Is recycling plastic worse than throwing it away?

By May 25, 2023 Environment

We came across this post insinuating that recycling plastic is worse than throwing plastic away. The post references an article by The Washington Post titled “The little-known unintended consequence of recycling plastics”, presumably in support of the idea that recycling plastic – instead of throwing it away – is not better for the environment.


The issue with recycling plastics

The article by The Washington Post states that recycling plastics may actually be contributing to microplastic pollution as opposed to solving the world’s plastic waste predicament.

Microplastics refer to tiny plastic particles, often less than 5 millimeters in diameter. There are 2 forms of microplastics – primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are particles devised for commercial use such as in cosmetics while secondary microplastics are formed when larger plastic items such as water bottles are broken down.

Quoting a recently released study, that examines microplastic pollution from a mixed plastics recycling facility in the United Kingdom, the article states that between 6 to 13% of the plastic that is treated in the facility could end up being discharged into water or the air as microplastics.

According to the article, the study which was led by a plastics scientist from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, highlights the increasing apprehension that recycling may not be that effective as a resolution to address plastic pollution.

However, the article concludes that according to experts, the solution is not to stop recycling altogether but rather to reduce the amount of plastic that is being used.


Plastic waste across the globe

Image credit: UNEP

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), almost 5 trillion plastic bags are utilised every year, across the world. In addition, half of all plastic that is produced is designed to be single-use – i.e. to be used only once before being thrown away. This leads to about 400 million tonnes (400 billion kg) of plastic waste generated every year, thereby contributing to pollution, for example through plastic litter ending up in the oceans.

Due to their durability, plastics do not fully break down but rather disintegrate into microplastics. These microplastics could potentially enter the human body and collect in organs.

While the complete magnitude of microplastics’ effect on one’s health is still undetermined, UNEP states that there is substantial evidence that plastics-associated chemicals such as flame retardants can enter the body and cause health concerns.


The shortcomings of recycling plastic

Not all plastics are suitable for recycling. This could be due to various reasons, including but not limited to the composition of the plastic which might not allow for it to be recycled. Presently, approximately only 9% of plastic waste is actually recycled globally. The rest end up, among others, being incinerated, in landfills or in aquatic environments.

Although recycling plastic may have unintended consequences such as generating microplastics, throwing plastic away might not necessarily be a better solution. Plastic that is thrown away generally ends up in landfills where it takes a long time to break down and releases potentially harmful emissions in the process. The better solution might be to reduce plastic use or stop utilising single-use plastic altogether.

The study cited in The Washington Post article only examined 1 recycling facility. Therefore, further research may be necessary, especially to understand how widespread the issue of microplastic pollution from recycling facilities might be. Hence, we give the claim that recycling plastic is worse than throwing plastic away a rating of likely false.

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