The Real Story of Consumer Plastics Recycling – No Happy Ending

by Sudarsan

Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale with a happy ending? Unfortunately, happy endings very rarely reflect reality. There are times when a real story’s ending is just plain unhappy. That’s the way it is with consumer plastics recycling. There isn’t a happy ending waiting on the last page.

Over the last 50 years or so, we have been led to believe that recycling things like plastic water bottles and food containers was an easy way we could all contribute to saving the planet. But peel back the layers of corporate marketing and political advocacy and you see the real truth. And guess what? It ain’t pretty.

How It Should Work

What were we all told about plastic recycling when we were kids? We were told that if we just put our recyclables out on the curb, the friendly recycling man would pick them up and take them away. He would take them to a processing plant where they would be melted down or ground into a plastic material someone else would turn into new water bottles and food containers.

Simple enough, right? But it is not so simple in reality. What recycling advocates portray as the story of consumer plastics recycling is theoretically possible to accomplish. It is done every day in the industrial plastics sector (more on that later). But theory and reality are not the same in the world of consumer plastics.

How It Really Works

The true reality of recycling consumer plastics starts the same way the fantasy does: with consumers putting their recyclable plastics into a curbside bin. The bin is put out with the trash, with the expectation that someone will pick up the recyclables and take them away. That is where the similarities in the two stories end.

In the real story, the plastics are hauled away to a sorting facility where a combination of people and machines separate different types of plastic from each other – and any trash in a load. Meanwhile, management tries to swing deals with recyclers willing to buy the plastics from them. If they cannot find buyers, they ultimately ship the sorted plastics to the landfill.

Back down on the sorting floor, personnel look for any sign that a load of recyclables has been contaminated. It doesn’t take much. And what happens to contaminated loads? They don’t even get dealt with. They are immediately sent to the landfill.

Process Is the Problem

The reality of consumer plastics recycling is that some 90% of all that stuff we put in the recycling bin ultimately ends up as trash anyway. But plastic is not the problem. The problem is a process. Our process is inefficient, time-consuming, and costly. But we could change it.

Tennessee is home to a company known as Seraphim Plastics. Like other companies in their industry, Seraphim buys industrial plastic waste in order to recycle it. They buy plastic purges and cutoffs, baled PET bottles, plastic totes and buckets, and more. They run the plastics through a series of grinders to produce a product known as regrind. Regrind is sold to manufacturers at a profit.

What Seraphim Plastics does works because they utilize a proven process that also works. It is not complicated. It is not rocket science. If we could get consumers and municipal recyclers to adjust the consumer process so that it matches the industrial process, a much larger volume of recyclable plastic would actually be recycled.

The current story of consumer plastics recycling does not have a happy ending. It could, but only if we were willing to rewrite the story from scratch.

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