Last month, Canada announced the next steps of its plan to fight against plastic pollution. By the end of 2021, some everyday single-use plastic items will be banned nationwide. As of now, six plastics products are included in the proposed ban – plastic bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, and hard-to-recycle take out containers.
The federal government finally pushes one step closer to reach the goal of zero plastic waste by 2030. Although this is great news for the environment, that doesn’t mean that our work is done. There is certainly much more we can do individually, instead of leaving it all to the government and environmentalists.
We all try to sort out waste, believing that everything will be recycled properly. What most people don’t know is, the vast majority is not recycled. Some even argue that the concept of recycling was a scheme from the industry to sell more plastic. This is not to persuade you that recycling is bad, but relying on it is not enough. Out of the 3 million tonnes of plastic waste that Canadians throw away every year, only 9% is recycled. The rest of the plastics end up in landfills and settle themselves into our environment.
We may think recycling is a simple act of throwing the item into the bin. By differentiating bins, many people feel like they have done their part and feel less guilty. However, recycling is not a transparent process – as it seems to be. It is a complex system that is manipulated by market demand, price, local regulations, and the people who are involved, the product-designer, the trash-thrower, the waste collector, and the recycling factory worker.
As consumers, we play a critical role in the plastic world because how we use and throw away these items leaves a direct impact on the process. Hence, the conversation shouldn’t just be about recycling anymore. To make the zero-plastic waste dream come true, we have to understand recycling and make this process transparent to everyone. Instead of focusing on recycling alone, we should think about reducing and reusing. If you need a guide, we have some useful green tips on how to go plastic-free. Additionally, we should also know the different use of plastics and find out where the problem lies from the beginning. Here are 5 things to keep in mind about plastics and recycling:
1. Plastics that are made with different materials have different implications on human health and their recyclabilities.
a. If you check the recycle logo on a plastic product, you realize some of them have a number in the center. These numbers are numerical classification that informs you what type of plastic the products are made of. Plastics are classified into 7 categories. For example, #1 (PET) has the highest value for recycling, and water bottles belong to this type. The least favorable for recycling is #7 which contains non-recyclables and corn-based plastics (PLA).
b. Although some plastic can be safe to use, be sure to stay away from #3 and #6. #3 PVC is often found in pipes, food wraps, and bottles of cooking oils. It contains softening chemicals called phthalates that link to hormonal growth disruption. #6 PS also known as Styrofoam, often used as food and drink containers, can release harmful chemicals when heated.
c. There are two types of plastics, thermoplastics and thermoset. Thermoplastics are recyclable plastics that can be re-melted and remolded into new products, while thermoset is non-recyclable plastics that contain polymers with an irreversible chemical bond. After the first heat is applied to make its shape, no matter how much the second heat is applied, thermoset plastics cannot be re-melted into new items.
2. Not all of the plastics get to be recycled.
As mentioned above, some plastics are not recyclable because they are made of non-recyclable materials. What about the coffee cup that is used when you buy from a coffee shop? People always throw coffee cups into the recycle bin because they only see the paper cover from the outside. But the truth is there is a thin layer of plastic inside that makes it hard to recycle. This layer is used to keep the drink from cooling too quickly. To make these cups recyclable, the materials need to be separated by a special machine that can end up costing an excessive amount of time and money. Other food products with similar multilayer package design also make recycling difficult. The easiest product to recycle is the one made from a single material, such as a water bottle.
Furthermore, even items that can be recycled, do not always get recycled. This is because it is largely determined by the recyclers and local government. For example, dirty plastics are sometimes not recycled because the food residue will affect the quality. Some recycling companies would wash them a few times before they are cut, melted, and transformed. But that’s not always the case. When it is too troublesome to clean, these plastics won’t have chances to be recycled. Companies are often driven by profit. So items that have bad quality and no market demand will end up in landfills. At this time, the government becomes crucial because their relegation can either create more incentives for companies to recycle products, or go the opposite direction.
3. The more plastics are recycled, the worse quality they have.
Plastics are polymers that have long chains of atoms arranged in repeating units. The length and pattern made them strong and flexible. But the same plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times. Each time a piece is recycled, additional virgin material is added to make the quality compatible with freshly made goods. So those that are labeled with “recycled material” doesn’t mean that they are 100% recycled.
4. Even though there are good alternatives available, they are not always better than plastics.
Glass and metal can be recycled for an infinite amount of time and will not lose the purity in the product. They are good alternatives to plastics but they are not widely used because it comes with high cost. They are heavier and glass is easy to break. So when they are shipped globally, not only will the price be higher, it will cost more fuel during transportation. This can put more negative effects on the environment.
Paper bags can also be as unsustainable as plastic bags. Paper takes more water to produce and it also consumes a large amount of energy like plastics does. From a disposal view, papers that are disposed to landfill emit much more methane into the air.
In the end, all the materials we use can leave a significant impact on our environment. So when we talk about plastic, we shouldn’t talk about how evil it is to nature. Blaming the material would not solve our problems. Ultimately, it depends on how we incorporate this material into our life. Instead of saying how plastic pollutes our rivers, oceans, and land, we should talk about how our plastic consumption and waste management pollute the environment. We are in a world that is filled with plastics, so the decision is in our hands. Protecting the environment and supporting sustainability is our mission. Green School Green Future encourages everyone to do so. Keep learning and pushing back in the plastic war. More importantly, if you would like to support us, make sure you check out more interesting articles from our page, or simply donate to help raise for our cause.
By Maria Chen