top of page

What Really Happens to Your Plastic Waste: The Myths About Plastic Recycling

This Plastic Free July, we’re joining millions of fellow eco-warriors to make small changes that have a collective impact. The challenge is to refuse single-use plastics for the entire month and find zero-waste, eco-friendly alternatives such as refill shops like Filling Good!

Okay, but why should we refuse plastic? Can’t we just recycle it?

A common misconception is that plastic isn’t harmful to the environment if it’s put into the recycle bin. This belief is a slippery slope, also known as “wish cycling.” Recycling rules are complicated and differ from postcode to postcode, so it’s no wonder many consumers chuck single-use plastics into their recycling bins in the hope they will get recycled properly.

The 5 Rs of the zero-waste movement are refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. There’s a reason “refuse” sits at the top and “recycle” closer to the bottom.

Refusing single-use plastic in the first place is better than using more energy and resources to recycle it.

Recycling, really, should be your last resort.

Let’s debunk some other myths about recycling together to get a better understanding of why.

Myth 1: The world is getting better at recycling

Getting better, yes. Doing 100% effort? Not really.

Dr Roland Geyer, the lead author of a 2017 paper in Science Advances, reported average recycling rates of 30% for Europe, 25% for China and 9% for America. By 2050, he estimates the world will be home to around 12 billion tonnes of waste.

And even if households are getting better at recycling, globally only 9% of plastic waste is recycled.

Let’s take a look at some stats from OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook (2022) to see why:

15% of plastic waste is collected for recycling, but…

40% of that is disposed of as residues

Another 19% is incinerated

50% ends up in landfill

And, the remaining 22% evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in poorer countries.

Myth 2: The plastic problem isn’t a big deal

Thanks to several environmental movements across the globe, people and government bodies are starting to wake up to the issue of plastic pollution. What’s lacking, however, is a sense of urgency. This leads people to believe we don't need to deal with the problem, yet.

In the UK, we don’t have to live with the reality of the issue. Our streets are cleaned, and our bins are regularly emptied. We may see some rubbish around, but it is nothing compared to what we dump on other countries to deal with. As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.

Of the 6.3bn tonnes of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled, and another 12% incinerated. The remaining plastic, not burned or recycled, is estimated to weigh 4.9bn tonnes. To put it in perspective, that amount is about the size of Manhattan.

So, yeah. The plastic problem is a big deal.

Myth 3: All Plastic can be recycled

Not true. In fact, most plastic is very hard to recycle.

First of all, not all plastics are created equal. You’ll know this by spotting all the different types of packaging lining supermarket shelves. There’s the soft filmy plastic used for bread bags, the crinkly plastic used for crisp packets, the sturdy plastic used for yoghurt pots, the clear plastic used for drinks bottles, and so on.

On the whole, these variations can be split into two camps.

  • Thermoset plastics - which contain polymers that form irreversible chemical bonds and cannot be recycled.

  • Thermoplastics - which are moldable at high temperatures, solidify when cooled, and can be recycled.

The most common plastic packaging is made from thermoset plastic. This plastic is produced knowing it cannot be recycled. With thermoplastic, which can be recycled, there are still many hoops to jump before turning it into something useful again.

Once the plastic is sorted by type, it's then sorted by quality. Anything stained or damaged is discarded, even if it’s recyclable.

And, if the packaging is made of mixed plastics, then forget it! When melted down, small amounts of the wrong type of plastic can degrade the quality of the whole batch, so it’s generally avoided.

Myth 4: Plastic can be recycled over and over again

A common misconception is that plastic can be recycled endlessly. And, while in theory, thermoplastic products can be continually softened, melted and reshaped, in practice, they rarely get recycled more than once. Dr Roland Geyer observed that as much as 90% of all plastics likely only get recycled one time.

Many companies are now labelling their plastic packaging as recyclable to seem more eco-conscious and environmentally aware. This, however, puts the responsibility on the consumer to correctly dispose of the plastic. It also tricks them into falsely believing that the product will be recycled if put in the proper bin. But, as we can see from the data, this is far from true!

Big corporations are using the fact their packaging is recyclable to justify continuing to manufacture plastic products, rather than switching to more sustainable materials. Selling shampoo in a recyclable plastic bottle is less environmentally friendly than selling it in aluminium packaging, as a refill or no packaging at all (we love solid shampoo bars!).

Myth 5: Recycled plastic is the same quality as virgin plastic

Not true. In fact, saying plastic can be recycled is a bit of a myth, too. Recycling means turning an item into something that’s as useful as it was before. Most plastic recycling, however, is actually downcycling, meaning it's turned into something lesser.

The push from environmentalists has seen the production of recycled, or secondary, plastic more than quadruple in the last 20 years. However, it remains a relatively small market as most sectors continue to rely on virgin plastics for economic or quality reasons.

As thermoplastics are melted and remoulded, they become more brittle and require increasing amounts of virgin plastic to maintain the product’s quality and integrity. In fact, most of the recycled packaging on the market is rarely 100% recycled plastic.

Although reusing existing packaging is far better than sourcing raw materials from fossil fuels, recycling is clearly not a long-term solution. Unlike glass and metal, plastic degrades when it is recycled, and most of it is recycled only once before ending up in the environment, an incinerator or landfill.

So, what can we do?

Taking part in Plastic Free July and committing to refusing as much single-use plastic as possible, is already a fantastic step forward. The key is to continue to educate ourselves and others to help push for change in our local communities and governments. Our small actions together have a big impact.

If you’d like some further information, here are a couple of documentaries to check out Dirty Business and The Story of Plastic.

98 views0 comments


bottom of page