Science is full of cycles. The water cycle, carbon cycle, hydrologic cycle, oxygen cycle…the list goes on and on! In elementary school, many of us learned the mantra about reducing, reusing, and recycling, typically accompanied by a little diagram synonymous with trash cans. We have been taught simple ways to follow that slogan, such as purchasing alternative items to those packaged in plastic or reusing old containers versus purchasing new ones. And then, of course, cleaning & recycling plastic items when we’re done with them.
While all of these things help protect our environment on the individual level, science continues to find new and better ways to take used plastic and repurpose it. This is called the circular economy for plastics.
The Opposite of Circular is Linear
While recycling programs are out there and available, a recent report from the EPA revealed that less than ⅓ of bottles and jars made from polyethylene terephthalate (or PET, the most common thermoplastic polymer resin in the polyester family) are successfully recycled. A study recently published in Science Advances estimates that there have been 8,300 million metric tons of plastic produced in human history.
A linear life cycle is when plastic is produced, used, and discarded. The arrow goes straight through from when it starts in development, through its lifecycle and eventually to the landfill. It is not reused or repurposed. It has a short lifespan of purpose but will spend unknown amounts of time in a landfill (some estimates indicate it could take up to 450 years for plastic to degrade,) float around loose, polluting the environment, or be burned to the environmental detriment of the surrounding communities.
Plastics remaining in the “linear economy” are not sustainable.
What a Circular Economy for Plastic Could Look Like
A circular economy for plastics means taking that linear trajectory plastics could have otherwise been on and directing it back around.
The first step in keeping plastic circularity is to keep the material in purposeful use for as long as possible. Once it has been completely exhausted, the plastic would be recycled via traditional mechanical methods. However, some plastics are difficult to recycle so they aren’t accepted at many recycling facilities. Another method called chemical recycling, or what is often referred to as “advanced recycling”, can complete the circle for those plastics. Because plastics are constructed from various molecular chains collectively called polymers, the process is not as simple as recycling cardboard, for example. The plastic recycled item must be stripped down to its chemical building blocks, and then those molecules are repurposed to build new material which can be used to create new products.
Advanced recycling isn’t as efficient as traditional methods because it requires more energy and results in higher CO2 output to complete the process. However, an advantage is that contaminated and mixed, unsorted plastics can all be recycled together, meaning it could divert more plastic waste that would have gone to landfill back into the circular economy. The goal is to see the process continue for as many items as possible.
Steps to Best Support Circular Economy
The weight of the global effort to move towards a circular economy of plastics rests largely with major corporations, but there are still things you, as a consumer, can do to press the movement forward.
At the ballot box, you can vote for legislators who support and fight for solid reuse and recycling policies. In an interview with National Geographic, Andrew Aulisi, the Vice President of Global Environmental Policy at PepsiCo, identified economics as “the Achilles heel of recycling systems.” This is true; many green initiatives are often voted down because they are considered cost prohibitive. However, Aulisi points out, “if there’s a really strong end market willing to pay a solid price for the material, recycling can work.”
In addition, you can support legislation that favors recycling and material conservation over a landfill economy. Many states have antiquated solid waste plans created before recycling became mainstream, so their ‘tipping fees’, or the cost of dumping in a landfill, are very low. This encourages other states, and countries – Canada – to send their trash to the USA to landfill. As we are working so diligently to reduce our dependance on landfills to protect green spaces and reduce greenhouse gasses, outside trash is being brought in and someone is making money for use of their landfill. Our systems are backwards, and we would do better to adopt the European model making recycling cheaper for consumers and raising the costs associated with trash collection, removal and landfilling. Raising the tipping fees would mean higher profits for the landfill owners, too.
As a consumer, you can seek out companies that contribute to the plastic circular economy rather than the linear economy. Every item you purchase that’s made of recycled material tells the market economy that consumers want those types of products.
And lastly – know what items are recyclable in your area and only put those in your bins. This helps maintain the high value of recycled materials and keeps the recycling facilities safe for their employees. Just as we were instructed in elementary school – we should all reduce, reuse, and recycle whenever and as often as possible.
Polly Products Recycling
At Polly Products, we are determined to do our part. In fact, it is our green promise. We specialize in tertiary recycling and are proud to share that our products are built from 100% recycled plastics, just like the ones that fill your house daily. Milk jugs, yogurt containers, and shampoo and detergent jugs are processed and shipped to our facility rather than a landfill.