Plastic recycling and steps towards circular economy

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The traditional model of consumption and economy - take, make, use, dispose - is not sustainable. Humans have been depleting valuable natural resources at a rate higher than can be reproduced. This has had knock-on effects with the climate and the health of the environment.Nowadays, people are becoming more cognisant of their impact on the planet. This is where the circular economy model - reduce, reuse, recycle - makes more sense. Once products are no longer useful, they are reused or recycled. They are added back into the supply chain and their residual value is retained as they are resold.When it comes to plastic waste, the materials may be recyclable but this does not mean that they can be reused forever. In reality, plastic products can only be recycled a few times before the fibres become too short and brittle to reproduce other items. For this reason, more sustainable alternatives are being developed. Biodegradable plastics are being refined and produced from plant-based polymers. These types of plastic can decompose when discarded and don’t leach any toxic chemicals into the environment in the process - unlike regular plastics. Biodegradable plastics are more expensive to produce, so for the moment, the world will continue to produce cheap ‘virgin plastic’. So what steps need to be taken to ensure that this plastic is recycled and reused once discarded, and in so doing, creating a circular economy? Improving recycling rates depends on several complex factors.

People need to embrace recycling

The first step to creating a circular economy is to get people on board and encourage them to actively participate in recycling. In general, South Africans are good at recycling when the bins are made readily available. Household recycling rates have also improved in recent years.However, when it comes to large events and gatherings, the recycling rates of waste produced at these events need to be improved. The organisers of festivals, conferences and public gatherings need to ensure that recycling bins are placed all around the venue. This will encourage attendees to participate and dispose of their waste in the correct manner.Another issue is awareness of what plastic waste items can and cannot be recycled. Not all plastic is recyclable, such as cling film and hard electronic housings. Signs can be placed above plastic recycling bins to show people what type of plastic can be placed in the bin. Schools and universities can also educate students about recycling and what materials are suitable for the bins on campuses.

Manufacturers can make their products easier to recycle

One factor that determines the recyclability of plastic is the colour. Plastic products are often sold as brightly coloured or patterned items that attract the eye of the consumer. Unfortunately, when all of these colourful plastics are recycled, their colours mix and the resulting plastic is a brownish-grey. This is not a desirable colour for manufacturers and sellers, so it does limit the reuptake of recycled plastic.Another problem that hinders the recyclability of plastic is the way in which it is produced. Manufacturers have come up with many clever ways to make their plastic products more durable and tough. Unfortunately, these innovative solutions make the products harder (even impossible) to recycle.

Recycling facilities need upgrading

With tougher plastics comes the need to upgrade recycling facilities to allow them to process these new plastics. The quality of recycled plastic is an important factor for manufacturers willing to buy it. This quality is directly affected by food contamination, labels and other plastics getting in the mix.If recycling facilities are upgraded to better sort and clean plastics, the quality of the output product will be better. This requires large capital expenditure for automation and equipment, which renders it unattainable for many recycling facilities in developing countries. This is why many recycling facilities in South Africa still use manual labour to sort and process plastics.This is where public-private partnerships can work. Support from the government can help to boost the capital expenditure put in by private recycling companies to upgrade the infrastructure and technology. These steps will help to improve recycling and establish a proper circular economy. Citizens need to actively participate in recycling efforts, plastic manufacturers can improve their products and recycling facilities can upgrade their processes. These actions will minimise our impact on the environment and drastically reduce the volume of plastic waste.___Averda is a leading waste management provider with over 50 years of experience across three continents. Through growth, transformation and engagement, we strive to find new ways of managing waste while protecting the community and environment. ___By pairing international expertise with local insights, we have secured our position as one of South Africa’s most respected providers of waste management and industrial cleaning services. We also operate in the recycling, pipe inspection, CCTV, infrastructure inspection, hydro-demolition, high-pressure water jetting and catalyst handling industries. ___Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for the best tips on recycling and the latest industry news. See our Instagram and YouTube channels for more insights into environmental affairs and our work with local communities.