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Recycling Has Flaws We Can’t Ignore

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
October 22, 2020

In the wake of the pandemic, plastic pollution is expected to increase by 30% this year compared to 2019 according to the Environmental Science and Technology Journal.

Between the mass production and disposal of personal protective equipment, increased plastic use at restaurants, and a halt on plastic bag bans in many states, we’re worsening the conditions of our own suffering.

So why not recycle the plastic?

Well there are a few reasons:

  • Even though there’s a convenient triangle on most plastic products indicating that it can be recycled, the truth is, less than 10% of it actually is. And not all plastic is equal, therefore they can’t all be sent to the same place making recycling rules confusing to consumers.
  • It’s currently more expensive to make materials out of recycled fossil fuel-based plastics than it is to just create new plastic—known as virgin plastic. “The pandemic has intensified a price war between recycled and new plastic,” Joe Brock wrote for Reuters, “It’s a war recyclers worldwide are losing, price data and interviews with more than two dozen businesses across five continents show.”
  • And even if recycling were an easier, cheaper option, the manufacture of four plastic bottles produces a level of greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to travelling one mile in a medium-sized petrol car, according to the World Economic Forum.

So, to truly address the world’s plastic problem, we need other options.

An emerging area of research is employing plastic-eating bugs to help get rid of a good chunk of plastic waste. Mealworms, waxworms, and superworms all eat through plastic. Applied on a large scale, this could be one tool deployed as part of a set of strategies to solve the plastic challenge.

And companies that have been working on sustainable dining materials are now especially relevant.

Take Biotrem’s disposable plates and utensils made from wheat bran or Spoontainable’s edible ice-cream spoons–Spoonies. Pela is a company that invented a new material known as Flaxstic, it’s a plant-based blend of bioplastic elastomer and flax straw materials that's 100 percent compostable and plastic-free.

Newlight is another company that is making straws and utensils from methane. “If the material is made into a disposable fork and ends up in the ocean, it degrades as easily as cellulose, turning into a food source for microbes,” Adele Peters wrote for Fast Company.

BIO member Virent is turning gaseous materials into solid plastics. Their plastic can be made from carbon that was already released into the environment or from other forms of waste such as crop waste from corn, sugarcane or sugar beets.  And another BIO member, Danimer Scientific, has developed a PHA plastic that is completely biodegradable should it end up on the ground or in the ocean.

Recycling has many flaws and obstacles—even for those of us with the best intentions—so it can’t be our only answer. We need to embrace new sustainable innovations that can help the environment, animals, and keep us from drowning our only planet in plastic.