The Plastic Paradox: Unveiling the Myth of Recycling and the Hard Truth About Plastic Waste

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Plastic, referring to materials easily molded or shaped, is now a name for a category of materials called polymers, which play a crucial role in today’s world. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic. During and after WW2, plastic production sharply increased. In the 21st century, almost every material is made of plastic. Due to increased plastic usage in the 21st century, plastic pollution has also significantly increased. How can we solve this issue with recycling?

(Source: Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace)

Unfortunately, recycling alone is not enough to prevent plastic pollution. 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. Up to 50% of plastic is produced from non-recyclable materials or disposables. However, most people believe the myth that all plastics are recyclable. The confusion probably arises because the symbols used for categorizing plastics (Resin Identification Codes) are often mistaken for recycling symbols. Resin Identification Codes are differentiated by the temperature at which the material has been heated, and their numerical classification (#1 –#7) only informs you what type of plastic it is.

So, if our rubbish isn’t recycled, what happens to them? In 2013  Oceana investigated this issue and found stunning results. According to this research, the results indicate that only 2% of plastic is recycled. The other 40% percent were landfilled, 32% leaked outside collection systems, 14% incinerated, 8% downcycled, and 4% lost.

(Source: Emily Petsko / Oceana)

Another important fact about this issue is ‘the trade of plastic waste’. Until 2018, China was the world’s largest importer of plastic waste. From this date, China backed out of the trade. Southeast Asian countries Malaysia and Vietnam became the most important importers in Asia. However, they were not the biggest importer because of the EU’s new policy. Since 2021, the EU has ceased exporting waste to non-OECD countries, resulting in Turkey receiving more plastic waste from the EU. In 2022, Turkey was the biggest importer in the world.

Against all odds, still, there is hope. We can resolve the problem by following the 3R-8R steps. The 3R steps include Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The 8R steps improve the version of 3R and include Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, Re-Purpose, Repair, Recycle, Remove, And Rally. Recycling alone is not enough to combat plastic usage. The following steps offer a more efficient approach.

 References:

Sedaghat, Lilly. “7 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling).” National Geographic, April 4, 2018. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-plastic-and-recycling/

Wallis, Oliver Franklin. “Plastic recycling is a myth’: what really happens to your rubbish?” The Guardian, August 17, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish

Petsko, Emily. “Recycling Myth of the Month: That plastic bottle you thought you recycled may have been ‘downcycled’ instead.” Oceana, July 1, 2021. https://oceana.org/blog/recycling-myth-month-plastic-bottle-you-thought-you-recycled-may-have-been-downcycled-instead/

Buchholz, Katharina. “Which Countries Export & Import Plastic Waste?” Statista, May 31, 2023.

https://www.statista.com/chart/18229/biggest-exporters-of-plastic-waste-and-scrap

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