Can't we recycle all plastic?
I recently helped organize a watch party for The Reusies at Arizona State University. Before the show started, I gave a short presentation giving context on why The Reusies exists. I spoke about plastics in the ocean, recycling, and how these things have become the catalyst for people to create novel reuse systems.
During the presentation, there was a student in the third row who kept wincing every couple of minutes. It was distracting but I kept my composure. I wondered, is this kid's calf cramping up, or am I saying something really offensive?
I got to the last slide of my presentation and opened up to questions. The wincing kid raised his hand. Before he said his first word, I could see the tension unravel from his body. With the same relief one has from going to the bathroom after holding it in for a long time, the kid asked, "You said only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled but, can't we recycle it all?"
He continued, "Can't we take all the plastic from the ocean and recycle it? ”
If only solving wicked problems were that easy. I gave the student the following response:
There's a difference between what is possible and what is practical.
Yes, we can, theoretically, recycle all plastic. But, it would be unbelievably expensive and would have an ecological impact one thousand times worse than recycling nothing at all.
We would need to recover all the plastic we missed: the plastic that we littered on the highway, in landfills, in the ocean. We'd need to build waste infrastructure in every country that can’t afford it. After all that, we’d then need the plants to recycle it.
It's so impractical that thinking about it as a possibility isn't helpful.
Nobody ever argues for 100% success (besides politicians) because it's impractical. The energy needed to go from 99% - 100% is the same as going from 0% - 65%. At a certain point, you get diminishing returns.
The student pivoted and asked, "What about putting everything in aluminum?"
We recycle aluminum at a high rate but it's expensive. Even when recycled, it has a high footprint because melting metal to remold it into something new is inefficient. And aluminum doesn't work for things like candy wrappers or football helmets.
Recycling, which breaks down packages to their molecular components to use them again in the manufacturing process, is inefficient. Which is one reason there is such a strong movement toward reuse. We all watched The Reusies stream and were amazed by the innovative work people are doing. As we watched the show, I noticed the kid had stopped wincing and, instead, was nodding.
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