24 April, 2023
400 million tons of plastic are produced every year. 27 million tons end up in landfills. 14 million end up in the world’s oceans. And plastic companies plan to triple production come 2050. Due to the accessibility and cheapness of plastic production, it is one of the most lucrative industries in the world. However, the excess of plastic produced cannot be disposed of easily.
The idea of saving the planet is very daunting, especially in the interest of creating a better world for future generations. Recycling waste, such as plastics and paper materials, is exemplified as a surefire way to reduce waste that could otherwise end up in landfills or natural habitats. While this isn’t untrue, the process is a lot trickier than one might think.
Most people know that when they recycle something, like a plastic or a cardboard, it gets sent to a recycling center to be broken down and turned into something else. Plastic items are melted and crushed to be turned back into plastic pellets, so that they can be reused and made into new products. Many companies tout their plastic packaging for water bottles, sodas, snack items, and fresh produce as easily recyclable and constantly being reused. However, the majority of plastics in production cannot be recycled simply.
The most common plastics used by manufacturers are polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). To strengthen their plastics, especially when using pellets that have already been recycled, producers have to use heavy duty plastics to reinforce their products, meaning most recycled plastic takes new plastic to be made. For example, a common water bottle may be made of PET, but the tie and cap can be made of a mixture of PET and HDPE. These are very difficult to separate without overly damaging the aforementioned bonds, and requires excessive dismantling of certain products to recycle properly. In general, plastic is considered to be worth recycling if it’s bigger than a credit card. This excludes a lot of tiny plastics, like straws, gum wrappers, and plastic utensils.
Plastic is also a compound, meaning that it is made up of long chains of synthetic molecules. Chemical bonds are what hold it together. When raised to a certain temperature to be melted, these bonds break down. Because of this, all plastics will degrade every time they are recycled, until it cannot be recycled anymore. Many plastics that have already gone through this cycle end up as trash that cannot be reused or disposed of. This renders many reused and mixed plastics as not worth the time of recycling plants in the first place. In this light, many recyclable plastics become unrecyclable after a few cycles.
Food waste is more tricky, because many possibly recyclable items lose their ability to be recycled once they come in contact with food. A clean pizza box is fine for recycling, but a pizza box with leftover cheese and grease on it is useless to recycling plants.
Single use plastics are difficult to cut out of daily use simply because they are constantly being produced and are available everywhere. This becomes even more convoluted, acknowledging that some plastics that advertise themselves as recyclable are only partially recyclable and aren’t accepted by all plants.
Despite all these challenges, it’s more important to try to recycle properly than not to recycle at all. Separate glass bottles, aluminum cans, and any recyclable plastic considered clean, empty, and dry can be put in recycling bins in Howard County.
Reusing plastics is not always a good idea because of their chemical makeup, especially when it comes to eating utensils or beverage holders. But they can be used as storage containers, planters, and even bird feeders. When shopping, cut out plastics from the items as much as possible, and favor paper and cardboard packaging.
On a wider scope, non recyclables with food waste on them have their place if they are made up of biodegradable materials as compost. Composting can be done at home, with food waste, soil, and yard trimmings, but can also be donated through green compost bins. Howard County takes green compost bins (which are free from the county) out with the trash. They can be picked from the Bureau of Environmental Services in Broken Land Parkway and Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriott’s Ridge. They are listed under curbside donations as part of the Feed the Green Bin initiative.
When things must be disposed of, Howard County’s government page on recycling is very helpful. The Know Before You Throw graphic on its website includes detailed and accessible information on what can and can’t be recycled in Howard County, as well as information on reuse and donation. By donating larger products, like home appliances or clothing, it can keep them out of landfills and elongate their use. Second Change, Goodwill Industries, and A Wider Circle are some of the services recommended for pick up donation, which is free in Maryland.
Recycling is nowhere near perfect, but proper waste disposal on the consumer’s side is important in reducing the amount of recyclable and compostable waste that is sent to landfills every year. If a concentrated effort is made, real change can be made both to the system, and possibly, the industry itself.
If you want to extend a further hand to proper waste management, several groups offer options to support the effort;