What Is the Main Goal of Recycling Plastic?
Less than 10% of the world’s plastic is recycled, at least according to a 2020 National Public Radio (NPR) piece from Laura Sullivan. The piece appears to be an attempt to blame the gas and oil industry for the global recycling problems, claiming they forced plastic on the world while knowing full well it would never be recycled.
If there is any blame to be laid regarding the lack of plastic recycling – and many people don’t think that’s the case, by the way – there is plenty to go around. Singling out the energy sector as being the one entity responsible for it all is absurd. Perhaps we all need to step back and ask a simple question: what is the main goal of recycling plastic?
Setting Goals Is Normal
Outside of the recycling paradigm, setting goals is normal. We all know we should do it. Indeed, every successful business executive, athlete, etc. will tell you that one of the secrets to their success is setting a series of reasonable goals and then working to achieve them. Every achieved goal is a small success in and of itself. Many achieved goals add up.
The difficulty with the whole plastic recycling thing is a lack of clear-cut goals. Is the main goal to reduce dependence on fossil fuels? Is it to reduce the amount of waste in coastal landfills? Do we allegedly recycle plastic in order to save money, save the planet, or save something else entirely?
People throw plastic containers in the recycling bin every week. They put the bin to the curb with their trash. Little do they know that upwards of 90% of that plastic is going to end up in a landfill anyway. They don’t know why they recycle, other than to say they do it because their local government has told them to do it. But that’s not much of an incentive.
Recycling Can Reduce Waste
Not coming up with a primary goal for recycling plastic makes it difficult to justify the cost. So what if we made reducing waste the primary goal? Companies like Seraphim Plastics are already reducing waste by recycling clean industrial plastic. Seraphim collects industrial plastic waste from five states and turns it into regrind. Companies that manufacture with plastic buy that regrind and mix it with their virgin material.
Industrial recyclers make money because there is demand for the regrind they produce. On the other hand, municipal recycling programs often lose money because there is little demand for the plastic materials they recycle. Fair enough. But if the goal is to eliminate waste, do municipalities have to make a profit doing so?
Recycling Has Its Limits
What must be understood is that recycled plastic does not have the same integrity as virgin material. This is to say that you can only recycle plastic so many times before it can no longer be used. All plastics will ultimately end up in a landfill. So the point of reducing waste isn’t really a matter of saving landfill space. Rather, it is a matter of not producing as much virgin material by extending the life of single-use plastic as long as possible.
With reducing waste as the primary goal, and with the understanding that recycling has its limits, we could do a whole lot better at recycling single-use plastic by adopting the industrial model. Simply by changing what we do so that consumer plastics are as clean as their industrial counterparts, recycling can be made efficient and cost-effective. Whether or not we have the will to do it is the real question.