We previously put together a separate guide on the pros and cons of recycling waste in general.
However, in the interest of finding out the best way to dispose of plastic specifically, we’ve put together the guide below outlining the pros and cons of recycling plastic.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Recycling Plastic
When it comes to recycling plastic, some of the main potential benefit might be that it can create jobs, the market and demand for some recycled plastics can be good, and that there’s potential ways to improve plastic recycling.
On the other hand, some of the main potential drawbacks might be that plastic has a lower average recycling rate than some other materials (most of the plastic we produce currently ends up in landfill and not recycled, recycling plastic isn’t always economically feasible or profitable, and some plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times before they eventually end up in landfill anyway.
Ultimately, there are different variables to waste management in each city or town
Not only should the type of plastic, and individual plastic items and products being managed as waste be taken into account, but the waste management systems and capabilities of the city or town in question should too
Every local government needs to do a waste management assessment to figure out the best solution to manage or dispose of plastic in their region, in terms of what is best from an environmental, social, and economic perspective, but also consider what is practical. The strategies and solutions might be different for each
Something we pointed out in our guide about potential solutions to plastic problems across society is that some strategies and solutions might have an added focus and might include reducing the waste rate of some plastics in the first place
Pros Of Recycling Plastic
Some plastics are widely recycled in some cities and towns
Some plastic items like some types of plastic bottles may also be more widely recycled in some places than other plastic items
Plastic has a number of ways it can be repurposed via recycling
Recycling plastic is more eco friendly in some ways than other waste management options
Across global warming potential and energy use indicators for example.
[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)
Using recycled plastic material for plastic product may save energy compared to using new plastic material
We can reduce energy usage by 66% … when we use recycled plastics to make new plastic products …
Plus, for every one ton of plastic we recycle, we save the equivalent of 1,000–2,000 gallons of gasoline
Some plastics can be easy and profitable to recycle
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 products in the US
As evidenced by recyclers in South Carolina and Alabama (plasticsmakeitpossible.com)
There’s growing markets for certain plastics and plastic products 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 reports indicate that curbside recycling programs can be cheaper than general waste programs in some instances
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
There might be potential to recycle plastic more effectively or in better ways than what is currently being done
Examples might include:
– Changing the design of plastic products and their packaging to make them easier or more efficient to recycle
Some plastic product designs make recycling challenging or inefficient.
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
– New plastics and plastics with new chemistries
Some plastics 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)
– Upgrades and improvements in recycling facilities, technology and programs
The technology used in recycling facilities, and the capabilities of these recycling facilities, differs from city to city globally.
Recycling technology and facilities can be improved and upgraded to make recycling a better option in the future.
Recycling programs can also be improved to better manage different types of plastics and increase recycling rates where beneficial.
Cons Of Recycling Plastic
Not all plastic is recyclable
Plastic recycling rates can be low for plastic as a material in general, and for some plastic items
Some plastic types and items are also recycled at lower rates than others. For example, PET/PETE and HDPE plastics might be recycled at higher rates than others, and plastic bottles might be recycled at higher rates than some types of plastic packaging
Plastic can usually only be recycled a limited number of times before it ends up in landfill anyway
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
Plastic might degrade in quality every time it is recycled
Every time plastic is recycled, the plastic fibres might be shortened and weakened, which might lead to a lower quality material that is less durable and lacks performance or adequacy in key areas
Recycling plastics has different variables and challenges in each city and town
This can impact how widely it’s adopted, how each city scales up recycling, and the capabilities of recycling in each city or town.
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]
Additionally, 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
Not every city or town has the same recycling systems in place or access to the same recycling facilities
Facilities and systems differ between cities and towns worldwide, and this impacts recycling rates and capabilities.
San Francisco for example has far more capable and advanced recycling facilities compared to many low and middle income countries and cities
Some low to middle income cities and towns on the other hand may have no recycling programs or facilities. Some only have open dumping sites to dump waste, or, may throw their waste in the streets and environment
Plastic recycling isn’t always economically feasible or profitable
Based on current systems and the economics of recycling, only a select few types of plastic and plastic products are usually feasible to recycle.
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)
There isn’t enough of an incentive in some places to recycle plastic
For households, policy makers, and corporations.
It can be easier, save more time, and be more profitable to go with the status quo, or to use new plastic
Plastic recycling can be inefficient
The collection of plastic in waste streams, and then the processing of plastic at the recycling facility can be inefficient for a number of reasons.
For example, sorting and separating can be inefficient for some plastic streams at some recycling facilities.
The plastics industry rarely uses recycled plastics in the vast majority of their products
This is unlike the glass and metal industries [for example] (Ecologycenter.org)
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)
So, it could be argued that recycled plastic isn’t 100% recycled
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
The footprint of recycling plastic may be unsustainable in some ways
The complete plastic recycling process can extend out to several third parties who are responsible for sorting, discarding, purifying, forming or pelletizing, re-selling and reusing plastic recycled waste.
TheAtlantic.com outlines a piece of plastic we send to be recycled can enter ‘an elaborate global system within which its plastic is sold, shipped, melted, resold, and shipped again—sometimes zigzagging the globe’
This recycling chain has a sustainability footprint of it’s own.
Recycling plastic still involves plastic production at the beginning of the plastic lifecycle
Recycling plastic doesn’t remove the fact that that plastic was initially produced somewhere, and plastic production has a sustainability footprint
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 eliminate the footprint of plastic in several aspects
Recycling plastic doesn’t eliminate the potentially harmful leaching effects of plastic
Some plastic problems might be best addressed by reducing plastic waste in the first place
Waste management options like recycling plastic come into consideration only when plastic becomes waste.
But, as we’ve outlined in our guide about potential solutions to plastic problems across society, some of these solutions might require us to focus on producing less plastic waste in the first place.
Recycling plastic may be only a second priority in comparison to some of these solutions.
Other Relevant Resources On Recycling Waste
These general guides on waste management may be of some further interest for you to read: