Confronting “the Plastics Paradox” as it Emerges

Plastics recycling is often lauded as a progressive step towards helping the environment. But there are underlying issues with plastics production, use, and recycling that are creating what is often referred to as “the Plastics Paradox.”

The creation of plastics following WWII was revolutionary for industry, convenience, and the environment. Plastics are used in pharmaceuticals, healthcare equipment, consumable products, and even cars and planes, making them lighter and more fuel-efficient. Plastic enabled cleaner and safer medicine, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and fueled the modern fast-paced lifestyle of capitalism. But plastics production had a cost; it just took us a few generations to see it.

Despite plastic’s durability and flexibility for reuse, 33% of them are used once and thrown away. Plastics are not biodegradable. They can take centuries to break down in a landfill, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces but never actually disappearing. They end up in our water supply, oceans, and the stomachs of marine life.

The real paradox is that even though plastic products are smaller, lighter, and cheaper, they are harder to recycle than other packaging like glass or metal. While they may reduce fuel consumption and lower GHG emissions, they are also increasing the amount of waste we produce, ocean pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions by sitting in landfills.

There is no longer enough economic value in plastics recycling for businesses to justify it—even when they want to do what’s right by the environment, they are caught by the need to stay afloat in the business market. Turning away from recycling is no longer just a moral issue, it’s an economic and cultural one. As the Guardian puts it, “To take on plastic is in some way to take on consumerism itself.”

But a ban on plastics would have huge implications not just on economics but also on the environment. Even so India just this week announced a 100% ban on all scrap plastics. This will cause issues for many in the industry.

Alternatively, bio plastics are much more expensive and research has not yet reached a consensus on whether or not they are any less harmful to the environment in the long run. And while plastic blends reduce the amount of plastic used in products, it also makes them even less recyclable and more likely to end up in landfills.

What’s most important to note is that this issue has been coming to a head for decades. Long before China stopped accepting our refuse with their National Sword policy, most of our potentially recyclable plastic was ending up in landfills or oceans anyway. If anything, China’s policy did us a favor by waking us up to the need for a greater focus on recycling efforts at home.

Plastics are not going away—they are a revolutionary invention that has the potential to be both economically and eco-friendly, we just need to use them smarter. Rather than designing and consuming plastics for one-time use, we need to think carefully about our materials choices and work on addressing our fast-paced culture of waste.

At Berg Mill, we hope to be a part of the solution. Despite the temptation to produce more virgin plastics, we encourage companies and consumers to think about the impact they are having on the planet and utilize the plastics that are already here as much as we can.

Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, and we are not going anywhere even when faced with recyclable import changes. If you continue to handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions to offload idle scrap, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill Supply.