About 150 million tonnes of plastic waste have found its way into the world’s oceans, which, researchers say, would soon outweigh all the fish in the sea. But, of course, everyone knows that plastic pollution is not confined to the Earth’s waters; it’s just that some of it ends up there.
If you have been dutifully recycling plastic, you could probably be forgiven for thinking that by sorting your trash and putting plastics in their own bins, you’re already doing an eco-responsible act.
The thing is, our relationship with plastics is such that after consuming a product and placing the plastic packaging in the recycle bin, we assume that the item will be recycled and that it could be recycled endlessly.
But the truth of the matter is that it is not. Most of the plastic we’ve painstakingly sorted through the years would have most likely ended up in a landfill or incinerator.
How many times can an item be recycled?
One important thing to remember is that the recyclability of plastic is finite.
The same kind of plastic can only be recycled two to three times before it gets too degraded to be made into anything useful. Moreover, not all plastics are being recycled, and certain facilities accept only very specific types of plastics.
Here’s a quick overview of the seven categories of plastic plus information on their recyclability:
• No. 1 or PETE/PET: Most disposable food and beverage containers and water bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (also polyester) or #1 plastic. It’s also used in household cleaning product packaging. While it’s relatively safe, exposure to heat can cause carcinogens to leach into the product. It’s also porous, so bacteria and strong flavours can penetrate and accumulate in it. Most kerbside recycling programs accept PET.
• No. 2 or HDPE: Milk jugs, butter tubs, detergent and juice bottles, and toiletries containers are usually made from opaque high-density polyethylene. It is generally safe and has a low risk of leaching into products. This type of plastic is usually accepted in kerbside recycling programs.
• No. 3 or PVC: Polyvinyl chloride is a versatile type of plastic. It is used in making cooking oil bottles, shower curtains, food wrap, plumbing pipes, inflatable mattresses, etc. It is not meant for use in cooking or heating as it contains high levels of phthalates. PVC is the most hazardous plastic and is very difficult to recycle.
• No. 4 or LDPE: Low-density polyethylene is primarily used in the manufacture of grocery bags, certain food wraps, bread bags, and squeezable bottles. Although considered relatively safe, it is not recyclable via kerbside and other recycling programs.
• No. 5 or PP: Polypropylene is used in making kitchenware, microwave-safe plastic containers, medicine, and catsup bottles and yoghurt cups. It is known to be a safe plastic, but only if you skip microwaving it (better use glass for microwaving). It’s usually accepted now in kerbside recycling programs.
• No. 6 or polystyrene/Styrofoam: Commonly used in food and beverage packaging and other consumer goods, polystyrene can leach toxic chemicals when heated. It’s difficult to recycle and requires special recycling facilities. It also takes thousands of years to degrade.
• No. 7 or everything else: All plastics that do not belong to any of the six categories fall under No. 7. This includes new plastics and bioplastics. Included in this category are toxic polycarbonates such as BPA. Baby and water bottles, CDs, DVDs, sports equipment, medical and dental devices, and certain computer components or parts are made from BPA. No. 7 is difficult to recycle and is not accepted in most kerbside recycling programs.
Most recycling facilities accept only Nos. 1, 2, and 3 plastics as long as they are not combined with any other material.
The problem with poor consumer knowledge and dirty plastics
Poor or inadequate consumer knowledge concerning plastics and recycling requirements can lead to people incorrectly placing plastic waste into recycle bins. This, in turn, can contaminate recycling and downgrade the usability of raw materials. Moreover, improper disposal can lead to non-recycling at all.
If you want the plastics you segregate to end up in a recycling facility, you need to ensure they are free from residues before binning. Therefore, the plastic products you sort for recycling must be clean.
Wash or rinse each item first to get rid of any dirt or residue. Then put it in the appropriate bin so it has a higher chance of getting recycled.
Plastic quality deterioration
To understand how plastic deterioration happens, it’s important to know that plastics comprise long chains of atoms or polymers. These are arranged in certain patterns and are responsible for the qualities of plastic that make it a cheap, durable, lightweight and flexible material.
However, every time plastic undergoes recycling, the polymer chains get shorter, so the quality degrades until it no longer can be of any use.
What can and cannot be recycled varies from council to council
Since which plastics can and cannot be recycled depends on the local council and facilities available, you need to ascertain which items can be recycled, as well as the proper disposal of each type of waste.
You can also check your local council website to get updated, reliable information.
How much of Australia's annual plastic waste is recycled each year?
According to the 2017-18 Australian plastics recycling survey - national report, Australians consumed a total of 3.4 million tonnes of plastics during the period covered.
Out of this number, 320,000 tonnes of plastics were recycled — a figure that is higher by 10 per cent compared to 2016-17 data. The national plastics recycling rate for 2017-18 was 9.4 per cent, with 145,700 tonnes (46 per cent) reprocessed in the country and 174,300 tonnes (54 per cent) exported for reprocessing.
Broader issues with plastic waste in Australia
One of the biggest challenges for Australia in terms of waste and recycling came in the form of the 2018 Chinese ban on the country’s waste exports.
The ban comprised import restrictions imposed under China’s Blue Sky/National Sword program. It essentially tightened inspection efforts with a goal of reducing the amount of contaminated materials entering China.
This move restricted the importation of 24 kinds of recyclable material through the implementation of stringent “maximum contamination thresholds” and limiting the issuance of import permits to Chinese businesses.
The most significant impact of the ban had to do with restrictions on paper and plastics, with new contamination thresholds set at only 0.5 per cent. This figure is unachievable as the contamination rate of Australia’s kerbside recycling averages from 6 to 10 per cent when it comes to processing household waste, such as plastic. And if 2017 figures are to be used as reference, the new restrictions affect around 65 per cent of the export market for paper and plastics.
Moreover, the oversupply of recyclable waste has led to big drops in the average prices of paper and plastic scraps. This ultimately reduces and may even eliminate the profitability of kerbside recycling.
The Australian Government's response to improve the quality of recycled waste products
To address recycling issues, the Australian Government passed a new legislation called the ‘Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020’ to improve the waste streams and quality of the country’s recyclable waste exports.
The government is also investing $190 million in the Recycling Modernisation Fund to aid in transforming Australia’s waste and recycling capacity.
What does all this mean for consumers?
Plastic often ends up in landfills or our waterways, injuring and hurting our marine life.
But by knowing and understanding the intricacies behind plastic recycling, we can all become responsible consumers.
And while governments and businesses play key roles in the move towards more sustainable packaging, it is us, the consumers, who can effect major changes through our purchasing decisions.
Better yet, we can look towards ways in which we can completely avoid or significantly reduce the total waste we create in the first place, such as by reusing materials as many times as possible.
We can 'vote' with our wallets and opt to limit our use of plastics — recyclables or not.