A month or so into the start of the COVID pandemic, businesses and governments began calling for a return to disposable plastic products covering everything from grocery bags to disposable utensils. The thinking at the time was that disposable plastic items would slow down the transmission of coronavirus. A year later, many of those items are still with us.
There has been much debate over whether or not coronavirus can continue to exist on surfaces a long enough to infect others who come in contact with those surfaces. The science is inconclusive either way. Still, it would seem that the demand for disposable plastic products would decline as infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths declined. That does not appear to have happened.
We find this rather curious. After all, wasn’t the point behind banning plastic straws and grocery bags all about eliminating the danger they pose to the environment? And if so, how does coronavirus make them any less dangerous?
Differences in Recycling Methods
Do not misunderstand. We are not advocating for or against consumer plastics. Our aim here is to point out that the difficulties of recycling consumer plastics become apparent under the light of our collective COVID response.
Here at Seraphim Plastics, we specialize in recycling industrial plastic waste. We buy scrap plastic from manufacturers who produce tons of it through injection mold processes. We buy scrap plastic from companies looking to dispose of everything from pallets to plastic buckets.
Our advantage is this: the plastics we purchase are ‘clean’ in the sense that they are not mixed with other materials that get in the way of efficient recycling. It’s easy for us to grind down industrial plastic waste and, after running it through a series of magnets to remove metal contaminants, sell it to manufacturers.
Consumer plastics are not so easily recycled. That’s why we don’t deal with them. The only consumer items we do recycle are empty PET water bottles already in bales. All other consumer plastics we leave to municipal recycling programs.
Consumer Plastic Isn’t Clean
The difficulty with recycling consumer plastics is that they are not clean. For example, a plastic milk jug involves two different types of plastic – one type for the jug itself and another for the cap. There is also a paper label attached to the jug along with glue that holds it in place. A recycler cannot just grind up milk jugs and resell the material. The two types of plastic have to be separated, then the jug has to go through a process to remove the paper label and glue.
For this reason, recycling consumer plastics is more costly and labor-intensive. Recyclers cannot cover their costs because virgin plastic is so cheap. So, whether we like it or not, the vast majority of consumer plastics end up in landfills anyway.
It’s Why We Use Paper Bags
Inefficiency and cost are the two main reasons so many consumer plastics don’t get recycled. They are why we use things like paper grocery bags and straws; why people purchase fabric bags to take with them when they go shopping. Yet many of our reusable products have been shunned due to fears over coronavirus.
At some point, it would seem the world would reach a tipping point at which the benefits of using consumer plastics are no longer justified by coronavirus fears. At that point, the harm done by consumer plastics is greater than the risk of COVID itself. That’s the point at which we will once again abandon our plastics in favor of reusable products. Have we reached that point yet?