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Recycled Plastic v/s Virgin Plastic: What’s Better for the Planet?

It’s quite ironic how we end up using plastic in a matter of minutes only to have it last upto a thousand years. Today, an unending mountain of single-use plastic waste is weighing heavily on the planet and recycling seems to be the only solution in sight. But is it the better alternative?

Key Takeaways:
Virgin Plastics

New plastics are made from petrochemicals such as natural gas or crude oil, otherwise known as fossil fuels that are non-renewable resources. In the early ’60s plastics began to be cheaply mass produced and became a boon to the food and beverage packaging, healthcare, automotive and construction industries. However, over a period of time single-use plastics eventually proved to be a bane and a threat to our environment. 

According to a global analysis of all plastics ever made, 8.3 billion metric tons of it have been produced to date, of which 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste and only 9% has been recycled. The vast majority (79%) is piling up in landfills or sloughing off in our environment as junk. And at some point much of that plastic waste will end up in our oceans.

Unfortunately, the pandemic caused a major setback in single-use plastic bans as face masks, sanitisers and shields became crucial to safety and protection from the virus. 2020’s big oil crash didn’t help either since the cost of virgin plastic tremendously decreased as a result of it as well, creating a big demand for it all over again.

Recycled Plastics

A derivative of discarded virgin plastic, recycled plastic is made from different forms of post-consumer or post-industrial plastics. While using recycled plastic as opposed to new (or virgin) plastic seems like a great way to tackle an increasing mountain of plastic waste, reality is a lot more complicated than that. 

For one, not all forms of post-consumer plastic are recyclable. Items like disposable bags, straws and coffee cups, to name a few can’t be recycled. And second, recycling is pretty expensive — it costs approximately $4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags. And the selling price of these recycled bags is twice the cost. 

At this point, transparent PET bottles are the only single-use plastic commodity that have been successfully recycled. Brands like Adidas, Reformation and Everlane are using ocean-bound plastic waste and PET bottles to make shoes, activewear and swimsuits. However, none of these advances change the fact that even recycled plastic by-products shed microfibres and will be discarded at some point, where they won’t biodegrade.

The Jury Is Still out on Plastics

Recycling is a short-term answer to the problem of plastic waste, but not a long-term preventative solution. While recycled plastic may still be the better choice when compared to virgin plastic, advancements still need to be made to keep plastics out of the landfill and in use for longer. Moving to a circular economy where plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable is one way to look at it. 

Plant-based plastics or bioplastics can biodegrade given the right kind of composter but companies have been slow to incorporate the material due to high costs. Research by BBC claims that a burger box made from sugarcane is almost twice as expensive as one made from polystyrene. While a biodegradable take-away spoon made from plant starch would cost 3.5 times more than a basic white plastic one.

In an ideal world, our dependence on plastic would cease to exist but since we aren’t there yet, any alternative that can reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment is a welcome step in the right direction.

Published by: Vibhuti Vazirani/ 2021-01-16

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