfill, and reduces overall emissions by 25% or more.
Biodegradable plastics are a class of plastics made either partially or completely from non-renewable petroleum containing chemical additives that cause them to decompose more rapidly in the presence of light, oxygen, moisture, and/or heat.
Polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polybutylene succinate (PBS) are petroleum-based materials used in product packaging, films, and in some cases, as liners for paper cups. Overall, they’re viewed as more environmentally friendly than the traditional numbered seven.
Recycled plastics are materials created using varying percentages of post-consumer petroleum-based plastics. These materials can be circular—such as a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle returning as an rPET bottle. Or, they can be downcycled—such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene) grocery bags becoming deck planking or park benches.
Recycled plastic products, like other traditional plastics, aren’t recognized as biodegradable. However, understanding the glut of virgin plastics that reach US landfills each year (27 million tons), many companies have voluntarily chosen to boost percentages of recycled content used for new products in order to reduce their footprints.
Americans aren’t spectacular plastic recyclers already. With a national plastic recycling rate hanging around 8.7% and 62% of Americans believing that lack of knowledge is causing them to recycle incorrectly, the recovery of the conventional numbered plastics has been an uphill battle.
[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: How to Read Plastic Recycling Symbols]
Unfortunately, things are becoming more complicated. The fast entrance of eco-friendly plastics has led to shortfalls in process for the recycling industry and new rules to learn for consumers. Why? Because most eco-friendly plastics cannot be recycled through the same avenues as traditional plastics.
Simplified: Bioplastics can’t go in your recycling bin with virgin and recycled plastics.
Bioplastics like PLA and biodegradable petroleum-based plastics like PBS are meant to be 1:1 replacements for traditional plastics, and that means there’s a significant and growing problem with proper disposal because they look so much alike. A PLA bottle is considered a contaminant to a load of PET bottles because the bio-based material weakens the chemical structure of the other polymer, degrading the overall resale value.
When not sent to landfill (a major area of concern), bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are routed to industrial composting centers, chemical recycling plants, and anaerobic digesters. And while infrastructure is improving in leaps and bounds, the end-of-life handling of eco-friendly plastics is still in its infancy.
Therefore, it’s important to work with a hauler capable of multi-stream recycling.
People say they want sustainable products, but they don’t tend to buy them. Here’s how to change that. by Katherine White, David J. Hardisty, and Rishad Habib From the Magazine (July–August 2019)