As both consumers and companies delve into the uncharted territory of ‘ocean plastic’, what are the need-to-know realities of plastic recycling?
In recent months, ocean or ocean bound plastic has become an increasingly attractive choice for both companies and consumers. Making more sustainable choices is at the forefront for many and assessing what type of products and packaging are brought into the home and how they are disposed of is an important part of that. However, the world of plastic recycling is far more complicated than even the responsible consumer knows; here are four need-to-knows surrounding ocean plastic recycling.
#1 Not all ‘ocean plastic’ is recyclable
Although many companies are developing products and packaging made from ‘recycled ocean plastic’ this terminology is somewhat misleading. Not just a matter of semantics; the reality is that most of the plastic retrieved from the ocean is very difficult to process. Once plastic enters the ocean, it becomes degraded by sea salt and UV light—rendering the material brittle, fragmented and discolored—making it largely unusable for recycling. Because of this, most plastic retrieved from the ocean will not make it to the recycling plant but is stored in warehouses or incinerated. Whereby ocean plastic becomes a clean-up effort, not a recycling effort. This means that for recycling to occur, it must be collected before it reaches the ocean – hence a much more fitting term ‘ocean-bound’ plastic.
#2 Cleaning plastic from the ocean is not easy
What makes plastic so unique is its durability, but also its Achilles heel. Plastic in the ocean will last for millennia—not just as bottles and toys but in tiny fragments called microplastics, making it much harder to clean from the ocean than conventionally thought. These microplastics float throughout sea-currents and find their way into the lungs of fish and ruin ecosystems.
In addition, most plastic isn’t actually floating at the surface of the ocean waiting to be easily cleaned but has sunk to the bottom. A recent study by researchers from Manchester University indicates that the vast majority of plastic sinks to the ocean floor, further and further from our sight and grasp. This plastic is difficult to reach, let alone remove, causing further damage to our ocean’s ecosystems with very few potential solutions, making the case for prevention even more crucial.
#3 Not all plastics can be, or are recycled
The word ‘plastic’ is really an umbrella term that refers to a family of products, made in similar styles from similar materials. However, according to the PEW Research Centre, there are some plastics that cannot be recycled: flexible mono-materials that are made into plastic bags and wrapping-films in packaging, and multilayer plastics that can been seen as food packaging—crisp bags, candy wrappers, or individual condiment sachets. These single-use plastics are relatively light-weight and therefore reduce cost-incentive for collection; while also being predominately used for food-products, these plastics are often contaminated and cannot easily be recycled.
The most widely recycled plastic is Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), a rigid mono-material plastic. PET is commonly used to make beverage bottles, cleaning product containers and food service disposables. Because of its relatively heavier weight and property to hold its shape, PET is recognizable and easily collected. In a 2018 report produced by WRAP it was found that 40% of all plastic collected at kerbside from households in the UK for recycling was PET plastic. The second most common type of plastic collected was HDPE at 22%, meaning PET was collected to recycle at nearly double the rate of any other type of plastic.
Whether a material is truly recycled though, will boil down to local collection systems and recycling infrastructure. The reality is that in many places around the world, because of technological constraints, lack of local infrastructure and economic incentive, plastics commonly find their way into our eco systems and harm the environment.
#4 Recycled plastic is of the same quality as virgin plastic
Plastic collected for recycling undergoes numerous steps of cleaning and retreatment to restore its quality. Before it even reaches the recycling plant, plastic is sorted based upon plastic type and color and pressed into bales to maximize transportability. This is a critical step that ensures a homogenous body of plastic that is then processed into a raw-material flake, or small pieces of plastic. These can then be melted and formed into the desired form. These procedures, in addition to hot and cold washing, ensure that the quality of recycled plastic is just as good as virgin plastic. Most people can’t tell the difference without reading the label.
Overall, it is important to recognize the complexities of the recycling process and the diversity that exists within the world of ocean-bound plastics. As more products and packaging made from ocean-bound plastic will be hitting the shelves, remembering these fours lessons will help you make more informed choices.