Since plastics were invented in 1835, they have played an indispensable role in our society due to their low cost, good formability, strength, durability, and lightweight. The cost effective production and versatility of plastics make them critical materials for numerous applications such as packaging, construction, auto parts, electronics, and school supplies. However, plastics can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose, depending on the material’s structure and environmental factors such as sunlight exposure.
Recycling has long been called a solution to plastics’ longevity, but recycling plastic is under attack. We hear that the infrastructure isn’t really up to the task, that our carefully separated plastics are dumped in landfills. Technology waste is intermingled with plastics. We see our city garbage trucks emptying recycling bins into regular refuse, with the explanation that the recycling bins are contaminated with plastic bags and food waste.
Approximately 36 million tons of waste plastics are generated in the US each year, most of which are discharged into the environment and end in landfills. This is potentially a serious threat to the ecosystem and human health.
The economics of plastic recycling has been questioned for as long as plastics have been in mass circulation. The conundrum is that plastic can remade anew, but gathering, sorting, and melting it is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, so it can’t be reused more than once or twice. But new plastic, from oil and gas, is inexpensive — much more so that the costs of repurposing used plastic.
A circular economy for plastic waste is absolutely needed. This economic system is not only vital to stop plastic pollution — it also offers strong financial, social, and climate benefits. By 2040 a circular economy has the potential to reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80% and to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25%.
Because of their insidious nature, plastics must be designed for use and reuse. No longer can we claim to recycle or reduce our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.
The Lie that Recycling Plastics Will Solve the Problem
Mass recycling has been promoted by fossil fuel companies for years. In one document from 1989, executives at Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, Procter & Gamble, and others met privately at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, as chronicled by a NPR/Frontline documentary. “The image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate,” a key oil and gas industry member wrote. “We are approaching a point of no return.”
With viability and profitability at stake, the industry began a $50 million-a-year ad campaign promoting the benefits of plastic. Numerous innovative recycling endeavors appeared across the US. Few of these projects actually turned much plastic into new things, though. A dozen projects the industry publicized starting in 1989 shuttered or failed by the mid-1990s.
- Mobil’s Massachusetts recycling facility lasted 3 years.
- Amoco’s project to recycle plastic in New York schools was in existence 24 months.
- Dow and Huntsman’s highly publicized plan to recycle plastic in national parks made it to 7 out of 419 parks before the parent companies cut funding.
Meanwhile, the product was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean. Companies failed to get past the economics — making new plastic out of oil is cheaper and easier than making it out of plastic trash.
Profits that Begin with Plastic Waste
Government agencies, multinational bodies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have already begun outlining scenarios for plastic reuse. It’s imperative, says We Forum, as the amount of waste generated by humanity represents a growing threat to our ecosystems and economies. The output of solid waste has grown from 25 gigatons in 1990 to 86 gigatons in 2020 — and a projected 140 gigatons by 2050.
Half of all plastic production is for single-use items. It’s the result of a disposable-goods system that combines short-term use and long-term environmental harm. A system based on reuse would not only reduce humanity’s ecological footprint but also create lucrative new sources of economic value.
The 2021 Future of Reusable Consumption Models insight report found that the key will be to move from a linear waste economy – in which a product’s existence follows a one-way line from manufacture to usage to the landfill – to a circular economy in which items are reused or recycled indefinitely. The report shows that reuse models are not only viable but also capable of generating added value across the economy.
The report outlines how reuse shifts value, adding it toward the end of the life-cycle of a container (in sales, returns, and refills) and away from the beginning (material extraction, manufacturing). This shift creates opportunities for companies involved in the production of new materials, sanitation, refilling, branding, and retail.
Some innovators are already producing viable products from refuse, including plastic. The following companies are turning materials that would likely otherwise end up in landfills into high-quality goods—and making good profits doing it.
- Nike’s Space Hippie is an exploratory footwear collection inspired by life on Mars — where materials are scarce and there is no resupply mission. Created from scraps, or “space junk,” Space Hippie shoes include everything from extra material to leftover packaging. The Space Hippie collection has the lowest carbon footprint of any Nike footwear ever made.
- Rothy’s are a brand of flats that are made entirely of recycled or sustainable materials. Rothy’s shoes come in 4 different styles and all include fabric made from recycled plastic bottles and other sustainably-sourced materials. They’re known as being sustainable, recycled, comfortable, and travel-friendly. Their shoes and bags completely out of recycled plastic and water bottles with a unique 3D knitting process that results in nearly no waste. As of 2020, the company had repurposed more than 50 million water bottles.
- Green Toys makes 100% recycled plastic kids toys — recycled milk jugs and yogurt containers are collected by waste management, shredded into flakes, reprocessed into raw materials, and mixed with food-safe, mineral-based products.
- Dakine backpacks are manufactured using recycled materials. They also design outerwear with recyclable fabrics, emphasize plastic-free and compostable packaging, and build durable gear for the longest life possible. The company says it is committed to reducing its impact while pushing the technical performance of its products.
- All Birds makes recycled clothing products with tree fiber — TENCEL™ Lyocell — mainly sourced from wood grown in South Africa. The cultivation relies on natural rainfall, which means there’s no need for artificial irrigation and fertilizers. Compared to traditional materials like cotton, it uses 95% less water and cuts the company’s carbon footprint in half. Forest Stewardship Council® certification means the company sources materials that meet strict standards to protect forests and the animals and people who depend on them.
- Saalt Period Underwear makes its products out of recycled water bottles. The thread used to make Saalt Wear is made of post-consumer recycled water bottles, and a pair of Saalt Wear consists of approximately 3 PCR water bottles. The 300,000 water bottles removed from the environment to create the company’s first purchase order of Saalt Wear helped to make Saalt plastic neutral.
- Chilean startup Algramo offers an innovative refill-on-the-go distribution model. After a one-time container purchase, a customer may refill a range of liquid cleansers from dispensing machines at participating stores. Producers signing onto the program include market-heavyweight brands, such as Clorox and Pine-Sol. Their circular platform allows customers to buy their favorite products in reusable packaging, maximizing convenience while minimizing cost.
Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!
Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Former Tesla Battery Expert Leading Lyten Into New Lithium-Sulfur Battery Era — Podcast:
I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don't like paywalls, and so we've decided to ditch ours. Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It's a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So ...