As many of us are aware, we use a lot of plastic in our daily lives. From the packaging we find on multiple products, items made for single-use, or even our toothbrush, there is hardly anything we can come across that doesn’t have at least one plastic component to it.
We toss most of our plastic into the recycling bin, but have we considered what it takes to recycle it, or how much is actually being recycled? And, on top of that, how some of our recycling efforts are wasted, and what we can do to help recycling efforts?
After you’ve put your recycling onto the kerb, it goes through a multitude of steps before it is made into something new again. While the steps can differ between recycling facilities, they are typically akin to this process, which happens locally in Victoria:
As there are many materials that can be recycled, the first step is sorting. When the recycling truck arrives at the plant, it is chock full of plastics, glass, paper, cardboard, and a multitude of random items that people have confused as being recyclable. The truck load is poured into an area where it is carried by conveyor belt to be sorted into its basic components.
2. Secondary Sorting
Once we’ve got the plastic cleared into a separate area, it goes through another round of sorting. This time, sorters take a look at what specific kind of plastic it is, and whether it’s being recycled at that specific centre, as many plants have different acceptance rates. This second sorting round determines what the plastic is made out of and what kind it is. If you’ve ever looked at the underside of a water bottle, for instance, you may have noticed a small triangle with a number in the middle. This is the Resin Identification Code, and it shows what type of plastic it is.
3. Grinding and Washing
After the plastics have been sorted properly, they are sent to be ground up into tiny granules, and thoroughly washed, to remove any labels that are still adhered, or any sticky residue that remains. When recycling plastic, it’s important that neither of these extras are attached, as they cannot be recycled whilst still affixed.
4. Drying, Melting, Formed
When it has been ensured that the plastic is at its purest state, it is then dried from its bath. Afterwards, it is melted down, and then formed into small pellets and left to harden. This process makes it where the plastic is completely ready to be made into new objects once more.
After all the steps of collecting, sorting, washing, and breaking down, it’s time to reform the pellets into objects again. The options are endless when it comes to what the pellets can become: they can be household items, packaging, or even clothing material, such as artificial fleece.
The current rate of plastics recycling, and how efforts have gone to waste
Sadly, even with many parts of the world having excellent recycling facilities available at their finger tips, only a minuscule portion of plastics are actually being recycled.
From National Geographic, we learn that “of the 8.3 billion metric tons [of plastic] that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste,” and “of that, only 9% has been recycled…the vast majority is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter.”
With this being said, while some plastic items are being made from recycled plastic, many are still being made with virgin, or newly produced, plastic.
On top of this, many efforts of recycling have gone to waste with the majority of Australia, and many other major countries, having to send their already sorted recycling to the landfill, regardless of its recyclability. With major recycling hubs, such as India and China turning away the worlds waste, local facilities are majorly struggling to keep up with the massive amount of incoming recyclables. As they aren’t equipped with the resources, nor the man power, recyclables continue to pile up, and some are shoved into landfills, as the mass amounts held in warehouses have proved to be a fire hazard.
What can we do to help recycling efforts?
While it’s difficult to produce change on a global level, it’s easy to make a few changes to how and what we recycle, in order to make our local recycling facility workers happier, and help their jobs go easier.
1. Ensure that you’re only placing what your local council accepts into your recycling bin
When it comes to your plastic recycling, check with your local council to see what is currently being accepted into their facilities. Some councils accept different items than others, and certain items that can be recycled have to be brought into the facility separately, as opposed to being tossed into your yellow-topped wheelie bin. Just because an item that you want to dispose of has the classic Universal Recycling Symbol, it doesn’t mean that your local waste management accepts it, and has the ability to recycle it.
2. Rinse out your recyclables before tossing them in the bin
By giving your recyclables (specifically food packaging) a rinse before putting them in the recycling bin, you’ll be helping to keep the water waste low. When you’ve just used the last bit of yoghurt, or whatever, it is much easier to do a quick rinse while the container is still fresh, than to let it crust over while it waits to be recycled in the plant. Additionally, it helps keep your home recycling bin clean, resulting in less kitchen smells.
3. Keep your recyclables loose
As many local councils do not yet accept soft plastics into their facilities, it is important to keep your recyclables loose, and not tied into rubbish bin bags. It may seem inconvenient to take your entire kitchen recycling bin out to the large wheelie bin, but it’s easier on recycling workers, as they don’t have to untie and dispose of the excess rubbish bag.
4. Avert your thoughts to reusing, rather than recycling
While recycling is an excellent resource for us to take advantage of, it’s currently not very successful, and is working on a much smaller scale than we imagine. As so many recyclable materials are ending up in the landfill, still, it’s important to think about how we can reuse items, instead of simply disposing of them.
The process of recycling may sound simple, but with the massive amounts that each facility receives, it is not the most sustainable option.
While there have been many, many items re-made from recyclable plastic, many recyclables have gone straight to the landfill. Even though recycling plays a major part in our waste management, we aren’t recycling as well as we could be, and by learning a little about the process, the results, and how we can improve, our dependence on virgin plastic could one day diminish.