A recent study by an international team of scientists indicated that plastic recycling facilities may be contributing to the pollution of waterways and posing a threat to human health by releasing wastewater contaminated with billions of tiny plastic particles.
The team collected water samples from a recycling facility in the UK and estimated that up to 75 billion microplastics (pieces of plastic less than 5 millimetres long) could be discharged annually per cubic meter of wastewater, which is about 6% of the planned plastic to be recycled.
However, the scientists only analyzed microplastics as small as 1.6 microns, so the actual numbers may be higher than the estimates. The study also revealed that although a water filtration system was able to remove about 90% of microplastics larger than 10 μm, there were still smaller pieces in the wastewater.
Plastic recycling a failure
The Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances reported on a recent study by environmental engineers from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and Halifax’s Dalhousie University in Canada, which found that recycling plastic using certain techniques may unintentionally contribute to the proliferation of microplastics in environment. The research team conducted tests on water used to clean plastic at a recycling facility.
Plastic recycling has been called a failure, as only 9% of plastic is recycled globally and only 5% in the US, despite public efforts to separate and recycle. Furthermore, the recycling process itself seems to contribute to the problem. Environmental engineers from the University of Strathclyde and Dalhousie University in Scotland and Canada respectively investigated a plastic recycling plant to determine if it was releasing plastic pollution.
The recycling process requires the plastic to be washed with water several times before it is crushed and melted into pellets. Research suggests that this washing process could lead to the release of microplastics into the water.
The team tested the water sources at the plant, which showed microplastics in all four. Most of this water is sent to sewage systems or released into the environment. The team estimated that this plant could emit about 6.5 million pounds of microplastics into the environment each year.
The team discovered that the facility had installed a filtration system, which reduced particulate emissions by 50%. However, the researchers only tested particles as small as 1.6 microns, and plastic particles can be much smaller than that. Research has shown that some particles can be small enough to enter individual cells within an animal’s body.
Recycling plastic is impossible
Greenpeace also found that no plastic, not even soda bottles, one of the most prolific items thrown into recycling bins, meets the threshold to be called “recyclable” according to standards set by the New Plastics Economy Initiative. the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Plastic must have a 30% recycling rate to meet that standard; No plastic has ever been recycled or reused at a rate close to that.
Now, Greenpeace has updated the study with “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again” and finds that the situation has gotten worse, not better, noting that “American households generated approximately 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, of which only 2 .4 million tons was recycled”.
The report notes that only 5-6% of plastics were recycled in 2021, down from a peak of 9.5% in 2014, though that’s when plastic waste was exported to China.
The title of the report uses the words “circular claims” instead of “recycling claims” because circular is recycling 2.0, where plastics are theoretically broken down into usable chemicals before being converted back into new plastic. I previously wrote in “The Plastics Industry Is Hijacking the Circular Economy”:
“This charade of a circular economy is just another way of continuing the status quo, with more expensive reprocessing. It’s the plastics industry telling governments, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll save recycling, just invest millions in these new reprocessing technologies. and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic.’ It makes sure the consumer doesn’t feel guilty about buying the bottled water or disposable coffee cup because after all, hey, it’s circular now.”
Crisis is getting worse
“More plastic is produced and an even smaller percentage is recycled,” says Lisa Ramsden, senior plastics activist at Greenpeace USA. “The crisis is getting worse and worse, and without drastic change it will continue to get worse as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.”
Waste management experts say the problem with plastic is that it is expensive to collect and sort. There are now thousands of different types of plastic, and none of them can be melted together. Plastic also degrades after one or two uses. Greenpeace found that the more plastic that is reused, the more toxic it becomes.
New plastic, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to produce. The result is that plastic garbage has few markets, a reality that the public has not wanted to hear.
Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, says that when customers were told a couple of years ago that they couldn’t take any more plastic trash other than soda bottles and jugs, like milk jugs and detergent bottles people got upset. They wanted to put their strawberry containers, bags, yogurt cups, and all kinds of other plastic trash in their recycling bin.
Microplastic pollution from plastic recycling
A study suggests that plastic recycling facilities may be releasing wastewater containing billions of tiny plastic particles, which could contribute to water pollution and endanger human health.
The study found that an undisclosed recycling facility in the UK could be releasing up to 75 billion microplastics per cubic meter of wastewater per year. While a water filtration system filtered around 90% of microplastics larger than 10 μm, it did not remove particles smaller than 10 μm.
The world produces almost 400 million metric tons of plastic each year, but only about 9% of it is recycled, which means that global plastic recycling facilities could produce around 2 million metric tons of microplastic waste each year. The study also found high levels of microplastics in the air around the facility. Inhaled plastics of this size can cause interstitial lung disease and other respiratory illnesses.
Proponents of “advanced recycling” say these facilities are a solution to plastic pollution, but they can also produce a toxic cocktail of chemical waste and emit dangerous air pollution.
The global plastics treaty, a legally binding framework to fight global plastic pollution, is still in development, and nations are discussing what it should cover.
Five reasons why plastic recycling fails
Plastic waste is difficult to collect: It starts in our homes, where we throw everything we’re told is recyclable in a landfill and then, through our taxes, pay between $4.2 and 5.9 billion per year to have someone pick it up and take it to a recovery facility. of materials (MRF) where it is separated. Only PET or HDPE have any market value, and it’s not much. Many municipalities are giving up separate recycling collections because it costs too much. The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) estimates that only 5% of plastic is collected and sent for recycling.
Mixed plastic waste cannot be recycled together: It’s often hard to tell them apart, and there are so many plastics with so many different properties. Even just among the PETs, you have to separate the colored ones from the transparent ones. Blow molded bottles need to be treated differently than thermoformed PET cups and trays, so even with No. #1, much of it cannot be recycled.
Recycling is wasteful, polluting and a fire hazard: When plastics are processed, microplastics are created. These leach into the wastewater stream and eventually enter the environment.
Recycled plastic often has high toxicity risks: This is why recycled plastics are rarely used for food grade applications, one of the biggest consumers of plastic.
Recycling is not cheap: This is the big one. The new plastic is cheaper, more consistent, and easier to work with. Plastic companies want to sell more new plastic and are opening big new plants to make it. Meanwhile, the increase in the price of diesel has made the transport of plastic waste even more expensive.
Recyclability of plastic
A 2020 NPR investigative report found that industry officials misled the public about the recyclability of plastic even though their own reports showed they knew as early as the 1970s and 1980s that plastic could not be economically recycled.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group, did not initially respond to NPR’s request for comment on the Greenpeace report. Following the post, Joshua Baca, the group’s vice president of plastics, emailed NPR calling Greenpeace’s views “misleading, out of touch and misguided.”
He said the industry believes it is “on the cusp of a circularity revolution” when it comes to recycling plastic “increasing sorting, advanced recycling and new partnerships that allow used plastic to be remade over and over again.”
Environmentalists and lawmakers in some states are now pushing for legislation to ban single-use plastics and for “bottle bills” that pay customers to return their plastic bottles. The bills have led to successful plastic bottle recycling rates in places like Oregon and Michigan, but have faced stiff resistance from oil and plastic industry lobbyists.
US biggest plastic polluters
The US, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, has struggled to figure out what to do with its plastic waste since a monumental shift in 2018. That’s when China, where the US previously sent most of its called recyclable materials, decided to stop accepting most plastics.
Plastic pollution is a global problem that has persisted despite decades of marketing aimed at shifting responsibility onto consumers through recycling. Only 9 percent of all the world’s plastic waste had been recycled as of 2015, a 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances found. And because plastic degrades every time it’s reshredded, even devices made from recycled materials typically need to be reinforced with new plastics, creating more and more plastic waste.
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