By Bailey Adams | Originally Published February 15, 2023
As college students, we come in contact with plastic every day from the moment we wake up — plastic food packaging, toothbrushes, school supplies and there’s even the plastic that we do not see. Brenna Edwards, a junior liberal arts major sums it up perfectly: “It’s all around us. For example, our clothes will be on this planet longer than us, due to the polyester. It’s disappointing to think that this could be our legacy if we don’t start making changes, not only on a governmental scale, but personally, too.” We have been taught that plastic waste is harmful and we need to recycle, but what if recycling plastic is just not enough?
Plastics are coded as No’s. 1-7 based on their composition, and this code, usually stamped into the plastic in a small triangle, is what helps consumers know which items can be put in the recycling and which items they need to discard in the trash. The plastics you can recycle are based on what your local recycling center will accept, so that is the first step in knowing how to recycle properly. Most centers will take No.1 and No.2, and at Rider you can recycle No.1, No.2 and No.5 plastics. Some municipalities will accept a multitude of plastics, but that does not mean they actually recycle them. The recycling center for the City of Knoxville, Tennessee, accepts No. 3-7 plastics, but ends up sending them to the landfills because there is little to no economic value in recycling these types of plastics, according to Greenpeace, a nonprofit organization focused on helping the environment and spreading education. A Greenpeace survey in 2020 concluded that most plastic recycling is “economically impossible.”
Some types of plastics are physically difficult to recycle, such as straws, bottle caps and utensils. Due to their size, they fall through sorting lines, and it is easier for recycling centers to dispose of these items in landfills than it is to deal with the interruptions of reprocessing or innovating new technologies for hard-to-recycle plastics, according to Green Dining Alliance, a restaurant sustainability certification program.
The process of recycling plastics can have largely negative effects on the environment. Styrofoam was a widely-used material until very recently, now that we have new bans in local states. Many takeout containers were made of styrofoam since it is such a great insulator, but its insulating property comes from its main material, polystyrene, which has a high heat resistance. Polystyrene is commonly used in plastic utensils and clear food packaging. This No. 6 plastic’s property of heat resistance makes it difficult to recycle because of the high temperatures and energy use involved, which means almost all of it will be sent to the landfills. However, polystyrene does not just take up space sitting in landfills, but it is easily broken into smaller pieces, making it one of the most commonly found microplastics on Earth according to Pollution Tracker from Ocean Wise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans.
When plastics are sent to the landfills, they never decompose because they are not organic. Wind and rain brings plastic trash out of landfills and through waterways, with “garbage emergencies” being declared in places such as Bali and Durban, according to Plastic Soup Foundation, a nonprofit marine conservation organization that aims to reduce plastic pollution.. The crisis of microplastics is growing rapidly with evidence of plastic being found in our food, water and air. There are studies that show microplastics can affect human health through “oxidative stress, DNA damage and inflammation,” and that “the surface of microplastics in the environment are colonized by microorganisms, some of which have been identified as human pathogens,” according to the Plastic Health Coalition, a group of organizations dedicated to studying the impact of plastic consumption and microplastics on the human body. Trends show the issues regarding microplastic accumulation and health impacts are only going to get worse as our global plastic production skyrockets with half of the world’s plastic material having been produced within only the last 13 years, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation. Students at Rider are voicing their concerns, such as Jacquelyn Cook, a junior environmental science major, who said, “The human health impacts are even more of a reason to stop using plastics from the get-go, rather than hope they get recycled after being used.”
Corporations need to commit to a more circular economy, a concept in which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — a charity committed to creating a circular economy — claims is based on three principles: eliminating waste, circulating materials and regenerating nature. The clothing company Patagonia has been an example of this circular economy for almost two decades. The brand understood the issue of plastic pollution caused by the fashion industry and wanted to create a clothing line that would never end up in the landfill. A brand following a circular economy in fashion would prioritize high quality of their products to prevent damage and premature disposal, and they would close the loop by taking back their products to repair them or even repurpose them and resell them. Patagonia has taken this practice and evolved it over the years, with their Worn Wear initiative now part of their online platform allowing customers to shop second hand directly from their store. However, they value their new clothing lines more because of the profit and admit that even with their advances toward a circular economy, “the bar is low,” and they have a lot of room for improvement.
As consumers, now is the time for us to step up and change the game when it comes to plastic consumption. Classic supply and demand will tell us: if we stop consuming, they will stop producing. Plastic has only been around since 1907 and has already caused so much damage. We have seen some progress in the past couple of years with local bans on plastic straws and bags, but we need to make bigger changes. Refuse plastic and use a reusable option whenever possible, and be sure to use recycling services properly to ensure items have the best chance at being reprocessed. Be informed on the dangers of plastic, because the effect is not just on our environment — it is affecting all of us.
For more information about recycling, visit broncsgogreen.com and stay up to date with our Campus Race to Zero Waste to find out what you can do.