Putting blue bins along the curb has become a weekly ritual for Bay Area residents, but the numerous types of recyclable items that get placed in them varies greatly from city to city. Cities like San Francisco and Berkeley accept almost all types of plastics, while others such as Richmond, only accept plastics #1 and #2. Which leaves many locals scratching their heads asking, “Why aren’t all recycling programs created equal?” In the United States, awareness about plastic use is increasing as more people learn plastic is a material that never breaks down and can often release harmful chemicals back into the environment. Even with increased awareness regarding the harms that plastic pollution cause, a whopping 75% of these recyclables are still thrown in the trash. Of the 25% that are collected for recycling, only about 7% are recycled domestically, while the rest of our plastics are exported to other countries.
Many people are not aware that plastics vary significantly in terms of their chemical and physical properties—even plastics with the same number can be extremely different from one another. In order to reuse plastics, they must be sorted by type, which is an energy and labor intensive process.
The most common way plastic is recycled is called downcycling. Downcycling is the process of converting waste materials, like a water bottle, into new products of lesser quality, such as carpet fiber. However, there is not a market for all types of recycled plastics. Plastics #3 – #7 are not as versatile, and cannot be downcycled as effectively, therefore many of these products do not get ‘downcycled’ and are sent to the landfill where they take hundreds of years to breakdown, or sent abroad to a questionable future in a foreign country.
One might begin to ask: “What is the benefit of sending our plastics overseas?” Unfortunately, most of our recycled plastics and e-waste go to China where lax safety and environmental laws make sorting and separating plastics cheaper. However, many of the plastics we send are burned or buried, causing harm to not only the environment, but also workers who are all too often placed in terrible working conditions. In 2013, China passed the Green Fence Policy, which limits the country’s imports of plastic waste. This policy can have many implications for the United States-one of the positive effects being that we will have to find other ways to turn our waste plastic into reusable plastic here at home.
However, new ideas are coming into play that may allow us to recycle even more plastic materials. Mike Biddle, a Bay Area native, has innovated a new method of recycling plastics, which includes very intensive sorting techniques that allow for plastics to be completely separated and reduced down to their purest form. Biddle, a chemical engineer, and his firm MBA Polymers, have found new techniques that allow them to produce pure, recycled plastic with as little as 10% of the energy it takes to make virgin plastic products. While downcycling creates products of lesser quality, Biddle’s method can create products of equal or greater value (ie ‘upcycling’).
While innovations will allow us to come up with new and improved methods for extending the life cycle of our plastics, the best way to deal with the increasing amount of plastic waste is by reducing the amount of plastic we use in our day-to-day lives.