The first fully synthetic plastic was discovered shortly after the turn of the 19th century and was celebrated for being lightweight, durable and easy to shape. Previously industry was constrained by what could be found in nature, but this discovery opened possibilities of creating products previously thought to be impossible. (Chemical Heritage Foundation).
We know what happened after that. Eventually plastic took over industry as something that could be made into anything really cheaply. Now it’s hard to go five minutes without touching it, wearing it, or eating off of it.
According to the most optimistic spins on statistics, 35% of the plastics we use every year are recycled, with the rest heading off to your nearest landfill to outlive us all.
This is a surprising recycling rate given that the value of plastic is three times the value of steel per ton (According to the Wall Street Journal, PET (what plastic water bottles are made of), cost around 70 cents per pound last year, or $1400 a ton. On the other hand, the cost of steel is around $500 per ton. Yet one is disposable and the other is not.).
From what I see, the current culture is pushing everyone to recycle more, but what if recycling isn’t really the best answer? And what is plastic anyway?
I interviewed my husband, who’s a chemical engineer and really good at explaining things.
Below is an approximate transcript:
“You can make plastics out of a lot of different little molecules. They call the little molecules that you start with monomers, one mer or one little repeat unit, or one link in the chain if you will.
One of the problems with recycling plastics is that each different type of plastic can have a different little own repeat unit with its own unique idiosyncrasies and properties and even though it repeats a similar number of times and coils up in somewhat similar fashions, if the little repeat unit is different it may need a completely different process or very different temperatures or other chemicals to even attempt to reuse it, process it or recycle it.
For metal recycling and glass a lot of times they can kind of remelt those or even with metals sometimes bang them into other shapes. Glass in particular, you put it in a glass furnace (really hot of course) and you can reshape it if you get it pure enough.
The problem with plastics is that once you make these long coils and get them knotted up with each other, sometimes they don’t remelt well at all. Sometimes they can get very brittle and weak. Sometimes they’ll actually burn or degrade as they react in higher termpatures before they get even close to soft enough to make into any useful shape. So you burn them into a tar or other waste products before you can reform them.
There are some types of plastics that can be remelted and reprocessed but purity really becomes an issue. If it’s dirty at all, if there are any labels or glue or ink on it, it can completely change how it gets reprocessed and make it much weaker. And even with the same plastic, the condition under which they made the object can really influence how strong it is, so if they have to remelt it to remake it they can end up with a really compromised product that’s not anywhere near as good as the original just because of the processing. So sometimes it’s really hard to recycle many types of plastics.”
When I first started this zero waste idea, I thought it would involve a lot of recycling, and it does. But as you watch the video below about plastic bottle recycling, I would encourage you to think about the massive amounts of energy required to turn a plastic bottle into a plastic bottle.
This is why in the zero waste world, reduced consumption, container reuse and composting are the golden standard and recycling is the last resort.
How can we practically do that? Here are a few ideas:
- Before you buy something, ask yourself, “How am I going to get rid of this when I’m done with it?” It really makes you think about what you buy.
- Bring your own reusable plates and cups to functions like picnics. We’ve been doing this for a while and it feels kind of dorky, but it also feels empowering (change the culture!). I’ve been working toward never using anything disposable.
- Never drink bottled water. This may seem obvious but the stuff is everywhere and it can be hard to get away from. Buying a water bottle you love goes a long way here. I’ve found that metal water bottles (such as this one that’s become my favorite after years of use: Simply Simily Stainless Steel Water Bottle) need to be washed less frequently, meaning I can leave mine in the diaper bag and it doesn’t get nasty.
- Shop in the bulk section of your store when you can (using reusable bags and jars when possible) and store your food in mason jars. This is definitely more work, but you have the amazing experience of having much less waste, including fewer containers to recycle.
Recycling is way better than land filling, but not nearly as good as reducing and reusing!