Turning plastic waste into recycled treasure

  • Only 9% of the plastic waste created is recycled;
  • Recycling rates could be 100% with better waste management, optimized recycling system and smart product design;
  • To create a mindset from trash to treasure or waste to product, the financial and sustainability benefits need to be better understood by plastics producers.

Since the 1950s, increased mass production of plastics has led to 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste. Unfortunately, 12% of this waste has been incinerated and only 9% successfully recycled, with the rest going to landfills around the world. Since plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, most of it still exists in one form or another.

What if we could reclaim these legacy resources and use them to create new products, thus avoiding the extraction of crude fossil fuels in the future? While large-scale urban mining may be a solution, we can capture the plastic waste we now produce and turn it back into treasure.

Lose our virginity

Some scientists have called for a global treaty to end the production of “virgin” plastic by 2040. Such an agreement would boost the development of full circularity in the plastic chain, where everything is reused and nothing is wasted and where the plastic remains in a perpetual loop. Improved waste management, an optimized recycling system, and smart product design can achieve 100% recycling rates if all moving parts work in unison.

To embrace a fully integrated waste to product mindset, we need to communicate the value proposition to plastics manufacturers. This strategy has clear financial benefits as well as sustainability benefits. Using recycled content is not just about waste prevention; it also reduces CO2 emissions and energy consumption, enabling companies to achieve ambitious corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals and anticipate government extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation and mandates recycled content. In addition, it reduces dependence on the import of raw materials, shortening supply chains and reducing costs. Losing our virginity is a goal we must rush to.

Loops vs lines

In a circular utopia, all plastics would be recycled into the same products in an endless loop. Nothing would spill into the environment, nothing would degrade, and nothing would ever be made from fossil fuels again. However, even state-of-the-art facilities have system and technological limitations that prevent them from achieving higher recycling rates. Technically, all plastics could be converted back to fuel through advanced chemical recycling methods, such as pyrolysis, but these are incredibly expensive in investment and energy and not feasible for small communities.

Mechanical recycling may have its limitations when it comes to post-consumer waste, but what we can’t turn back into the same product we can always turn into something else. Turning waste into product can be a line rather than a circle, but luckily it’s a much longer line in terms of the life and use of the material.

From bottles to bricks?

Lego hit the headlines in June 2021 with its bricks made from recycled PET bottles. Exciting news, although it caused a real storm on social media, where people criticized their use of rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate), a recycled material already in high demand due to its wide application in critical industries such as FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) and textiles. On the one hand, bricks turn discarded single-use packaging into multi-use products that will last for generations; on the other hand, precious plastic bottles that could be part of the circular economy have just been lost in the toy box.

PET is the most commonly recycled plastic in the world and it is the only commercially available recycled material approved for food contact. Food grade plastic regulations are overly strict, but for non-food items in critical industries such as construction and automotive, there is little reason not to use waste design as products.

How much single-use plastic waste do countries generate?

How much single-use plastic waste do countries generate?

Image: Statista

Waste recovery solutions

Much of the 381 million tonnes of plastic waste generated each year comes from developing countries, where waste management and recycling is rudimentary at best. However, basic mechanical recycling can turn poor-quality mixed waste into durable, functional products such as furniture, trash cans and latrines, preventing waste from entering the ocean and boosting the local economy. For example, a lounge chair made from recycled HDPE (high density polyethylene) was shortlisted at the Plastics Recycling Awards Europe 2021 for its design of turning waste into products.

“The chair not only shows that it is possible to incorporate recycled materials without sacrificing aesthetics, but also that it is possible to use discreet technology in remote environments,” says Jaap Patijn of Searious Business.

Another remarkable opportunity for waste recovery lies in the fishing industry, which contributes 10% of ocean plastics in the form of discarded gear and nets. For example, the Greek initiative Enaleia collected more than 20,000 kg of used nets and recycled them into 260,000 pairs of socks, thus preventing pollution of the oceans and providing additional income for 1,000 fishermen in the region.

Nothing like the disposable

The pandemic has forced us to temporarily prioritize health issues over the future of our planet. Millions of people have turned to disposable PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect themselves and others from infection with COVID-19. Masks are used for a short time and then thrown away, often littering our main streets and parks. UK retailers Wilko and recycling specialists ReWorked have offered a possible answer to the problem. Masks can be washed and shredded into raw materials, then made into products ranging from other business safety materials to building materials and furniture.

A fully circular plastic economy may be a dream, but it is not a total fantasy and innovative designs for turning waste into products like these demonstrate the possibilities. As recycling technology develops faster and faster, moving us closer to a cradle-to-cradle model, we need to let go of our take-do-throw mentality. There is no waste, only opportunities.

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