Written by Corinne Newman

One solution and “next step” to all these plastic issues that feels glaringly obvious when asking “What now?” is recycling. Recycling is the thing that was drilled into us as children as the solution. Recycling and sorting your recyclables from your nonrecyclables were painted out to be the answer as to how we can help as average citizens. Doing our part to contribute to fixing the issue by being responsible for our waste. But recycling isn’t all that it may seem on the surface. Growing up with a mother who went to school for and worked in environmental hazardous waste management, I’ve been keenly aware of some of the flaws with this false promise granted to us. That recycling isn’t as simple as it can often be made out to be, and that the recycling industry is its own beast.

             The biggest hurdle for recycling effectively is the lack of “separation at source” that is happening. There is a lack of people being properly informed of what can be recycled, what needs to happen to the recycling before it is tossed in the recycling bin, and proper waste management companies that pick up recycling. Not every plastic can be recycled together. Often, different kinds of plastics need to be separated out in order to be recycled in different ways in order to complete the recycling process safely and effectively. Not only that but often plastics need to be properly cleaned out before they can be recycled too. Separating the plastics out and cleaning them properly can be time-consuming and costly for recycling plants. Recycling already isn’t the most profitable industry, so often plastics that could be recycled are ignored because the time separating them out from other wastes or from each other and then cleaning them off is deemed too costly and undesirable. This “undesirableness” could be lessened by us as consumers following local guidelines and separating out plastics at the source, in our own homes, and before tossing them into the bin. Not only separating them but rinsing them out. This is especially important for plastic bottles and cans.

             The other hurdle in the recycling industry is that, as stated before, it isn’t exactly the most profitable. Many countries keep their recycling industry afloat because that is what is seen as good. South Africa has the approach of attempting to make this industry desirable for companies to invest in by making it profitable. But that money-driven approach means that many recycling plants have “undesirable” plastic waste they won’t recycle even though the technology to do so does exist. It isn’t worth it for these companies to buy expensive equipment. This is particularly common for plastics with wax coatings such as plastic cups or food trays. Possibly through a combined effort of government subsidies to help keep it afloat alongside this capitalistic money-centered approach would make recycling a more desirable industry and seen as worth it to invest in the right equipment to recycle even “undesirable” plastics.

             Recycling isn’t perfect, but it is still a great way to help lessen the impact of plastics. Getting involved, learning your local plastic separation guidelines, and encouraging your local government to bolster the recycling industry are still ways for you to help on an individual scale.

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