Okay, I must admit that I am not an expert on plastic recycling, but I care enough to research when I see a red flag on what have just I read. Now, I certainly know a thing or two, just enough to identify an idiot who recommends counterproductive actions to the gullible public. While writing this, I am referring to this video that is making rounds on social media. Please have a look first, and then let’s discuss :
In this video, a gentleman with an expensive suit and authoritative voice urges commuters at a bus stand on how to avoid the reuse of their used water bottles. He asks them to squeeze the cap into the used bottle, crush it and then throw it. Apparently, this can avoid counterfeit water bottles being reused by small industries.
I have heard this argument many times already. Few of my friends and acquaintances tried to upgrade my knowledge based on the wisdom gathered through social media forwards. Somehow, people are convinced that this is the right thing to do! Let me give an attempt to explain why he is wrong and why it is counterproductive for an environmental cause.
There is a lot of misconception on how recycling of plastic works or how difficult it is. There are a day and night difference between technology/automation caught up between recycling something like paper against recycling plastic.
Ideally, in my opinion, recycling plastic should not even be there in your list of preferences on what you should do with garbage in your bin. Recycling should be one of the last resorts, positioned just above incineration or landfills. If you ask me, this should be your order of preferences :
- Avoid buying a plastic bottle for drinking water specifically. Instead, have one in your bag all the time. Carry one everywhere, which was refilled at your home while you left home that morning. In case of a scenario where you do not have one handy for some unfortunate reasons, go ahead ask for tap water. Most decent restaurants, food joints and companies have invested in an industrial-grade RO water purifier. Go for it. If not human grade, they might undoubtedly provide you with battery-grade demineralized water. You will survive the day.
- Reduce. In a scenario where you have no option but to buy one, take this as a lesson learned. Then bring it back to your home and reuse it. Reuse it to store water, oil or any food items, including grains, till a point of time when your heart feels it’s old enough to discard. Then reuse it with downgraded usages such as craft, art or even home garden.
- Recycle should come as next. Now, this is the tricky part. With decades of research, the plastic recycling process has reached a stage that is very much below the desired efficiency. Unsurprisingly, the most significant contributor to the inefficiency of the entire process is segregation. i.e. at the end of consumers who act based on the advice of few idiots at bus stations.
For argument sake, let’s suppose we have a very responsible township and an enthusiastic team of kabadiwalas who have aggregated them with 100% homogeneous categorization. This will only encounter more hurdles, such as the paint, ink and labels, and the leftover food items. By now, we have a reasonable automated robotic process in place that can attend to these with a certain degree of efficiency. Suppose we clear all those stages and reach your bottle with the cap squeezed inside on the behest of the gentleman who advised you with his infinite wisdom.
Please refer to one of my previous 14-year-old post for the categorization of plastic.
Generally, the water bottles are made of PET food grade, and caps are PP kind of fibers. a PET bottle can technically be, recycled into a food-grade water bottle, again and again, perpetually for 1000s of times provided that you have an entire batch of homogenously segregated PET. Even a tiny %age of PVC in that batch can spoil the recipe. In other words, these fibers can be recycled with their own kind. Few can be recycled to the exact grade (e.g. Bottles again), some with the downgrade (Bottles to T-Shirts or Bags) and some never.
Now, your bottle has reached the stage at the converter belt where PP needs to be separated from PET. An Automated machine tries to segregate bottles with caps through a forced water jet, without avail. The idea is that PP caps sink and PET bottles float. My bottle, which I discarded with the cap, is now ready for recycling, but not yours. The only possible solution is to deploy thousands of sweatshop employees to dissect your bottle and separate PET with PP manually. This is obviously not practical or cheap, increasing the recycling cost overall. Many of the councils ask the consumers to replace the cap while discarding it rather than separating them.
Use this for your further reading How to Recycle Plastic Caps & Lids
In this case, for the batch of your bottles, the recycling unit will do the next set of available options :
- Incinerate them to release energy, but at the cost of releasing greenhouse gasses
- or Melt them and make roads – this is a double downgrade
- or send them to landfill it for it to degrade after a 1000 years
- or your bottle will turn up right here in the nose of a turtle or stomach of a seagull.