There is an ongoing debate over whether the world should continue attempting to recycle post-consumer plastics. As the thinking goes, post-consumer plastic recycling has been a colossal failure to date, and continuing to do it doesn’t make sense. The better choice is to ban plastic altogether. But is it?
A new economic viability study out of Europe suggests that certain types of plastics normally associated with consumer use can be recycled in an economically viable way. The study distinguishes between what can and cannot be recycled effectively by establishing a new class of plastics: non-household plastics.
Both Consumer and Industrial
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Surrey and Ghent University, defines non-household plastics as plastics that are used in commercial settings despite also being used for consumer purposes. Plastic film is one of the items cited by the study.
Plastic film is used as a food wrapping. When you go to the grocery store and buy a tub of ground beef for example, the tub is likely sealed with plastic film. That same plastic film is utilized for packaging meats for restaurants, hotels, and large-scale commercial kitchens. It is considered post-consumer plastic when you throw it away. But it is considered non-household plastic when commercial kitchens throw it away.
What the Study Found
Researchers looked at how much non-household plastic would have to be collected and recycled to make an operation financially viable. They analyzed the costs of collection and recycling as compared to the amount of money recyclers could generate by selling the recycled material on the open market.
In the end, the researchers determined that collecting and recycling 10,500 metric tons annually would make recycling profitable. The researchers also say that there is enough non-household plastic waste in European cities to make recycling work.
The researchers also say that successfully recycling most non-household plastics could reduce emissions by as much as 79% when compared to landfilling and incinerating them. That number seems a bit high, but it is what it is.
No Different Than Industrial Recycling
There is no reason to doubt the conclusion reached by the European researchers. What they are proposing is no different than what we already do in the industrial plastic recycling industry. Perhaps we are not collecting and recycling plastic film, but we are recycling plastic cutoffs, plastic purge, collapsible trays, buckets, and other types of industrial plastics.
To us, the most interesting thing about the European study is distinguishing between consumer and non-household plastic film. It is the same film being used to seal both consumer and commercial food containers. It’s just that one food container ends up in a home and the other in a restaurant.
Why can it be successfully recycled in non-household environments but not in the post-consumer world? It boils down to two words: cleanliness and separation. Those two words also explain why we can make money recycling industrial scrap plastic while municipalities lose money on post-consumer recycling.
It Can Be Made to Work
What we do at Seraphim Plastics demonstrates that recycling can be made to work under the right conditions. If you keep plastics separated and free from contamination, they can be recycled and put back into service. The question is whether it can be done in a financially viable way.
University of Surrey and Ghent University researchers believe non-household plastics can be recycled at a profit. Doing so requires the right process done at scale, but it can be done. Now, will someone step up and actually do it? That remains to be seen.