Plastics have been defined as the “workhorse materials of the modern economy”, and in fact they are. Although recently many efforts have been made towards shrinking their consumption, it still has enormous dimensions: plastics production reached its peak in 2019 with a global amount of 368 million metric tons, then started to slightly decrease (0.3 % in 2020). This is undeniable because: plastic is a formidable material, cheap to produce, easy to transport and to adapt to many different usages: a big percentage of the things we touch and use everyday is made by plastic. Indeed, this material is not evil per se. Due to the deregulated production, which has been going on from the fifties, and the inadequate end of life solutions it has turned into a massive pollution problem.
One of the very well known characteristics of plastic is its very long-lasting durability. How many visuals have we all seen in how many years would it take a bottle of water or a fishing net to dissolve itself into the ocean where it is abandoned?
What makes this material so convenient for production also represents the burden it gives to the environment. Nevertheless, here comes the possibility to take advantage of this characteristic reusing and re-entering in the supply chain those products, maybe in a another form or for another usage as RubyMoon is doing with its ethical swim and activewear made by regenerate fishing nets.
If circularity and lengthening plastic products life cycle is definitely the one way to go, in order to do so it is essential to know more about this material. First of all, plural is due, in fact, there is no such a thing as “plastic”, but there have been categorized seven different types of it:
1 PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate)
We’re holding some of that each time we drink from a bottle of water, or we’re using a food container for sauces or similar. The good news is: it can be recycled over and over to reproduce the same or products, generally blending it with a part of virgin material.
Usages of recycled PET : Fibers for clothing, home textiles (duvets, pillows, carpeting), automotive parts (carpets, sound insulation, boot linings, seat covers) and many more.
2 HDPE (High density polyethylene)
Each time we take a shower, there’s a high possibility we’re using some of it, shampoo bottles, hygiene and cleaning containers are generally made of it. Comparing it to other polymers, it has a higher density, which makes it a very good resistance for chemical products, hence its widespread use in laboratories. It also can be recycled, relatively easily, and it is proven that the cycle can be repeated up to ten times.
Usages of recycled HDPE: rope, toys, Sheeting and film plastic, recycled bins and many others.
3 PVC (Polyvinyl chloride)
It is soft and flexible to generally use for pieces of furniture, kids toys, trays etc. not all the usages of PVC can be recycled, for instance to-go coffee cups are often made partially by PVC and partially by paper, the process to separate the two is too difficult or too expensive so those, together with bubble wrap, plastic bags and straws, have no chances to be recycled. Nevertheless some usages of recycled PVC are possible and already in commerce: construction materials, isolation items and similar.
4 LDPE (Low density polyethylene)
The thin plastic layer that wraps your sandwich or your newspaper is generally LDPE, it is relatively transparent, as well as being flexible and tough. Even though it disintegrates itself faster than other kinds of plastics, it still threatens the environment since it’s one of the most common one. It can be recycled, however how good and easily this can be done depends on the consistency and specific characteristics of the material, generally the rule is: the more rigid LDPE is, the higher possibilities to recycle it there are.
Once recycled it can become: shipping envelopes, furniture, plastic films, paneling and many others.
5 PP (Polypropylene)
It is used for food containers such as the ones for yogurt, margarine etc, it can also be used for rope, carpet and others. It is not the most widespread plastic recycling process even though according to its long durability (up to 30 years) should be implemented.
Products that can emerge from the process are: clothing fibers, industrial fibers, food containers, dishware and others.
6 PS (Polystyrene)
All the Styrofoam products are made out of PS plastic, which means all the to-go food and drinks containers (the empire of deliveries) use this material, this because it is exceptionally clear and naturally glassy. It can be 100% recycled, and it will become: casings for electronics, desk trays, foodservice items, packaging material etc.
In this last category go all the plastics which couldn’t fit in one of the upper ones, plus all the products made of a mixture of different types. This is the reason why they are not easily recycled, in fact all the recycling processes start with the cleaning and separation of the material that can then be melted or chemical altered etc. in this case separating the single parts is impossible, very hard to do or simply unaffordable.
As almost all of those categories nowadays have alternative solutions to landfill, the awareness is increasing both on the consumer side and on the governmental one. If brand like WAYZ or Circonstance that create new fashionable and stylish products from recycled plastic are spreading and acquiring more more audience, they are more than supported by the European Union: its main initiative on the matter is: The Circular Plastics Alliance which has committed to boosting the EU market for recycled plastics to 10 million tonnes by 2025, supporting and promoting those brands which are committing to that and educating responsible consumption.
The bottom line is, plastic is just a material, an incredibly useful one. The responsibility on whether or not turning it into a massive threat for our environment is just on us, every time we buy a pair of shoes, or we fill our reusable bottle instead of buying a new one, ultimately, every time we choose circular over linear.
Written by Marta Busetto