The Problem with Recycling: Microplastic Pollution and the Ban on PLA

Alfred Tang

Hatched by Alfred Tang

Oct 02, 2023

4 min read


The Problem with Recycling: Microplastic Pollution and the Ban on PLA

In recent years, the issue of plastic pollution has gained significant attention worldwide. As a result, recycling has been widely promoted as a solution to reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste. However, a growing body of research suggests that recycling itself may contribute to another form of pollution: microplastics.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic, usually less than 5mm in size, that have become a major environmental concern. They can be found in various forms, including microbeads in personal care products, fibers from synthetic clothing, and fragments from larger plastic items. These microplastics have been found in oceans, rivers, and even in the air we breathe. But what many people don't realize is that recycling processes can also generate microplastics.

When plastic waste is collected for recycling, it goes through a series of processes to be transformed into new products. However, during these processes, the plastic can break down into smaller fragments, further contributing to the microplastic pollution problem. In fact, a single recycling facility can emit up to 6.5 million pounds of microplastics per year.

Researchers have found that even after going through recycling, plastic can still splinter into smaller bits, with up to 75 billion particles per cubic meter of wastewater. This means that even when we think we are doing the right thing by recycling, we may unknowingly be contributing to the microplastic pollution problem.

Moreover, the size of these microplastic particles is a cause for concern. Most recycling facilities only test for microplastics down to 1.6 microns, but plastic particles can get much smaller than that. Researchers have found high levels of airborne microplastics inside recycling facilities, posing a health risk to workers who may inhale these particles.

Another issue with recycling is the concept of diminishing returns. While it may seem like a plastic bottle can be recycled indefinitely, the reality is that the material degrades with each recycling cycle. This means that a plastic bottle can only be recycled a few times before it becomes too degraded to be recycled again. Recycling, therefore, is not a perfect solution, but rather a temporary fix that prolongs the life of plastic before it ultimately ends up as waste.

One specific example that highlights the complexities of recycling is the recent ban on PLA (polylactic acid) in certain places. PLA is a type of biodegradable plastic that is often touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastics. However, the ban on PLA in certain locations has raised questions about its true environmental impact.

The ban on PLA stems from the fact that it is often mixed with traditional plastics during the recycling process. This mixing affects the properties of PLA and makes it difficult to recycle effectively. As a result, PLA ends up being treated as regular plastic waste, defeating its purpose as a biodegradable material.

It's important to note that the responsibility for environmental friendliness does not solely lie in the material itself. PLA does have advantages over traditional plastics in terms of its source and biodegradability. However, the issue lies in the way it is handled in the recycling process, which ultimately affects its recyclability and environmental impact.

So, what can we do to address these issues and reduce microplastic pollution while still promoting recycling? Here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Invest in better recycling technologies: Developing and implementing advanced recycling technologies that minimize the generation of microplastics should be a priority. This can include better sorting and separation techniques to prevent plastic from breaking down into smaller fragments.
  • 2. Promote responsible consumption: While recycling is important, it should not be seen as a solution to our plastic waste problem. We need to focus on reducing our overall plastic consumption and promoting the use of sustainable alternatives. This can include using reusable products, avoiding single-use plastics, and supporting businesses that prioritize environmental sustainability.
  • 3. Educate and raise awareness: Many people are still unaware of the complexities and limitations of recycling. By educating the public about the challenges of recycling and the potential for microplastic pollution, we can encourage more informed choices and support for sustainable waste management practices.

In conclusion, recycling may not be the perfect solution to plastic pollution. While it helps to divert plastic waste from landfills, it also contributes to microplastic pollution through the breakdown of plastic during the recycling process. It is crucial to invest in better recycling technologies, promote responsible consumption, and raise awareness about the limitations of recycling to address these issues effectively. Only through a comprehensive approach can we hope to tackle the growing problem of plastic pollution and safeguard our environment for future generations.

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