The Ultimate Guide to Plastics of the Future Part 3 – Plastics and Recycling
Over the last decade, the push for people and companies to become more sustainable has been at the forefront of conversation. Recycling plastic waste has been the easiest opportunity for anyone to start becoming more sustainable. This is why there is relatively wide adoption and awareness of recycling practices across the world.
What is Recycled Plastic?
The plastic recycling supply chain has become foundational to raw materials that are used across manufacturing. By and large, there are 2 main types of plastics recycling:
Post-Industrial Resin (PIR)
This plastic is the extra waste that is trimmed off and reclaimed during the manufacturing process. Post-industrial is closer to virgin plastic than post-consumer because it is processed less.
Post-Consumer Resin (PCR)
This plastic is used by the consumer for its intended purpose, has reached its end of life, and is then tossed into a recycling bin. Post-industrial is closer to virgin plastic than post-consumer because it is processed less.
This means that post-consumer resin requires a lot more touching and processing. Recycling post-consumer resin has become a complicated process of collecting, separating, cleaning, milling, melting, and compounding.
Some recyclers focus specifically on post-consumer resins, and others focus only on post-industrial resins. There are even recycling companies that focus specifically on ocean plastics or on creating circular economies of plastic within large organizations. Plastic recycling has now become a booming industry; it’s no longer about just collecting empty water bottles.
Post industrial resin is plastic waste from the manufacturing process that is collected at the moment of discarding and sent to recycling. Almost all recycled plastic is Industrial plastic waste from manufacturing. Due to the fees associated with dumping plastic waste, there is an incentive to recycle and reuse as much as possible.
Post consumer resin is plastic waste from everyday products like packaging and consumer goods. Almost all of this plastic is thrown away in a trash bin, with minimal opportunities for recycling.
What most people don’t realize is that most of the plastics recycling supply chain (80%+) consists of post-industrial resin. Only a small fraction (10-20%) is post-consumer resin.
Let’s look at what recycled plastic actually is. The recycling process starts with sorting for different types of plastics. The sorting is done according to the type of plastic or polymer that each material is made from. Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) are the two more common types of polymers used in recycled products (such as water bottles).
Recycling can be either mechanical or chemical (we look at some of the most promising innovations in chapter 11). Mechanical recycling involves cutting plastic into small pieces, then melting it down to make new plastic products. Chemical recycling means breaking down plastics chemically to produce products like fuel and fertilizer.
However, there are some downsides to chemical recycling as it offsets the basic idea of reusing and therefore reducing the need for more petrochemical and/or chemical-based materials. That’s because additional chemicals (some considered harmful) are needed, and used in the process.
Many manufacturers today are trying to reduce the amount of virgin plastic they use in the products they make. Most of our customers are seeking to use as much hemp and recycled plastic as possible to reduce the amount of virgin plastic they’re using in each of their products.
As more companies begin adopting recycled plastic, there will be a growing need for larger supplies of plastic from recyclers. Today, most waste plastic from corporations manufacturing lines is already recycled. This means that new plastic sources will need to come from consumer recycling efforts, or Post Consumer resin.
This is where the problem lies, because humans are notoriously bad at changing habits in general, and they are especially bad at changing habits when the benefit is not of instant gratification. If consumer behavior is unable to change at the rapid pace of corporate consumption, there will be a major shortage of recycled plastic in the coming years.
How Much Gets Recycled?
Since a large percentage of all plastics are not recycled, this means they stay around for centuries in landfills or our oceans. What is even more alarming is that most post-consumer plastics that we collect for recycling, actually find their way to our already overflowing landfills!
How much plastic actually gets recycled? This is shocking, but according to National Geographic, an astonishing 91 percent of plastic doesn’t actually get recycled. This means that only around 9 percent is being recycled. That equates to about 3 million tons annually, which on the surface may sound impressive – until you realize that over 30 million tons (yes, that’s 60 billion pounds) of plastic simply goes to waste!
The Challenge of Shortages
While recycling has a foothold in the plastics community, there are some challenges arising, such as not enough raw plastics to meet recycling demands. The world is facing a shortage of recycled plastics. Which feels a little bizarre as we just mentioned the fact that not much of the overall plastic waste produced gets recycled!
There are many reasons for this occurrence – other countries refusing to buy our recyclables, less plastic actually making it to the recycle bins, and the ever complex (and expensive) process of recycling plastics.
This shortage will certainly have a negative impact on our society, like an increase in pollution and an increase in costs. However, we need a renewed focus on recycling plastics, as it will always be important to reduce our environmental footprint and ensure that there is less plastic waste that goes into landfills or oceans.
The Impact of Recycled Plastic Challenges
In a world where there is more plastic than there are trees, our current recycling efforts just don’t cut it. Environmental sustainability has been the buzzword for decades, but it’s time to switch gears and get smart about how we’re going to get out of this mess.
In theory, recycling plastic is a great idea. You take a plastic water bottle and turn it into two new bottles, right? But the reality is the world has reached a point where the demand for plastic is far outstripping our ability to produce it, as well as the ability of our planet to maintain it.
While recycling initiatives are making a difference, there are not enough efforts to keep up with the demands. The recycling process can also be time-consuming and expensive, meaning that sometimes it’s cheaper to just make new plastic, which should send a chill down our collective spines!
We are running out of recycled plastics because of two reasons, first is supply and second is consumer behavior. Supply-wise, there is a problem with the PP and PE recycling plants all over the world. They are running out of raw materials because people are throwing away less plastics than ever before.
Another factor that contributes to this shortage is the lack of clean recyclable plastics in circulation. Clean recyclables are just that, plastic containers that have been rinsed thoroughly before they get thrown into the bins. Cleaning individual dirty containers is a nightmare for recyclers because it adds more labor, equipment, and overall costs.
Supply-wise, there is a problem with the PP and PE recycling plants all over the world. They are running out of raw materials because people are throwing away less plastics than before.
Consumer behavior-wise, people just don’t know how important recycling is anymore – they just throw it away without thinking twice about it. If only consumers knew that by tossing their recyclables in trash cans they’re potentially depriving future generations from plastic products, then this planet would be a much better place!
It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. The effects of this are already being seen on the health of humans and animals alike. There are many companies that have created products with recycling plastics in mind, however it seems these efforts are not achieving the desired impact. This is a huge problem and we need to either find ways to recycle more plastics in order to reduce this shortage, and/or find better, more bio-friendly ways to make plastics in the first place!
The shortage is a major issue and it has been predicted that by 2030, the world will be producing more plastic than it can recycle. This increase in production will inevitably lead to a plastics shortage as demand for new plastics far outstrips the recycling capacity. As such, we need to start preparing for this upcoming crisis now.
There are three key areas we should focus on:
- Building up our recycling infrastructure and capacity
- Reducing our dependence on single use plastics
- Rethinking the way we design and market products so as to minimize their environmental impact.
Numbers one and two are essentially expanding the current solutions that are in place today, number three may be the best long-term choice as there is still a finite amount of raw petrochemical polymer material available to us (oil). New, renewable sources are certainly the future of plastics.
Do we Need more Solutions such as Bio-friendly Plastics?
The short answer is, an emphatic YES! Bio-friendly plastics are the organic equivalent of traditional plastics. They are made with renewable, sustainable materials such as hemp, corn or soybean. These materials can be easily grown and harvested, meaning they do not require any form of mining or drilling to procure them. Simply grow and harvest!
Pure polymers completely made from biomaterials are available, but the technology is not quite there to replace our established plastics materials. One potential downside to this type of plastic is that it doesn’t last as long as the traditional materials and doesn’t have the mechanical properties needed for commercial use.
However, we can use these natural materials as plastics additives, and essentially gain (or even improve) the same properties as plastics that use petrochemical or mined additives. This is shaping up to be the best overall solution by coming up with sustainable alternatives for plastics that can also serve as building blocks for the materials we currently produce from petroleum. We are strong proponents of hemp as it can be grown very quickly with limited resources to supply the additives we need for plastics, and in turn reduce our carbon footprint at the same time!
The Bio-based Additives Opportunity
Bio-based additives offer a sustainable and green solution to the growing chemical and plastic industry. They’re made from renewable resources that are abundantly available. The market is expected to grow significantly in the coming years as consumers become increasingly aware of the dangers of chemicals and plastics.
Biotechnologies are key to the future development of sustainable products in all sectors. One of the sectors in which biotechnology can be heavily used is plastics manufacturing. Biotechnological innovation is needed to replace fossil-fuel based polymeric materials with bio-based ones which are more environmentally friendly, biodegradable and recyclable. Current research work is aimed at finding out more ways to use these biomaterials as an additive material for plastics production.
The bio-based materials that are most widely studied for usage as additives in plastics manufacturing are plant oils and lignin-derived polymers. In general, these plastic additives can be classified into two categories – those that improve quality of the final product and those that reduce cost of the process itself or improve production rates.
Unfortunately, currently, all raw material supply chains are pinched. Plastic, metal, wood, petroleum, minerals, and synthetic materials are all experiencing lower supply and higher pricing.
This is opening up a massive opportunity for recycling supply chains across the world to step up to the plate to innovate and outcompete the virgin raw material supply chains.
Sustainability without Compromise
The court of public opinion is going through a major shift in the way humans should look at sustainability. The world’s largest economic actors are starting to get on board with this idea of sustainable business practices and plastics recycling can be one of the main drivers.
To make sure that there is a balance between economic growth and environmental protection, businesses need to not only focus on bettering the environment but also reducing their negative impact on it. This can be done by setting sustainability/recycling mandates and making sure that there. is corporate governance to ensure compliance with these standards.
When we choose to use recycled plastics, you will end up using less oil and water in manufacturing and taking what was waste and putting it back into the economy. Plus, it is a great choice for the environment as it eliminates the need for new plastic production.
People are becoming more and more aware of the environmental damage caused by plastic. The use of recycled plastics is a way to help alleviate some of this burden. But, the use of bio-based materials as additives in concert with new methods of recycling have the potential to reshape all plastics, forever. In concert with better recycling, the addition of adding bio-based materials to the supply chain might give us the one-two punch we need to solve this problem!
Join us in making a world out of hemp.