We’ve already previously put together a guide on the pros and cons of recycling in general.
In this guide, we’ve listed some of the main pros and cons of recycling plastic specifically.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Recycling Plastic
Recycling plastic is one of only a number of potential solutions for addressing plastic related problems and addressing waste management issues into the future.
It’s certainly not the only solution or the key solution for all the different types of plastic and plastic products that become waste
Like using plastic as a material in general has it’s pros and cons, there’s certainly some pros to recycling plastic as a waste management method – such as creating jobs, there being good demand in some locations, and the fact that there’s potential ways to improve plastic recycling … just as a few examples
But, the reality is that most of the plastic we produce and use does not get recycled at this point in time.
There’s many reasons for this.
Based on current systems and the economics of recycling, only a select few types of plastic and plastic products are feasible to recycle.
Even these plastic types and plastic products have low recycling rates
Plastic in general also can’t be recycled infinitely like some metals for example, so, there’s an argument to be made that recycling plastic can only delay it ending up getting recycled or incinerated anyway
A bigger and more multi layered approach is needed than just recycling if we want to address plastic waste issues seriously
One of the key things we can do in the future to address plastic related issues is to reduce the amount of short or single use plastic packaging that we use that is non recyclable.
Reducing certain types of problem plastic, redesigning plastic and plastic products for better rates of recycling and re-use, and finding ways to reduce overall waste might be part of the bigger picture strategy
Pros Of Recycling Plastic
Plastic has a number of ways to be repurposed via recycling
Recycling plastic is more eco friendly in some ways than other waste management options
[Although it can depend on local context, recycling plastic, according to a range of studies, has] the lowest global warming potential and energy use compared to landfill and incineration (ourworldindata.org)
There’s still more potential to better recycle plastic by changing the design of plastic products and their packaging
Some plastic products either can’t be recycled or face big challenges in being recycled because of their design or the design of their plastic packaging.
Plastic packaging and plastic design guidelines, like those from plasticsrecycling.org, offer manufacturers and businesses ways to make their products more recyclable via better design
There’s still more potential to better recycle plastic with new breakthroughs in the types of plastic being produced
Regular plastics usually either can’t be recycled, or can only be recycled a certain number of times.
Newer plastics that can be recycled many times over are in development. One example of this type of plastic is PDK plastic (qualitylogoproducts.com)
There’s still more potential to better recycle plastic with continual advances and improvements in recycling facilities and their technology
The technology used in recycling facilities, and the capabilities of these recycling facilities, differs from city to city globally.
Recycling technology and facilities can continually be improved and upgraded to make recycling a better option in the future.
Some simple and common types of plastic products can be profitable and economic to recycled
Recycling tends to create more jobs than landfill and other options in some economies
There’s good demand for certain types of plastic and plastic product in the US
As evidenced by recyclers in South Carolina and Alabama (plasticsmakeitpossible.com)
There’s growing markets for certain plastics and plastic products or items in some countries
Like for example caps and lids in the US (plasticsmakeitpossible.com). Additionally, innovators may come up with ideas for new opportunities in the market in the future to recycle more plastic.
Some sources indicate recycling plastic saves resources
When we use recycled plastics to make new plastic products, we conserve more than materials.
We can reduce energy usage by 66%. Plus, for every one ton of plastic we recycle, we save the equivalent of 1,000–2,000 gallons of gasoline (thisisplastics.com)
Some sources indicate curbside recycling programs can be cheaper than general waste programs
Properly managed curbside recycling programs can cost anywhere from $50 to $150+ per ton. Trash collection and disposal programs can cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton (thisisplastics.com)
Cons Of Recycling Plastic
Recycling plastic still means that plastic is being produced somewhere
Additionally, plastic products may use plastic packaging for transport or to store the product, before the plastic is bought and used, and then sent for recycling.
So, recycling doesn’t get rid of issues like these
Recycling plastic still means that the plastic is being used somewhere, which can have harmful effects
Plastic degrades in quality every time it is recycled
Every time plastic is recycled, the plastic fibres are shortened and weakened, which leads to a lower quality material that is less durable and lacks performance or adequacy in key areas
Plastic can usually only be recycled a limited number of times before it ends up in landfill anyway
Not all plastic is recyclable
Plastic recycling rates tend to be low for individual plastics and in total
For example, in the US, some of the highest plastic recycling rates for plastics #1 and #2 are around 25-35% from some estimates. In total, Less than 10 percent of the plastic used in the U.S. is recycled (ecowatch.com).
Global plastic recycling numbers are similar
Plastic packaging is one of the most common plastics produced and one of the most common plastics that becomes waste, but isn’t highly recyclable
It’s more of the hard plastics that are recyclable.
But, this is an issue when recycling doesn’t necessarily suit one of the most common plastics and plastic wastes
Recycling plastics overall has many variables in each city and country
It’s a system dictated by market demand, price determinations, local regulations [and government], the success of which is contingent upon everyone, from the product-designer, to the trash-thrower, to the waste collector, to the recycling factory worker. [Public investment in recycling can play a big role for how established it becomes in a city or town] (blog.nationalgeographic.org)
Plastic recycling isn’t always economical and profitable
Plastic is a material that is usually cheaper and more profitable to make new from virgin materials. Also, plastic as a material usually doesn’t have the market value of other materials like metal for example. The market demand can go up and down, oil prices can fluctuate, and different local markets can have different factors that influence the recycling of plastic.
From Wikipedia.org: “Compared with lucrative recycling of metal, and similar to the low value of glass recycling, plastic polymers recycling is often more challenging because of low density and low value.”
Add to that the cost and time (and how capital intensive it can be) to actually recycle and repurpose plastic, and you have an economic model that isn’t always economical or profitable for recycling plastic.
Plastic that is collected from the ocean (that may be repurposed/recycled) often isn’t profitable when you consider the cost to retrieve that plastic from the ocean (a piece of plastic that costs $5 to collect from the ocean may only have a market value of 30 cents for example)
Plastic recycling can be inefficient
The collection of plastic, and then the processing of plastic at the recycling facility can be inefficient for a number of reasons such as sorting and separating – both of which can take a lot of time for some types of plastic products.
Not all recycling facilities have the capability to process plastic adequately
Facilities differ from country to country, and city to city.
San Francisco for example has far more capable and advanced recycling facilities compared to many low and middle income countries and cities
Not every city or town has access to proper waste collection or recycling services
Low to middle income cities and towns in particular
There isn’t a big enough incentive in some places to recycle plastic
For households, policy makers, and corporations.
It’s easier, saves more time, and is more profitable to go with the status quo
Plastic can be rejected from recycling facilities and send to landfill for a range of reasons
The plastics industry rarely uses recycled plastics in the vast majority of their products
This is unlike the glass and metal industries (Ecologycenter.org)
So, recycled plastic can be less valuable in some markets
Even recycled plastic has new plastic material added in
Each time plastic is recycled, additional virgin materials must be added to help improve the integrity of the material (wikipedia.org)
Households and businesses don’t always dispose of their plastic in the right way to be recycled, and can get confused about what can and cannot be recycled in their city or town
Households and businesses may throw the wrong plastics into their recycling bin.
And, because recycling programs differ around the world and around countries, people can get confused as to what and how they can recycle
There’s debate over whether producers, or citizens and taxpayers should pay for recycling costs
Some say it should be the responsibility of businesses and manufacturers to redesign products to include less plastic, or include more recyclable plastic, but pay for it out of their profits
Other Resources On Recycling & Other Waste Management Options
These general guides on waste management may be of some further interest for you to read: