Managing plastics pollution and recycling is a worldwide problem. The United Nations Environmental Program reports that 400 million metric tons of plastics are manufactured worldwide per year, with a disappointing 5 percent post-consumption recycling rate in 2021. This staggeringly low percentage certainly belies the petrochemical companies’ marketing claims that their products are recyclable.
For 50-plus years, plastics manufacturing has grown exponentially. Researchers report half of all plastics on Earth have been produced in the last 15 years. Consider the growth in single-use plastics, from the vegetables you purchase for convenience (ready-peeled) at supermarkets, to the cups, cutlery and wrappers used at fast-food establishments.
To produce plastic, petrochemical companies assemble natural materials that already have undergone several chemical processes and physical reactions to make polymer chains. Chemical composition (stabilizers), chemical additives (plasticizers) and pigments, create thousands of individual and different plastic combinations, of which 90 percent are not recyclable nor compatible with one another.
The petrochemical industry and big business have been disingenuous in claiming they can recycle plastics. There is no basis for claims that all plastics can be fully recycled. The petrochemical industry is a repeat of the tobacco industry for the 21st century.
Methods currently used to recycle plastics that are not recyclable are known as “Bury and Burn.” Burying plastics releases greenhouse gases into the air, and they take centuries to decompose. Even when decomposed, the plastics fragments into micro and nano particles that are so small we inhale them.
The economic viability of recycling also has its limits, considering the steps and expense required for collecting, sorting, transporting and waste processing. For example, fast-food burger packaging cannot be recycled if food remnants reside on the wrapper (it is considered contaminated) and/or if the inside wrapper contains plastic.
Most chip bags are made of a mix of plastic, aluminum and paper that has been laminated together, and the layers cannot be separated when broken down, which makes them nonrecyclable.
A bill for plastics waste pollution initiatives including incentives in the recycling chain did not pass the New York State Legislature but will be reintroduced next year. Our legislators can be the first in the nation to address the issues and get to an agreement on “Reduce, Reuse, Refill” while gaining citizen support through education and information.
Westhampton Garden Club
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