Recycling is a powerful tool that can help mitigate the effects of climate change, especially when recycling plastics. In this article, we’re going to break down the relationship between recycling plastic and climate change.
How does plastic contribute to climate change?
Plastics are derived from fossil fuels. The plastic polymers are refined from petroleum and natural gas. Extracting these fossil fuels uses tons of energy, and greenhouse gasses are released in the process. Furthermore, refining fossil fuels to make these polymers emits even more carbon into the atmosphere. According to some experts, between 4% and 8% of global oil consumption can be linked to plastic.
But it doesn’t stop there. Some types of plastic release greenhouse gasses like methane when exposed to the elements. This was recently discovered to be the case with ocean plastic. Ocean plastic pollution also hampers the ability of microplankton to photosynthesize, which reduces the ability of the ocean to act as a carbon sink.
How does recycling plastic help fight climate change?
Using virgin materials almost always requires larger energy inputs than recycled materials. This is especially true with plastic. Recycled plastic doesn’t call for more fossil fuels to be extracted and refined, which prevents the emission of more greenhouse gasses. Recycled plastics emit 50% to 70% fewer greenhouse gasses during manufacturing compared to virgin plastics.
It’s not just about recycling. Reusing plastic materials for other purposes significantly reduces greenhouse gasses as there’s no need for manufacturing or transportation. Reusing plastic bags, cups, and containers around the home minimizes the need to buy more items.
But does recycling really help?
Recycling does help, but the system isn’t perfect. It doesn’t help if people aren’t taking part. In 2018, the recycling rate for plastic stood at 8.7%, compared to over 30% for glass.
Recycling facilities still emit greenhouse gasses during transportation and processing. Yet, it is much less when compared to processing virgin materials. But the problem with recycling doesn’t lie in the facilities, but at the very moment when you toss an item into that blue bin.
Many people practice what is called “wish-cycling.” That is, they are so enthusiastic about recycling that they may toss in items that aren’t recyclable. Add to the fact that recycling programs differ from city to city, and you have a population that is still confused about what materials are actually recyclable. Oftentimes, recycling facilities have to deal with contamination, where items that aren’t recyclable end up mixed in with recyclable materials. This costs time, energy, and contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions.
There was a time when Western countries like the US and Canada were sending their low-quality plastics to countries like China and Malaysia for processing. It turned out that much of this plastic wasn’t even being recycled, but incinerated, put in landfills, or outright dumped into oceans and rivers.
Over a third of our recycled plastics were sold to third-party companies in these countries until 2018 when China put strict regulations on imported plastics. This shook up the recycling industry. In the confusion, plastic recycling dipped as people lost faith in the system.
Despite the setbacks, recycling plastic is a necessary measure if we want to mitigate the effects of climate change. A well-planned recycling system can reduce greenhouse gasses by up to six gigatons over the next 30 years.
The increasing demand for plastics fuels climate change, as more fossil fuels are extracted to supply the market. Immense amounts of energy are wasted as these plastics are tossed out after just a few uses and end up in landfills or the ocean. Recycling reduces greenhouse gasses by reducing the need to extract more fossil fuels to manufacture and refine plastics. While the recycling system isn’t perfect, it still uses significantly less energy than processing virgin materials.