Recycling seems to become a super trend. In every media you hear about it, on most products you can read it “can be recycled” and recycling is the ultimate trend. Why? – Because better to sell a product with a green image than telling the truth. This blog is to explain you the lie of recycling, the reality and the lies behind the word. The problem of recycling and the false information given to consumers, concerns mostly plastic and with it the food sector. Would you buy all what you had in your last caddy in the supermarket if you would know that actually only 9% of the worlds plastic scrap gets recycled?
The definition of the word “recycling” is “the action or process of converting waste into reusable material”. Means to use a material once used and to make something new out of it. The idea behind is great and indeed there are natural materials as cotton which allow to make great new things out of it- more later on. But 359 million tons of plastic are produced every year (2018), 61.8 million tons only in Europe. 2008, means ten years ago the world plastic consumption was for sure already too high, but only at 245 million tons. 40% of this plastic is packaging.
1907 Leo Hendrik Baekeland developed the first type of plastic based on a synthetic polymer. The promise sounded fantastic: a material which is easy to use, can take nearly every shape is very light and can easily contain liquids or sensitive products. In short: plastic changed all what came after.
Plastics are semi-synthetic materials which are used everywhere: When writing this article, plastic is used, for the office chair as well and even in many clothes is plastic. The word come from the Greek word “plastikos” meaning moulding. Plastic is heated to be shaped following, mostly in moulds.
Plastic exists in various types. The most know is PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) which is one of the most used types- your window frames (if plastic) are PVC for example, but your floor might be as well, or scotch or again the plastic covering cabels, the examples are endless. But what is called PU (Polyurethane) is plastic as well. It is used to makes foams and spongy materials, so you find PU for example in the kitchen sponge. But Polyurethane is also used to make new materials trying to tell us how great things are, did you hear about apple leather for example or vegan leather types. These are mixed materials made with at least 50% PU. But as well Polyesters used for technical sports clothes or polyolefins used for example for straws are plastics. As a general rule: You see a composite where the word starts with “poly” you can be sure its plastics made of raw oil and made to last, not to be recyclable or biodegradable.
Recyclable vs biodegradable
And this is the problem: recyclable and biodegradable are two different things. While recycle means to make something new out of a used product, biodegradable means to decay after usage naturally without being harming. So what we all are actually are looking for are biodegradable products and not recyclable products.
Keep in mind- only 9% of the worlds plastic is recycled. Most is single used as bottles or packaging and will stay with us for some hundreds of years. Or maybe not with “us” as we will simply but used packaging in the bin, feeling good as we chose the “recycle” bin- we think we do the right thing. But what happens next with our plastics? As they cannot be recycled and as we overuse they are often shipped to Asia as Malaysia or China. We simply give them away to countries which for a long time did accept it. This is not a sustainable solution and this time is over. These countries are fed up of the western plastic and: send them back.
A recent article from VICE news does say what many are not willing to admit: “At what point do you say, ‘You know what, it’s not recyclable’?” Plastic cannot be recycled. It can be burned with toxic gas emission, we can let it destroy our ecosystems and oceans, we can even send it into space, but not recycle. We consume too much plastic, it is impossible to use this- plus shredding or other methods will leave dangerous micro plastics. ““When a product claims to be recyclable, my immediate response is, OK, ‘Where? How?’” said Joe Dunlop, a waste reduction administrator in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, who’s been watching recycling markets for 20 years.” To recycle all plastic we use is simply a lie. The brands using plastics are telling us this myth to assure us and to mainly assure that we won’t stop buying it.
Greenwashing of the plastics industry
The goal of the plastic industry is to sell you plastic as natural, as the ultimate solution and the must-have. Plastics Europe for example, which is the association of plastic manufacturer writes on their homepage: “Plastics are organic materials, just like wood, paper or wool. The raw materials used to produce plastics are natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil. Plastics have become the modern material of choice because they make it possible to balance today’s needs with environmental concerns.” Sounds not too bad, right? A natural origin as gas or oil, yes that’s right, with the difference of chemical structural change with as result has nothing to do anymore with a product given by our planet. So face it, it is raw oil we use and we will destroy our planet if we do not radically change. As today our oceans are already a garbage can. 8 million tons of plastic end in the oceans each year. Following WWF 1 of 2 sea turtles already ate plastics, 90% of seabirds have plastics in their stomach and all this because we still want to coffee to go, the straw in our cocktail. We destroy our own planet as we think “it is just one… straw, cup, packaging, etc.” but we are millions thinking like this. The fish in the sea eats micro plastics, which following is eaten by humans. Around 74000 particles of micro plastics are consumed per human per year following a study of National Geographic. The level up to which this impact health is not yet defined.
So here an idea: When you buy food in a plastic packaging or a bottle of water how about shredding the plastic in your mixer and add it directly in your food or drink as it will end up in your body anyhow? This idea is crazy you will say. Is it? Or is the idea of single use plastic instead of using paper, ceramic, aluminium and other packaging which is either reusable for years or biodegradable? How about using an aluminium bottle instead of plastic, a cotton bag instead of plastic or simply saying “no” to the straw?
In the textile industry you might have heard of the three R’s: Reuse, Reduce and Recycle. Or speaking about upcycling and making new of used clothes? There are indeed great opportunities out there to reuse textiles instead of throwing away. And yes, cotton or cork and other natural fibres are perfectly biodegradable so even if not possible to recycle these are not emitting any risk to the planet, of course if coloured naturally and worked with non-toxic glue. And there are great brands out there, using textiles which would be thrown away otherwise as Ecclo or using old and used clothes to make something new of it as the brand Second Sew. But you will as well realize that there are more and more brands starting to make clothes of plastic bottles for example. Using plastic trash to make a pullover, t-shirt or shoes, this is the new trend. Is this trend raising awareness or rather leading to further downplay of the problem of plastic as this is making it look less a problem. Like “If I buy water bottles to drink, no problem, they will become a t-shirt later on”. Further a recently published article on Eluxe Magazine shows “Researchers have found that these well intended brands may be doing more harm than good by introducing recycled plastic clothing into the wash cycle. Apparently, microfibers — tiny synthetic threads less than 1 mm in size — may actually be the biggest source of plastic in the ocean. And many of them may come from simply washing synthetic clothing.”
We completely agree to their final statement in the article: “What truly matters is that the clothing industry is willing to take the findings of environmental scientific research seriously and apply it to textile sourcing. This is true not only for the ‘eco’ brands based on recycled plastics, but also for any clothing manufacturer that uses acrylic, polyester and other textiles that shed toxic micro fibres. And ultimately, it’s up to us to make well informed decisions about our fashion purchases, and to think twice every time we buy something that may end up as ocean plastic in the first place.”
The right thing to do is to question consumption of clothes as well as consumption in general. Many things are easy to replace as bottles, cups and straws. And as long as we cannot be sure that PET recycling to make clothes is not just marketing and greenwashing, prioritise natural fibres and still ask questions as much as possible. And of course if to choose a product of plastics better chose the recycles version without using this choice as validation to buy more food in single used plastics. Go out on the market with a basket or a bag, refuse plastic when you can and you will see that there are already many products you can easily buy without packaging.