FINALLY - the Truth about Plastics & the Environment
By Dr. Chris DeArmitt FRSC
World-class plastic materials scientist
Can Plastics be Recycled?
The answer is yes! It is a scientific fact that plastics can be recycled. Just as you can remelt wax and make a new candle, plastics can also be remelted to make new parts. Recycling plastics is not only possible but proven and yet I still see people claiming that they are not recycleable. How that can that be? There are two reasons that some people make that claim:
They are not scientists or industry experts, so they don’t know what they are talking about – or…
They don’t understand how the English language works
Let me explain that in more detail. Some people claim that because some plastics are not recycled in certain locations, that makes them unrecycleable. But that’s not correct, according to science or according to the dictionary. Here is an analogy…
I have a ball.
The ball is kickable.
I choose not to kick the ball.
The ball is unkicked.
However, it remains kickable.
By the same token –
We have some plastic.
The plastic is recycleable.
The local municipality chooses not to recycle the plastic.
The plastic is unrecycled.
However, it remains recycleable.
Dictionary definition: re·cy·cla·ble /rēˈsīk(ə)ləb(ə)l/
able to be recycled.
a substance or object that can be recycled.
“the city could sell recyclables at a profit”
(Definition from Oxford Languages)
My apologies for having to explain something so basic to you, but it is amazing to see people argue about this online, so I wanted to make sure it was put to rest.
Plastics can and are recycled. You can simply remelt them and form a new item.
Just after I wrote this Greenpeace sued Walmart for saying plastics are recycleable even though they may not always get recycled. Apparently, they didn’t check a dictionary.
Are Plastics Really Recycled?
Yes, several tens of millions of tons of plastic are mechanically recycled every year and recycling rates have increased substantially over recent decades. Mechanical recycling means collecting the plastic, grinding it up and remelting it into new shapes. It is the simplest and most common recycling method and applies to most of the common plastics we use such as polyethylene, polypropylene, PET, polystyrene, SAN, ABS, PVC polycarbonate and nylons. If we look at the pie chart of the most common plastics, all of them (~90%) are easy to recycle by melting except for polyurethane (PU) and some of the “others”. People ask whether our normal plastics can be recycled and the clear answer is yes.
You may have heard of chemical recycling because it is attracting a lot of press. That is being developed for the ~10% of plastics mentioned above (some polyurethanes, epoxies and other thermoset materials) that cannot be melted and recycled the normal way. Chemical recycling requires more energy, more chemicals and more investment to do. It does work, but it is only needed for a small fraction of plastics and it may turn out not to be green or viable on a large scale. Hopefully it will develop to address that small fraction of hard to recycle plastics.
In the USA people complain that only 9% of plastics get recycled and I have to agree that the number is far too low. Many other countries do far better. A list of top five best recycling countries reveals: Germany 56%, Austria 54%, South Korea 54%, Wales 52% and Switzerland 50%. Note that Germany was 3% in 1991 and are now over 56%, so large improvements have been achieved there and the US could do the same if they choose to. How much recycling capacity is there? A recent report revealed that Europe has 8.5 million tons of installed recycling capacity as of 2020. In Norway the use a deposit scheme which is so effective that 97% of PET bottles are returned and recycled several times. Other countries have followed this highly successful model and have also achieved >90% return rates.
Yes, plastics are widely recycled in huge amounts, although there is much room for improvement.