Plastic recycling: So much plastic is really recycled

Recycling von Kunststoffen: So viel Plastik wird wirklich recycelt

Plastic is a versatile material that brings many advantages. It is robust and flexible at the same time and can be made into any shape, color and hardness level. Due to its practical properties, it is impossible to imagine our everyday life and our industry without it.

However, it is the disadvantages of plastic that our environment is increasingly suffering from: the longevity of this product. In addition, it consists of up to 90% of a fossil, finite raw material, namely crude oil. This must first be extracted at great expense, e.g. through deep drilling or the heavily criticized fracking.

Once plastic has been produced, it becomes our undoing. Because plastic products are not so easy to break down. A PET bottle takes up to 450 years to dissolve. Whereas "dissolve" is not quite right here, it breaks down into smaller and smaller plastic particles - microplastic - which threatens our oceans and (marine) life. A plastic bag is only used for 20 minutes on average before it is disposed of. Every year, we Germans consume around 2 billion plastic bags. In total, we in Germany consume the most packaging waste in Europe!

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But that's why we recycle so much! Or?

Recycling is a good thing in and of itself! Plastic products can thus be reused and do not have to be incinerated, nor do they end up in landfills abroad. So plastic that has already been used can be converted into a plastic recyclate through various treatment processes, from which new plastic is created. So no new petroleum is needed for new products, but resources that have already been used can be reused.

If it were that simple... Because there are quite a few hurdles in this process.

The first problem is that not everything that ends up in the yellow garbage can actually belongs there. Every day, things are disposed of incorrectly. Only about a third of the packaging that belongs in the yellow bag ends up there. And about 40-50% of the products that end up in the yellow bag do not belong there!

Our tip: Inform yourself about the correct waste separation and thus avoid the so-called interfering materials in your yellow bag.

This brings us to problem number two. Once the yellow garbage cans have been emptied and have arrived at the recycling plant, the interfering materials must now be sorted out in time-consuming steps. In addition, the different types of plastic must also be sorted and separated according to their recyclability.

This is because very many plastic products consist of different plastics. For example, the classic yogurt cup consists of an aluminum lid and a plastic cup. As long as these two things are not thrown into the trash separately, the plastic cup cannot be recycled and will be sorted out by the machine and thus incinerated. Black plastic products also cannot be recycled because the laser cannot detect these products due to their color.

With the help of eddy current separators, magnets, near-infrared separators and scanners, and sometimes manually, the various materials are separated from one another. After the plastics have been separated by type, they are washed and shredded. Then they are processed into a granulate called recyclate, from which new plastic can be obtained. Since only sorted materials can be recycled, only 58% of our yellow bin can be recycled at all.

Due to the manufacturers of plastic products, who combine different plastic thicknesses in one film, mixed ratios are created that are no longer recyclable and thus contribute a significant part to the fact that so much waste remains in the end.

Recycled and then?

If we now follow the path of recycled plastic, it quickly becomes clear that there are further difficulties. Recycled plastic is twice as expensive to produce as new petroleum-based plastic. As a result of the Corona crisis, the price of petroleum has dropped significantly once again, creating even less incentive to use recyclates instead of new plastic. As a result, some plants have recently had to be shut down completely, while others continue to operate at low capacity. Yet recycled plastic saves up to 50% of the greenhouse emissions generated by new plastic. However, due to the complex extraction process, recycled plastic costs twice as much as common PET plastic if the plants cover their costs. Thus, for a ton of PET, one pays 600-700€, for a ton of recyclate 1,200-1,500€. Conversely, this means that although 58% was recycled in 2020, in the end the factories are left sitting on their products because the companies fall back on the cheaper variant.

Another problem is that recyclates are not suitable for all products. After initial and often one-time use, the plastic product loses 90% of its value. They are considered low-quality plastic and cannot be used, for example, for packaging that comes into contact with food, such as cheese or sausage packaging. However, they are fine for products such as laundry detergent and the like.

Our tip: To all consumers, when shopping, make sure you buy products made from recycled or recyclable plastic. Avoid black plastic products. And separate different thicknesses of plastic from each other (yogurt pots and lids, etc.).

Thermal recycling

But what happens to the waste that cannot be recycled? It is incinerated, in technical jargon called "thermal recycling". When waste is incinerated, however, this also means that two thirds of the energy is wasted that could be achieved if the packaging were recyclable.

There are now two options. One is the classic waste incineration plant, which has appropriate filters for the exhaust gases. Unfortunately, however, the plastic waste is often sold to energy-intensive companies such as cement works, which thereby reduce their energy costs. The consequence of this is that an enormous amount of pollution is caused by the lack of exhaust systems.

No matter where it is burned, residues remain. Ash and gases, which are environmentally harmful to toxic. These have to go somewhere! So many companies dispose of them in old salt mines, deep underground. The salinized environment is supposed to prevent the toxic substances from escaping from the deposits and getting into the soil. However, this cannot be guaranteed 100%. Nevertheless, up to 40 truckloads with about 1000 tons each end up there every day.

On the one hand, the incineration of the plastic waste can be used as a source of energy, but on the other hand, toxic ash and gases remain, which in turn have to be disposed of. This again shows the biggest problem with plastic products: We can't really get rid of the waste.

Waste export

Despite these possibilities, there are still about one million tons of plastic waste that are exported abroad every year. Germany simply produces too much waste; in 2018, there were 417.2 million tons of waste. Since there is not enough capacity to process this plastic waste, it is sold abroad - and with it the problems it would cause us here.

This is because the waste continues to exist in the countries of arrival and causes major ecological as well as social problems there. Illegal waste containers with mixed ratios regularly arrive in the countries, which cannot be recycled there. In total, sometimes only around 10% of the waste abroad can really be recycled. The rest is incinerated or dumped under low environmental standards and controls, ending up in rivers and oceans. Nevertheless, every ton that goes abroad with the intention of being recycled there is included in our German recycling quota!

The burning of the waste takes place in the open air, whereby strong emissions and pollutants are released unhindered into nature. Not only the environment suffers, but also the populations, since air, soils and waters pollute. People often lose their livelihoods or can no longer survive on agriculture alone. Thus, they have to eke out a living as garbage collectors at landfills and try to fish usable items from the garbage and sell them to traders.

Their health also suffers enormously because the garbage dumps are full of diseases and germs. The big plastic problem not only negatively affects the lands and fields, but also the fisheries. The plastic is displacing fish stocks and polluting entire oceans. The affluent waste of the Germans is becoming the undoing of the countries and their environment. That is why China imposed a garbage import ban in 2017 and no longer accepts foreign plastic waste. Unfortunately, this has not led to a rethinking and more conscious consumption in our society, but only to the fact that the garbage was distributed to other countries. An extreme problem with the export of garbage is that consistently impure waste, consisting of mixed ratios is exported abroad, which is actually forbidden. However, due to poor control facilities, falsely declared garbage regularly enters the country and causes immense problems for the people, as the garbage cannot be recycled.

Another disadvantage arises from the export of plastic waste, because due to the cheaper labor abroad, the recyclate produced there can also be sold more cheaply. This creates new competition in the price war for the cheap recycled plastic.

In addition, the recycling process abroad can only be poorly controlled, which sometimes leads to counterfeiting and false declarations. This is a setback for German recycling companies. The recycling process is complex and cost-intensive and so they can hardly keep up with the competition. But this also means a setback for the recycling rate in Germany. Regional factories have to shut down their operations and untested recyclates are shipped hundreds of kilometers to pass themselves off as recycled plastic here. That's the opposite of sustainable.

So what?

Despite the awareness of the extreme disadvantages of plastic, especially when mixed, only a very slow rethinking is taking place. Stricter restrictions and laws on packaging production, waste separation and waste disposal would have to come from politics in particular. Unfortunately, the urgency of this problem receives little attention there.

But what can we do now if we do not want to continue to stand idly by?

  • Avoid plastic products as much as possible.
  • Proper waste separation!

Our store offers you a suitable alternative to plastic products:

Our #IAMPLASTICFREE bags and straws offer you plastic-free alternatives to conventional plastic products, without having to forego the advantages of the regular plastic bag or straw.

Our bags degrade within about 90 days on the home compost and are therefore completely harmless. But also our straws can be easily degraded due to their ideal lifecycle.

Because the drinking straw is made from sustainable and renewable raw materials from the EU, i.e. from biogenic waste. This means NO petroleum! This means it can be converted into CO2, water and biomass in industrial composting plants. So there are no leftovers that have to be stored in salt buildings deep underground, nor does the drinking straw have to be shipped abroad, where it then causes further problems.

Should our products accidentally end up in the environment, they decompose and do not cause any problems for nature and wildlife. To see all the advantages of our plastic-free drinking straws at a glance, just check out here .

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