In the guide below, we’ve listed some of the main reasons why different plastic types and plastic items can’t be recycled, along with some examples.
Summary – Reasons Why Some Plastic Can’t Be Recycled
A summarised list of the reasons:
– The chemical makeup of the plastic isn’t recyclable, or is very difficult to recycle
– The plastic has already been recycled too many times (and there are quality or integrity issues in the recycled material)
– The plastic doesn’t meet the quality threshold or standards for recycled material in a specific country
– Some plastics can’t be mixed with other plastics
– Contaminated plastic is an issue
– The size, thickness, or strength of the plastic item is an issue (i.e. the plastic item is too small, too thin, or too flimsy for some recycling machines and equipment)
– The product design of the product that the plastic has been used in makes recycling difficult
– Recycling the plastic isn’t economically feasible or profitable
– Recycling facilities need upgrading or improvement to increase plastic recycling capabilities
– Recycling waste management systems and capabilities differ from region to region
1. It’s A Non Recyclable Plastic
The most obvious and straightforward reason a plastic can’t be recycled … some types of plastic simply aren’t recyclable.
In addition to some plastics not being recyclable, some plastics are recycled at a lower rate compared to others.
For example, harder or rigid plastics might be recycled at higher rates than soft plastics in general.
2. Chemical Make Up Of The Plastic
Some plastics don’t have the suitable chemical make up to be processed in a recycling plant, or, the chemical makeup of the plastic makes it either difficult or not very feasible to recycle.
PVC plastic may be one example.
If we take PVC for example – the chlorine atoms in it make it hard to recycle (theconversation.com)
3. The Plastic Has Already Been Recycled Too Many Times
Some plastics lose durability and quality as they are recycled – this is due to the shortening and weakening of the fibres that make up the plastic.
Weaker and lower quality recycled plastic material either won’t meet the standard of performance it needs to when used in a new product, or, it won’t have as much economic value as new plastic material.
Plastic that can’t be recycled any longer can be sent to landfill or incineration.
4. The Plastic Doesn’t Meet The Quality Threshold Or Standards For Recycled Material In A Specific Country
Some countries demand higher quality for recycling materials at recycling processing plants and facilities than others.
If the material doesn’t meet the quality threshold, they reject it.
[… low quality material … may not be accepted by recycling places in different countries or states, and this decreases recycling rates]
… the UK’s market is geared towards shipping plastic scrap abroad. It is often more profitable to sell to Asia than Europe … because “European recyclers demand a standard of basic materials which is higher than the standard of things that can at the moment be exported
5. Some Plastics Can’t Be Mixed With Other Plastics
Because of chemical make up, some plastics can’t be mixed with other plastics.
This is an issue when trying to collect and process plastics during recycling … especially in a single stream recycling system where different types of plastic are collected together.
Some waste management companies and recycling facilities may simply discard some plastics that have been mixed.
6. Contaminated Plastic Is An Issue
Some plastics get mixed with other waste like food waste or food scraps, and due to contamination issues, some of these plastics can’t be recycled.
[Dirty and contaminated material … may not be accepted by recycling places in different countries or states, and this decreases recycling rates] (unearthed.greenpeace.org)
7. The Size, Thickness Or Strength Of The Plastic Item Is An Issue
Some plastic straws are too small, and some plastic bags are too thin or flimsy to be recycled by some recycling machines in some recycling facilities – they either get stuck, can’t be processed properly, or cause some type of other potential issue
Having said that, some machines and equipment may be designed and built specifically to recycle small plastic items like straws
8. The Product The Plastic Is Used In Makes It Hard To Recycle
This is essentially a product design issue.
Some products are designed in a way where it can be very difficult or inefficient to recycle the plastic or plastics that make up the product.
If there’s different types of plastic used in the product for example, and/or the plastic is used in a way on the product where they can’t easily be separated from each other at a recycling facility, the plastic may not be recycled.
A sports drink, for instance, can have three different and incompatible types of plastic in the bottle, the shrink-wrapped film, and the lid.
All three components can be individually recycled but they are rarely separated other than by shredding.
[Another example is] black plastic trays.
Their only function is to amplify the colour of a product, yet they also prevent recycling as sorting machines cannot detect black pigment.
9. Recycling The Plastic Isn’t Economically Feasible Or Profitable
A summarised list of just some of those reasons can include:
– The cost to recycle the plastic is higher than the cost to produce new plastic (this can especially be the case when oil prices are low)
– The value of the recycled plastic material is low, or, there isn’t high enough demand for recycled plastic material or recycled plastic products
– It’s cheaper or there’s more incentive to send plastic to landfill or incineration
From ecologycenter.org: “The plastics industry rarely uses recycled plastics in the vast majority of their products, unlike the glass and metal industries”
… most [PS (polystyrene)] products are not recycled due to the lack of incentive to invest in the compactors and logistical systems required (wikipedia.org)
… hard-to-recycle plastics, such as meat trays and yoghurt pots [can be less economically viable to recycle] (unearthed.greenpeace.org)
10. Recycling Facilities Need Upgrading To Increase Plastic Recycling Capabilities
Not all recycling facilities can process the same types or ranges of plastics and plastic products, can sort plastic efficiently, have the same recycling equipment, and so on.
All these factors can impact the recycling of plastic.
Some recycling facilities need to be upgraded in order to recycle some types of plastic.
11. Recycling Waste Management Systems & Capabilities Differ From Region To Region
Building on the previous point … beyond simply the recycling facilities on a local town or city, the waste management systems differ between geographic areas.
Different localities, states, and countries can have different recycling streams, technology, facilities and overall systems.
Some can recycle some types of plastic and plastic products that others can’t, or have much higher plastic recycling rates than others.
Additionally, some developing countries lack a a basic level of waste collection and waste management, so there are higher amounts of plastic that gets mismanaged or ends up as pollution.