Why our recycling system needs fixing

When I talk to plastic recyclers, they often tell me gruffly, with a wave of their hands:

“Aiya, actually everything can be recycled one. The only thing is whether it makes sense to collect or not. Otherwise it’s a loss.”

The business writer in me understood them perfectly. It’s not that the flimsy and light plastic wrap can’t be recycled. It’s that it’s too light and difficult to collect; it’s often too dirty and the resale value after recycling is too low; it might get tangled in the machines.

In other words, the cost of collection and recycling cannot be covered by the revenues gained by selling the recycled plastic resin.

To me, this fact underscores how complex recycling is. The economic factors of recycling are just one aspect of it. There’s also the fact that many of our products are not designed to facilitate recycling at its end of life, quality issues (food-grade plastic has higher requirements), as well as technology limitations (can a bottle be made into a bottle again?).

Recycling is essential and probably our best way out of exhausting limited natural resources, but it shouldn’t be the only solution. In fact, a system rethink is needed, says the the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and other options like reuse and elimination of unnecessary plastic should be prioritised.

Let’s unpack that in five points:

1) Not all plastic are the same

In Malaysia, most recyclers take in PET (i.e. water bottles) and HDPE (i.e. detergent bottles), which have a high value. Recyclers also like to take in post-industrial or commercial rather than post-consumer waste, which tend to be dirtier.

Why is it dirtier? Because we don’t sort our waste, so the plastics are mixed with general waste like banana peels and tissue paper with snot.

But there are also plastic that cannot be recycled. For instance, mixed plastics made of different materials, like a polyester and cotton blend shirt. It either costs too much to separate it or it cannot be separated. Some plastic products have already been recycled many times and are too weak to be transformed further.

Also, all plastic products eventually come to its end of life.

A plastic packaging manufacturer once boasted to me that all plastic can be recycled, even if it’s to become polyester in clothes or garbage bags. I asked him, “what happens next after that then?

In other countries, it’ll go to an incinerator in other countries, he says, unless the price of oil drop so drastically that people are bothered to turn polyester in clothes into plastic again (higher oil price, higher virgin plastic resin price). In Malaysia? It goes to the landfill.

2) It’s not exactly circular

In the circular economy, “waste” is collected and transformed into raw materials again so natural resources don’t need to be extracted.

Something I’ve heard anecdotally from many sources (has to be verified properly) is that many plastic products are downcycled.

This means a water bottle isn’t recycled to become a new water bottle again. It might become those flimsy takeout plastic containers. And eventually the plastic will be downcycled to become things like polyester, which most probably won’t be recycled (refer to point 1).

One plastic product manufacturer tells me that the heat in mechanical recycling weakens the structure of the plastic. So, when its used to make a new product, resins made from virgin material have to be added to strengthen it. That means extraction of natural resources, albeit less of it.

But making a new plastic product made from 100% recycled plastic is possible, the manufacturer tells me. They just need better technology and high-quality recycled plastic resins. The latter can be done if plastic waste is well segregated at the source.

The good news is that we are getting there. A few big FMCG brands have invested in Bottle-to-Bottle recycling plants around the world to make 100% recycled plastic water bottles that meet food-grade standards. Chemical recycling is also taking off. This form of recycling turns plastic back into high-quality raw material again. But it’s more expensive. Here’s a good article about it.

However, these technologies are useless if plastic is not collected properly. Next point.

3) There is too much leakage of plastic

A plastic packaging manufacturer once tried to convince me that plastics are not the problem. People are. If we can channel all the plastic products and packaging to the manufacturer, they can recycle it and turn it into something new.

The problem is that people litter, people don’t segregate their waste and people don’t recycle plastic.

I see his point, of course. But I think there are a few more hurdles in the way. Consumers often are confused about what can or can’t be recycled. Can the Mister Potato chip bag be recycled? The clear plastic bags used to take away drinks from the kopitiam? Even if consumers put those kind of plastic in the recycling bin, will the recyclers take it?

As mentioned above, recyclers may not even want this kind of products because it does not make economic sense to recycle it.

So, we need to make sure that consumers do their part, but also that recyclers and middlemen accept all kinds of plastic. Oh, and product manufacturers have a role too. Refer to next point.

4) Design for disassembly

My favourite aspect of the circular economy is to design out waste. In some of the workshops I’ve attended about circular economy, product design experts have pointed out that many of our products are not designed to be recycled efficiently at its end of life.

For instance, a shampoo bottle may have different kinds of plastic in it that are glued hard and difficult to take apart for recycling. Mineral water bottles have a plastic label that cannot be recycled.

Again, good news is you can see product manufacturers making a difference nowadays. Check out Adidas’ single-material shoe, for example. The whole idea is to design products in a way that makes it easier for recyclers to transform it at its end of life. Here are more examples.

5) You don’t want plastic in the environment

When it’s not economical to recycle the plastic, the plastic is not collected and ends up in the landfill. That’s bad because it takes up space, takes forever to decompose, leaks into our environment and represents a waste of materials as natural resources (oil) continue to be extracted from the environment to make new plastic.

In some countries, waste is dumped into an incinerator. Whether that’s good depends on what the country uses to power the incinerator (is it fossil fuels?), what are the effluents from the process, and whether it’s a waste-to-energy plant.

But that’s not a circular economy because the waste doesn’t become raw material again. The only good thing is that it is used to produce energy(if it’s a waste-to-energy plant). But the loop for plastic products remain open.

I understand, of course, that every product will eventually reach its end of life. Can a plastic resin be recycled and reused forever? I actually don’t know the answer to that.

If you want to know more about biodegradable or compostable plastic, I’d say: let’s leave that to another blog. I think it warrants more research (i.e. I don’t know enough about it yet).

What do I want to know?

I’m still trying to understand more about this topic through my readings and interviews. I still want to find out:

  1. What kind of technology (like chemical recycling) can we use commercially to increase the capabilities of recycling, so that nothing is downcycled? How to ensure that the cost can be covered? [Tackles the recycling stage]
  2. What kind of policies or strategies (like extended producer responsibility) can we put in place to prevent littering or leakage and ensure waste segregation? [Tackles the consumer stage]
  3. How can we make sure that all kinds of plastic are accepted by recyclers and can be recycled economically? How can we redesign products and materials to make sure that plastic has a longer shelf life and great value even at its end of life? [Tackles the producer stage]

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Nat

… has too many thoughts in her mind, not much of it that might be useful in the conventional sense. Loves wandering and exploring.