Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The 3 R’s. Basically the everyday American’s system for living a “greener” lifestyle. But are the 3 R’s really working to solve the plastic crisis that’s sweeping our planet? Reduce and reuse definitely — they eliminate single-use plastics at the source, decrease demand, and allow us to produce fewer single-use plastic products that will inevitably end up in oceans and landfills. But is recycling the solution on the back end? Is it really helping to eliminate plastic waste in our oceans and landfills? We’ve treated recycling like a cure-all for the plastic disease taking over our planet when in reality, the system is struggling, and barely catches a small fraction of the total plastic waste produced and disposed of yearly.
Let us break it down for you. When plastic gets recycled, it very rarely is truly recycled into a product of the same quality as it was previously. Most often, things are downcycled into a product of lesser quality. Most plastics can only handle one extra life cycle through this process. They then are no longer suitable to be recycled and are disposed of in a landfill or incinerator. So, while we get a little bit more time out of that material, we still reach the same end result. The recycling system is also much more complex than most people think. There are 7 different types of plastics, all of which must be sorted from each other during the recycling process. And most small objects, like straws and bottle caps, quite literally slip through the cracks and are too small to be recycled. Materials also have to be cleaned in order to be recycled, so anything with food remains on it is often sorted out for landfill disposal.
In 2017, the US produced over 35 million tons of plastic waste. Of that plastic waste, only about 3 million tons were recycled, and about 5.5 million tons were combusted with energy recovery. The other 26.5 million tons were landfilled. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong. So what’s the solution? If we can’t rely on recycling to make a better end-of-life for single-use plastic products, what can we do? The first thing is to realize that single-use packaging isn’t the problem. The problem here is that we chose to make products meant to be used for 5 minutes from a material meant to last for hundreds of years. The true solution to the plastic epidemic is changing the material: bringing on the bioplastic future.
Compostable bioplastics solve the issue of our overflowing landfills and polluted oceans. PLA (polylactic acids)-based compounds will break down in commercial compost settings in under 3 months. Materials in the PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) family will break down in home compost in under a year, as well as in landfills and marine environments if it accidentally ends up there. Between these two materials, we have the ability to completely change the face of the single-use industry. Not only do compostables have a better end-of-life than petroleum-based plastics, but they have a better beginning-of-life too. There are no toxic chemicals involved, no usage of “old carbon.” And their life cycles are completely circular, as the compost created at the end of their lives can be used to support the growth of the sugar cane, canola plants, or starches they are made from.
The 3 R’s were a great place to start. But it’s now time to adjust our thinking for the ever-changing society we live in and the planet we live on. Recycling can’t do it alone. The system is too complex and selective to actually make a dent in the amount of plastic waste we produce yearly. By beginning the transition to bioplastics, we will be making a greater impact on the planet than we can imagine. Mother Nature is depending on us, and it’s time we stepped up and did something about it.