If you believe that recycled plastic is a good thing, hold on to your hat. A recently released study out of the UK suggests that recycling could be making matters worse by contributing to pollution. And no, simple things like filtering wastewater are not enough to stop pollution. Yet another solution to the plastic problem is shot down by science.
If my tone sounds a little sarcastic, that’s because sarcasm is what I’m feeling right now. Plastic has been demonized as one of the greatest evils mankind has ever perpetrated on the planet. Everywhere you turn, someone from the anti-plastic crowd has something bad to say about what is arguably the most utilized manufacturing material in history.
This latest critique focuses on microplastics, tiny plastic pieces that are smaller than 10 micrometers. There is very little scientific evidence suggesting that microplastics pose a significant danger to either the planet or human health. And yet we are absolutely sure that the danger is there. So any recycling process that produces microplastics is a no-go.
The previously mentioned study was conducted at a single plastic recycling plant in the UK. That plant practices mechanical recycling, the same process that Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics utilizes to transform industrial scrap plastic into plastic regrind. Seraphim Plastics purchases a load of industrial plastic waste runs it through a series of grinders and magnets and collects the regrind as it exits the system.
When you are using grinders and choppers to reduce plastic waste to pallets or flakes, you’re going to produce microscopic waste. Microplastics are an unavoidable result of mechanical recycling. That being the case, it would be normal to find microplastics in wastewater found in and around recycling plants.
Filters will remove most of those microplastics if installed and maintained properly. It is an easy solution to a pretty basic problem. But that is apparently not enough for researchers who complain that not all recycling plants utilize filtration. But they could, so there is a solution to the problem.
If mechanical recycling isn’t good enough to satisfy critics, there are other options, including chemical recycling. But before you get excited, chemical recycling has its own problems to contend with. It is energy-intensive and utilizes chemicals that could be dangerous to the environment.
There are just as many critics of chemical recycling as there are mechanical recycling. But if we cannot recycle mechanically or chemically, what’s left? Your guess is as good as mine. It seems logical that the only remaining possibility is to stop using plastic entirely.
I admit to being frustrated by people and organizations that constantly tear down plastic. I get frustrated when the plastics industry is accused of being a villain trying to take down all of humanity with its products. But I do find consolation in the knowledge that we have long since passed the point of no return on plastics.
Plastic has literally revolutionized the world we live in. If, by some strange twist of nature, all the plastic on the planet were to simultaneously disappear, the world would instantly be a different place. Our laptop computers would be reduced to a small pile of screws and wires. Our cars would be unusable. The days of talking and texting on cell phones would be over.
Few people realize just how saturated the world is in plastic. It is literally everywhere. And for that reason, it is never going to be banned. That leaves us with the task of finding better ways to use and recycle it.