The environmental impacts of plastics and plastics recycling

The rapid growth of plastics production is reflected in the growth of plastic waste as a proportion of total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). This can be seen in Table 3.3, which gives figures for the United States.

Table 3.3. Proportion of plastic in MSW

% by weight

Table 3.3. Proportion of plastic in MSW

% by weight

1960

0.5

1970

2.6

1980

5.0

1988

8.0

1990

9.8

1992

10.6

1994

11.2

1995

11.5

1996

12.3

Source: Subramian (2000).

Source: Subramian (2000).

The difference in the plastic component of European waste in the early 1990s is shown below in Table 3.4, with figures ranging from 6% (UK) to 11.5% (Ireland).

Table 3.4. Proportion of plastics in MSW (%) by weight

1975

1980

1985

1990

1993

1995

2000

Belgium

5

6

4

6

6

Denmark

4

7

4

7

0.3

0.5

Germany

8

6

5

0.6

3

France

5

6

9

10

10

11

11

Greece

7

7

11

9

10

9

Ireland

4

11

14

9

10

Italy

5

7

7

Luxembourg

5

6

8

8

Netherlands

6

7

7

8

9

5

5

Portugal

3

3

9

12

12

Spain

6

7

7

11

11

12

Sweden

10

7

UK

4

7

10

USA

4

5

7

8

9

9

11

Source: OECD Environmental Data Companion various years; UNEP Environmental Data Report various years; Eurostat (1995).

Source: OECD Environmental Data Companion various years; UNEP Environmental Data Report various years; Eurostat (1995).

Moreover, the range of plastic types, together with their additives makes separation into sufficiently homogeneous types for recycling purposes a serious problem. On the other hand, plastics are difficult to compact, have a high volume /weight ratio, and are resistant to degradation. All of these make landfill, as an alternative to recycling, an unattractive, even if sometimes unavoidable, option.

Incineration can also pose problems, and has been seen as unattractive because of public opposition. Some of this arises from opposition to incineration of MSW in general, some from a concern with the pollution that might arise from the burning of additives. For instance, an important attribute of PVC is that the additives have significant environmental implications for air quality when incinerated. However, in an LCA study, Bruvoll (1998) found that the costs of recycling exceeded those for incineration even when the social cost of dioxins (which has high marginal costs) is included.

A study by Scharai-Rad and Welling for the FAO (2002) compared the use of wood to substitute materials in various building components. For instance, PVC can be used as a substitute material for window frames and for floor coverings. It is not immediately obvious whether wood would dominate PVC in environmental terms for window frames, for whilst PVC has various environmental costs associated with its production and disposal as waste, wooden frames will require regular applications of preservatives and paints which also have environmental costs. However, on balance, once all of the lifetime impacts are taken into account, it turns out that wood dominates PVC almost completely.

Using recycled materials in production generally requires about three times less energy than for virgin production because the recycled products are already partially converted into the final product. The US EPA estimates that the energy savings from recycling rather than landfilling PET bottles are equivalent to 24 mil Btu/ton (EPA 1999). Over 95% of the total energy required to produce one kilogram of plastics is due to oil extraction and refining. Avoiding these steps by recycling can thus result in significant energy savings.

There are other adverse environmental impacts associated with other kinds of plastics. For instance, PS can be a problem because of the nature of its waste. EPS that comes as moulded packaging is very bulky. It is light so often blows away in the waste disposal process. As it easily breaks into small pieces, it can cause environmental damage through the blockage of waterways, and damage to marine wildlife.

For the majority of mixed plastics, and plastics of lesser quality, a steady supply of plastic waste is a requirement for market development and industrial investments. Therefore, the separate collection of plastic waste and dismantling of complex products has been seen as a prerequisite to ensure environmental benefits. High quality mechanical recycling offers the largest environmental benefits. The potential for this is steadily increasing due to improvements in dismantling and separation technologies.

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