Recycling: A Game of Diminishing Returns


Only 9% of plastic garbage generated worldwide is actually recycled. The current rate in the United States is 5%. The majority of used plastic is disposed of in landfills, burned, or ends up floating around.

An unsettling new study has discovered that plastic can continue splinter into smaller pieces that pollute the air and water even after it is recycled. The single new facility where plastics are sorted, shred, and melted into pellets was the subject of this pilot project. The plastic is repeatedly washed along the way, sloughing off microplastic fragments—fragments smaller than 5 millimeters—into the wastewater of the plant.

They estimate that the entire output from the various washes could result in up to 75 billion particles per cubic meter of wastewater, even with filtering. That liquid would ultimately be drained into municipal water systems or the environment, depending on the recycling plant. In other words, recycling efforts to address the plastics disaster may unintentionally worsen the microplastics crisis, which is causing synthetic particles to contaminate every nook and cranny of the ecosystem.

The good news is that filtration does make a difference because, according to the researchers' estimates, this recycling facility alone might release up to 6.5 million pounds of microplastic annually without it. It was reduced to around 3 million pounds after filtration.

So, recycling a plastic bottle involves more than simply creating a new bottle out of it. Deconstructing it and reassembling it are what it is doing. According to Deonie Allen, a coauthor of the study and a microplastics researcher at the University of Birmingham, "the recycling centers are potentially making things worse by actually creating microplastics faster and discharging them into both water and air." "I'm not sure if we can technologically engineer our way out of that problem."

A game of diminishing returns also applies to recycling. An easy-to-process plastic bottle can only be recycled a few times before the material becomes too damaged to be used again. Additionally, as plastic items have developed, such as stacked infant food pouches, they have become increasingly difficult to recycle. Mountains of plastic garbage are being transported to underdeveloped nations, where they are frequently burned in open pits, killing the locals and adding even more microplastics and toxins to the atmosphere. This is the literal dirty secret of the industry. The business would not need to continue manufacturing exponentially more plastic—it currently produces a trillion pounds of it annually—if recycling were genuinely successful in its current form. 

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