Closing the Loop
Traditionally, the problem with getting plastics recycled (aside from legislation and infrastructure) comes from the nature of the material. Whereas metals can be fairly easily recycled, with about 90% of steel in waste products that reach a recycler being recovered, in the case of plastics it’s a much more complex matter and, consequently, despite being a high value resource, only about 5% of plastics can be recovered by conventional recyclers.
The main reason plastics have been recovered and recycled at such low rates is down to the difficulty of sorting the various types of plastic which are either very similar or indistinguishable in terms of their density, colouration and magnetic properties. In less developed countries with more basic resources, the task of separating and effectively sorting plastics becomes pretty much impossible. As a result most plastic waste ends up in landfills, is burnt or goes into the ground.
However, this is now changing thanks to breakthroughs in the approach to recycling made by groups such by Mike Biddle’s MBA Polymers company. By taking the shredded remains of what metal recyclers leave behind and seizing it and grinding the plastics into miniscule pieces of the same type and grade, the group’s plants can create ‘pellets’ of plastic akin to the raw material that would be created using oil.
As the materials needed to produce these pellets can be taken from ‘above-ground mines’ (an attractive euphemism for the mountains of junk we produce) rather than by extracting and manipulating petro-chemicals, it’s cheaper and requires 80-90% less energy. Furthermore the plants can make any kind of plastic, depending on the waste being fed in.
Unfortunately, as the US lacks the collection and recycling policies that are in place at a national level in most other ‘high consumption’ countries, none of the plants capable of turning waste plastic back into a raw material are based in North America, but rather Europe and China. However, these advances point to a possible future in which it will be possible for, not just bottles, but all plastics to be effectively recycled rather than down-cycled.