Plastic has many advantages: it is lightweight, durable, cheap, and can be shaped into many forms for many uses. However, along with the convenience of using plastic products there are many environmental concerns that must be addressed.
Since the natural decomposition of plastic takes decades or even hundreds of years, there is a large accumulation of waste, and an urgent need to find alternative efficient means of recycling plastic that are also economically worthwhile.
The process of recycling starts with sorting the plastic according to type and color. After this, it is goes through a process of washing, grinding and finally melting. Different types of plastic "behave" differently during the melting stage due to differences in density of the material, therefore the big challenge in efficient recycling is separating the different types.
- Initial (closed-loop) recycling: mechanical processing to create a product that has characteristics similar to the raw material. This is the most efficient type of recycling and its success is dependent on careful sorting and separation.
- Secondary (downgrading) recycling: mechanical processing to create a product that has lesser characteristics than the original product. This is the most common type of recycling.
- Tertiary (chemical) recycling: the chemical breakdown of material into its base components such as oil. From these it is possible to make new plastics or other synthetic materials. This type of recycling isn't financially efficient as oil is cheaper than the process itself.
- Quaternary (energy return) recycling: incinerating the plastic to create energy (for example, electricity). This is the least efficient form of recycling as it does not reduce the use of crude oil needed to make plastic and is accompanied by emissions of carbon-dioxide and other pollutants.
Plastic recycling has clear advantages for the environment, such as the reduction in crude oil use, reduction of waste landfill and thus the lessening of environmental pollution. On the other hand, the infrastructures necessary for plastic collection, transportation, and the recycling itself use oil and cause the emission of pollutants.
A wide ranging research carried out by an American company found that in terms of affecting climate change, public health, and environmental pollution, the recycling of many materials, including plastic, is noticeably preferable to landfill or incineration.
Why is this important?
Polyester is the most common fiber in the clothing industry, approximately 52% of all globally manufactured fibers. The clothing industry us responsible for about 32 million out of the 57 million tons of polyester that is produced overall. As of now, only about 14% of the fibers are recycled.
Recycled polyester has a significantly lower carbon footprint than regular polyester. According to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Material Sustainability Index (Higg MSI), every kilo of recycled polyester reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 7-% compared to new polyester. Read more.
In order to stay on the trajectory of 1.5 degrees Celsius recommended by the Inter-Governmental Panel for Climate Change, we must increase the proportion of recycled fiber on the market from 14% to 90% by 2030.
The recycled polyester challenge!
The fashion industry has committed to increasing the percentage of recycled polyester from 14% to 45% by 2025. The challenge was posed by the Textile Exchange and the United Nations Framework Convention in response to climate change.
The purpose is to encourage brands to commit to this ambitious goal and then by 2030 reach the incorporation rate of 90% recycled polyester in all production.
Programs such as GOTS, Organics, and OCS promise work with manufacturers of "enriched" cotton, meaning organic fibers that are not mixed with regular fibers.
The negative environmental effects come at an earlier stage in the life cycle of natural fibers such as cotton, linen, and canvas. Their production involves the intensive use of water and pesticides. Nonetheless, after manufacture, these natural cloths function on a more sustainable manner since they are on the whole recyclable and totally biodegradable.
Organic cotton production reduces negative effects by the prohibition of the use of pesticides, reduction of the use of water, improved fertility of the land, and the creation of improved health and work conditions for the agricultural community. A study by the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton agriculture reduced the potential of global heating of the produce by 46% compared to regular cotton.
Synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon are based on oil, which has major impacts on the environment and climate, including a high level of greenhouse gas emissions in its production and fiber processing. On the other hand, synthetic fabrics usually use less water, last longer and can be made from recycled plastic.
Today, polyester is mostly recycled from plastic water bottles, as the recycling industry and demand for recycled and ecological fabrics increases so will the need to explore and find new solutions.
In conclusion, one can look at recycling as a method of reducing environmental damage and depletion of natural resources on the one hand, and a waste management strategy, on the other. Together as a community, let's adopt a more appropriate consumer culture for our world, buy quality products that last a long time, recycle products and not throw them in the trash, and try to reduce our use of plastic in all areas of life.