The Problem with Recycling: Microplastics and the Ban on PLA

Alfred Tang

Hatched by Alfred Tang

Sep 20, 2023

4 min read


The Problem with Recycling: Microplastics and the Ban on PLA

Recycling has long been hailed as a solution to the growing problem of plastic waste. By reusing materials instead of producing new ones, we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and decrease the amount of plastic ending up in landfills and oceans. However, recent studies have shown that recycling itself may not be as effective or environmentally friendly as we once thought.

One of the major issues with recycling is the production of microplastics. Even when plastic makes it to a recycling center, it can still end up splintering into smaller bits. In fact, researchers have found that a single recycling facility could emit up to 6.5 million pounds of microplastic per year. These particles can then enter wastewater and, ultimately, our ecosystems. One study found that wastewater contained up to 75 billion microplastic particles per cubic meter.

What's even more concerning is that traditional methods of testing for microplastics only focus on particles larger than 1.6 microns. However, plastic particles can get much smaller than that, meaning that the actual levels of microplastics could be much higher than currently estimated. Additionally, researchers have found high levels of airborne microplastics inside recycling facilities, putting workers at risk of inhaling these harmful particles.

So, what does this mean for the recycling industry? Well, it suggests that recycling a plastic bottle isn't as simple as turning it into a new bottle. Instead, it involves deconstructing the plastic and putting it back together again. This process of breaking down and reassembling the material can lead to the production of microplastics, further contributing to the pollution problem.

But microplastics aren't the only issue plaguing recycling. In some cases, well-intentioned policies can actually hinder the recycling process. Take the case of PLA, a type of biodegradable plastic. In Taiwan, starting from August 1st, 2021, PLA is banned from being used in eight major categories of facilities. This ban is due to the fact that once used, PLA ends up in the same waste stream as traditional plastics, making it difficult to separate and recycle properly.

By categorizing PLA with traditional plastics, its properties as a second-generation plastic are compromised. PLA was supposed to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastics, with its biodegradable nature and sustainable sourcing. However, by mixing PLA with traditional plastics in the recycling process, its potential for second-generation plastic is greatly diminished.

This highlights the fact that responsibility for environmental friendliness in plastics goes beyond just the material itself. It also involves proper waste management and recycling infrastructure. Without the necessary systems in place to separate and process different types of plastics, even the most sustainable materials can end up as waste.

So, what can we do to address these issues and make recycling more effective? Here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Invest in better recycling technology: To minimize the production of microplastics during the recycling process, we need improved technology that can break down and reassemble plastics without causing further pollution. Research and development in this area should be a priority.
  • 2. Improve waste management infrastructure: Proper waste management is crucial for effective recycling. By investing in better sorting and separation systems, we can ensure that different types of plastics, including PLA, are recycled appropriately and not mixed in with traditional plastics.
  • 3. Promote sustainable alternatives: While recycling is important, it should not be our only solution to the plastic waste problem. We should also focus on reducing plastic consumption and promoting sustainable alternatives, such as biodegradable materials or reusable products.

In conclusion, recycling may not be the perfect solution to the plastic waste problem. The production of microplastics during the recycling process and the challenges of properly recycling alternative plastics, like PLA, highlight the need for improvements in waste management and recycling infrastructure. To make recycling more effective, we need to invest in better technology, improve waste sorting systems, and promote sustainable alternatives to plastic. Only by addressing these issues can we truly mitigate the environmental impact of plastic waste.

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