The market calls the shots for the recycling of plastic. Which is why it will never be the solution to our problems

We are often convinced that plastics, if we diligently separate then in their own trash bins, can give rise to something new, becoming resource rather than refuse. But that’s not quite true.

In the world just 15% of plastic refuse gets recycled, according to the OCSE (Organizzazione per la Cooperazione e lo Sviluppo Economico): 25% is burned in incinerators or waste-to-energy plants, 60% goes to dumps and gets burned in the open air (causing harm to health and the environment), or it is directly abandoned (particularly in the sea, or in illicit open dumps). Another disturbing figure: the plastic produced in the world is 8 times greater than the quantity of recycled plastic.

There are various reasons for all this. First, recycled plastic costs more than new plastic. Furthermore, its intrinsic qualities are often inferior to those of new products: most plastic is recycled using mechanical methods in which the material is reduced to granules that are then fused to shape something new. The problem happens during this process, because it reduces the properties and the qualities of the material, limiting the range of products in which recycled plastic can be used.

So the recycling of plastic is not just an ethical issue, but above all a question of the market.

The PET from water bottles and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) from detergent bottles are the most recycled plastics (from 19% to 85% depending on the country), while the polypropylene of tubes and electrical cables and polystyrene are recovered in quantities of only 1% to 21%, through they are easy to recycle. Why? Because recycled polystyrene costs more than the new variety, so it has no market.

There is also an important question connected with the capabilities of recycling plants: some plastic objects, such as toys, have to be dismantled, broken down into their parts prior to recycling (removing metal bolts or wiring). This adds further costs, so these items are not recycled: most end up buried, or incinerated, or (even worse) thrown into the sea, where according to data supplied by Ispra - Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale, in the Mediterranean alone, almost 50,000 specimens of 116 different species have ingested plastic. Of these, 59% are osseous fish, including those sold for consumption like sardines, red mullet, bream, cod, anchovies, tuna, scampi and shrimp. The remaining 41% are other marine animals like mammals, crustaceans, mollusks, jellyfish, turtles, birds. Many of which are consumed in human nutrition. So everything returns, including the damage.

We are in the “plastocene” age, as some scholars have called it. An age in which we talk constantly about recycling and trash separation, although only 20-25% of all plastic recovered in the world is recycled and transformed into new objects, containers or packaging, which in any case are hard to sell (since, as we have seen, they cost more and have lower quality than new plastics

All the rest ends up at the dump or in incinerators (sometimes burnt to obtain energy, but with harmful effects on health and the environment, including the handling of post-combustion waste).

The recurring question, then: is plastic recycling utopia? Antonis Mavropoulos, president of ISWA – International Solid Waste Association, a non-governmental organization engaged in the promotion of sustainable waste management and the circular economy – recently told La Repubblica: “Recycling on its own is not enough. The priority is to urge industries to redesign products, making recyclability the first criterion, extending their cycle of life and reuse.”

The solution lies in the circular economy and in blocking production of certain materials that cannot be recycled, banishing them from our production system. As recently ordered by the European Union for single-use plastics.

Since China banned the importing of plastics for recycling in 2018, the costs of recycling have grown substantially: for example, in Great Britain over the last two years prices for consignment of materials to be recycled have risen by 30-40%. This enormous leap makes recycling an endangered business proposition.

One hope for plastic comes from the discovery of a group of researchers at the University of Bath (UK), who have found a way to break down plant-based plastics into their constituent parts, potentially permitting repeated recycling of products without damage to their properties. This discovery could contribute, through a new method of chemical recycling, to the creation of a circular economy, opening up new horizons. But we should not forget that the key to solving the problem of plastic waste has to be a combined approach, which can be summed up in three simple words: reduction, reutilization and recycling.

 

 

In the photos,‘Consider yourself as a guest’ by Christian Holstad: a cornucopia of over 4 meters composed entirely of recycled plastic material, which, on the occasion of the Biennale di Venezia 2019, crossed the Grand Canal to be exhibited at the Ca 'Foscari University of Venice. The project, supported by FPT Industrial, focuses on the urgency of protecting the seas from pollution by plastic waste. Ph. Francesca Bottazzin.