Plastic is an extremely lightweight and versatile material that can be used for many purposes but particularly for food packaging as it is safe, hygienic, durable, and cheap to produce. The problems arise when we want to dispose of plastic.
In theory, it is possible to recycle just about any kind of plastic but in reality this isn’t happening. Despite households producing a large amount of plastic waste every year only around 7% of it is currently being recycled in the UK.
Plastic that is being recycled is used to make a variety of other products and some of these include:
o Plastic bags and bin liners
o Items for gardening like seed trays, composters and even garden sheds
o Fillings for duvets and sleeping bags
So what happens to plastic that isn’t being recycled?
There is approximately 3 million tonnes of plastic waste each year and more than half of it is packaging. Food packaging in particular tends to have a short life span as the packaging is disposed of as soon as it is opened and unfortunately, most of this will end up in a landfill site. Environmental agency reports estimate that 80% of plastic waste is currently reaching landfill sites and this is a major cause for concern as the space required for land fill sites is increasing.
Producing plastic in the first place has an environmental impact too as it uses a lot of resources and fossil fuels as well as land and water and which also results in waste, although most of the waste from plastic production is reprocessed to make more plastic. Plastic production will often require the use of chemicals to stabilise or colour the plastic and the full impact on our health or the environment is not totally clear. A good example of this is PVC which has been used to make toys and some experts have expressed concern that phthalates might be released if the children put the toys in their mouths.
Another issue surrounding plastic is its degradability. Plastic is non degradable so if it finds its way to a landfill tip no one knows how long it will take to break down because plastic hasn’t been around long enough to tell so it could possibly lie there for many hundreds of years.
The ideal solution would be to recycle or re-use the plastic that has already been produced, but how viable is this? Certainly, recycling plastic has its advantages such as:
o Reduced use of non-renewable fossil fuels
o Reduced consumption of energy
o Reduced amount of plastic waste reaching landfill sites
o Reduced carbon emissions into the atmosphere
So why don’t we recycle more plastic?
A major issue is that plastics must be sorted according to their type and colour before recycling and this is a complex process. Although some technological devices for sorting plastics are slowly being introduced, sorting is normally done manually by people who are trained to do it.
The main barrier to recycling plastic on the part of the consumer is lack of opportunity to do so although the number of collection points for plastic waste is increasing all the time.
Finally, there is not a great demand for some types of plastic and the cost of recycling plastic can actually be more than the cost of producing new plastic.
New solutions are constantly being sought, including the production of plastic that can degrade naturally.
Biodegradable and photo degradable plastic
Some carrier bags are now being produced that are degradable, in other words, they are supposed to break down or rot. There are two types of degradable plastic, one that breaks down when exposed to sunlight and another that breaks down after a certain period of time. Many large retailers are now issuing degradable plastic bags to their customers, and this may sound like an ideal solution but it brings up new concerns:
o If a photodegradable bag ends up in a landfill site it will not break down as there is no sunlight
o As the material biodegrades, methane can be released into the atmosphere
o The mixture of different types of degradable plastics makes sorting it more complex and therefore harder to recycle
o People who are unaware of the implications may simply throw away degradable bags thinking they will break down and by doing this, increase the litter problem
Dealing with plastic waste in the home
The ideal way to dispose of plastic waste is to find another use for it within the home as much as possible, for example, by using empty plastic water bottles and containers to store other materials or find alternative uses for them and by using plastic carrier bags over again instead of throwing them away.