Once discarded, plastic materials can take centuries to break down. They clog up landfills and overburden waste-processing facilities. By turning bottles, packaging and other plastic refuse into new goods, recycling helps the environment and creates new economic opportunities. Plastics recycling keeps still-useful materials out of landfills and encourages businesses to develop new and innovative products made from them.
Recycling and Plastics
While some plastics can be recycled once or twice, others are hard to recycle for technical and economic reasons. For example, recyclers typically do not accept Styrofoam, as its lightweight foam structure makes it cumbersome to deal with. Polystyrene products, such as plastic forks and compact disc cases, however, are recyclable. Other common recyclable plastic goods include vinyl packaging, medicine bottles made of polypropylene, low-density polyethylene disposable drink cups and high-density polyethylene milk bottles. Everyday examples of goods made with recycled plastics include shampoo bottles, traffic cones, floor tiles and oil funnels.
Burden on the Environment
Plastic goods are useful because they are durable, but this becomes a disadvantage when items are discarded. The natural processes that degrade many paper, cardboard and wood products in a few months don’t affect plastic materials as much. In landfills, plastics accumulate, creating a volume of refuse that never seems to go away. In nature, plastic bits and pieces become unsightly nuisances and hazards to animals. Diverting discarded plastics from the refuse stream and turning them into new goods keeps these persistent materials out of landfills and the natural environment.
The use of recycled plastics in products requires creative thinking on the part of designers, technicians and manufacturers. Innovations include construction decking made from recycled plastic, which never rots; types of sports clothing; and vehicle interiors. Artists have turned to recycled plastics for thought-provoking art projects. Although the amount of plastics they use is small compared to commercial uses, they help raise environmental awareness and inspire creative thinking.
Recycling plastics helps reduce fossil fuel consumption. According to the Energy Information Administration, 191 million barrels of crude oil were used to make plastics in 2010, or about 2.7 percent of all U.S. consumption. In addition, plastics manufacturers consumed 412 billion cubic feet of natural gas to make materials and resins; of this total, 13 billion cubic feet became plastic and 399 billion cubic feet were burned to fuel the production process. In addition to reducing the need for oil, plastic recycling saves the energy needed to produce new materials. According to Stanford University, a ton of recycled plastic saves 7,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity, or about enough energy to run a household for seven months.