Like many before me, I’ve always wondered why recycling plastics is not as common as it should be. Why are they manufacturing more plastic? Why can’t plastic just be reused again? But before we get into that, I would like to define three terms; upcycling, downcycling, and recycling.
When the value of the re-made product is greater than the original product, it is said to be upcycled. If the new product has a lesser value, then the product is said to be downcycled. Recycling is just a general term used for converting waste materials into new objects; upcycling and downcycling are their types.
How plastics are recycled?
When we ask, “How plastics are recycled?” the first answer we get is that it’s melted and recast. But it’s not as simple as that. Only certain types of plastic (called thermoplastics) can be melted. Others are called thermosetting plastics and cannot be recast.
It is important to understand that plastic is not classified as a hazardous material. International regulations do not cover plastic recycling because of this. This means if someone does not recycle plastic, by law, it’s alright. No harm is done. Some states, in some countries, have enforced recycling. But there is no international law, or national law in India, that requires businesses to recycle. Needless to say, that makes things a little more complicated.
Melting plastic to recycle sounds good in theory. But it has its fair share of adverse effects. Melting plastics can release fumes, volatile organic compounds, that are proven to be harmful to plant and animal life.
Once it affects plants and animals, it inevitably travels through the food chain. Over and over again. Human waste has been tested and found to have microplastics. The food you eat, the water you drink, it has plastic. The fumes are toxic and play a role in global warming. I think you get the point, melting plastic is harmful.
Plastic, when melted and recast, is downcycled; because upcycling requires more plastic, hence more hazardous to the environment. So, when a downcycled plastic box and a plastic chair turn up, it is competing in the market against new, “fresh” plastic chairs; those of clearly better quality. It’s not hard to say that recycled products are not customer favourite.
But what happens after recycled plastic does its time?
Well, once downcycled, most plastics cannot be recycled again so they end up as waste in dumpsters, their inevitable doom. Recycling does not give plastics an immortal life as we are led to believe. It just delays the day it ends up as a landfill.
It’s hard to say if the plastic is a good invention or not. It has proved to be useful. But it cannot be used for all eternity without being harmful.
Recycling is good, it’s amazing. But it is not a solution to our problem with plastics. If there are no regulations for plastic disposal as a hazardous material, then nobody will take it as seriously as it should be taken. We need these rules and we need that change. Those steps start with spreading information about how recycling plastics are harmful too.
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