Exploring alternative strategies for recycling plastics

The majority of plastic applications use petroleum based thermoplastics. Plastics that can be heated, molded and remolded in different shapes, colors and finishes. These are particularly interesting qualities in the context of a circular economy. In theory plastics can be recycled over and over again. Regardless of its versatile material properties, plastics are considered an unsustainable material. In the Plastic Lab we research the reason for this negative connotation and explore alternative strategies to recycling plastics.

picture by Claire Dekens

In the packaging industry plastic are used for single use purposes.  A third of these plastics ends up in water streams, breaks down into microplastics and interferes with natural ecosystem. The impact of microplastics on people and plant has a profound impact. We are now at a stage where we breath and drink microplastics. The impact of plastics entering our bodies is still unclear but it raises a lot of concern in the scientific community.

Designer Fenia Proost visualises how plastics are now part of our body.

It is important to differentiate between material properties and material application. A plastic bag for instant is used for a very short period while the bag itself lasts for several hundreds years. The discrepancy between the single use application and the durable quality of the material is unsustainable, not the material itself.

Recycling is a strategy to increase the resource efficiency of single use plastics. During a site visit at Eco-Oh recycling centre we learned how single use packaging is collected, washed, shredded into a granulate, remelted and remolded into new products like picnic benches. The recycling process requires complex logistics and involvement of multiple stakeholders including policy, industry and citizens. Although packaging materials such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are (in theory) 100 % recyclable, only 14% of the global plastic economy is actually recycled. The quality of the recycled plastics also downgrades when different types thermoplastics are mixed. Resulting in a limited color palette and inferior material properties to virgin plastics. The applications need to be very robust to maintain structural integrity. 

Recycled plastic color palette and benches at Eco-Oh

Opposed to recycling, reusing plastics seems to be a more efficient strategy. The material does not need to be remelted and remoled. It is easy to understand that the life cycle of a reusable water bottle is a lot more resource efficient than recycling a single use water bottle.

Designer Nathan Vrebos applies glass blowing techniques to thermoplastic water bottles. Creating a hybrid esthetic that mixes traditional craft and industrial molding techniques.

Regardless of its inefficiency, complexity and inferior quality the recycling strategy is well integrated in our society. Global brands are more likely to adopt the recycling strategy because it does not fundamentally change their business model. They can promote their recycling strategy while continuing to produce single use packaging. The recycling strategy actually supports our throw away culture rather than challenging it. Adopting a reuse strategy requires businesses to reinvent their business models and supply chains. This disruptive nature

Another barrier to adopt alternative strategies to recycling is the value we add to plastic in our economy. Due to low petroleum prices it is relatively cheap to source and mass-produce plastic. Resulting in cheap products. A plastic garden chair for instance can be bought for under 10 dollar. That is a good deal for a stackable and weather resistant piece of furniture. Costs made to the environment made during mining, producing and shipping are not taken into account. When the chair is broken or we get tired of it we just buy a new one. Resulting in more waste and more costs to the environment.

Designer Jietse Vanlandshoot repaired a plastic garden chair with contrasting materials like wood and metal.

Because the throw away culture is so well integrated in our society and the value of plastic is relatively low it is really challenging to adopt more sustainable strategies for using plastics. These new strategies have to be  adopted by companies, governments and citizens. The EU has created an important incentive by banning (certain types) single use packaging. Designers can also create incentives by creating their own alternative strategies like Juul Prinsen who designed a series of tutorials that promote collecting and upcycling of plastic packaging. Or July Van Hapert who designed a waterless soap capsules that eliminates the use of plastic packaging in the bathroom.

Designing user friendly and attractive system that require less packaging or promote active involvement of citizens can be valuable strategies to facilitate the transition towards a circular plastic economy. Recycling still has a place in the circular economy but is should be regarded as a last resort not a marketing strategy. Exploring alternative circular strategies to recycling is the subject of future design research in the plastic lab. We are open for new ideas to collaborate on this subject.