Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Plastic Recycling Debate

In our world, resources are limited and recycling is something that we ask of our society so that we can get the most efficient use of them. Plastic, but not all plastics, is known as a common recyclable material, but there has become a controversial issue. There are numerous reasons why many plastics are now collected from consumers and recycled, and a major reason is the overcrowding of landfills, especially throughout Europe. Even the plastics industry has been resisting the recycling of plastics in some places, because virgin plastic is a low-cost material made from low-cost raw materials, such as natural gas and crude oil. The result is that the amount of energy used to make plastics is very small compared to the amount used to produce aluminum or steel from its raw materials. “The cost of cleaning used plastic and converting it back into its monomers so it can again be polymerized is substantial, compared to the current cost of oil” (Baird 191). There are many people in the plastics industry who argue that the natural disposal method for plastics is to burn them, because the presence of plastics makes the other materials in garbage burn more cleanly and reduces the need for the addition of fossil fuel. This process will create heat energy, which can be utilized. Plastics make up more than a third of the energy content in garbage even though they account for less than 10% of the mass of garbage(Baird 190).

The counterargument by environmentalists is that recycled plastic would be the cheaper choice if environmental impacts were included in determining the costs of virgin materials. Additionally, the combustion of some plastics like PVC produces some toxic compounds and releases HCl, which attacks mucous membranes and damages the lungs when it is inhaled (Baird 190).

Although this debate is controversial, societies, including many developed countries, are embracing the recycling of plastics. “By the late 1990s, about half the urban communities in the US had curbside recycling programs that included plastics” (Baird 190). Consumers can identify the types of plastic collected in their area by the numbers stamped inside of the three-arrow triangle on each plastic object. In the mid-1990s, most of the plastics recycled in the US were HDPE and LDPE (Baird 190).

Unfamiliar Terms:
1) Virgin plastic: the material yet unused and just synthesized from fossil fuels
2) Combustion: rapid oxidation accompanied by heat and, usually, light
3) HDPE: a polyethylene thermoplastic made from petroleum
4) LDPE: a thermoplastic made from oil

Recycling is very important to me for the simple fact that there are limited resources in our world. I normally recycle anything that can be recycled, because I believe I am helping our resources last longer. In terms of plastic, I don’t use a water bottle and throw it in the recycling bin; I reuse water bottles all the time. I’m not positive if that’s unhealthy or not, but as long as I live a healthy lifestyle I’m not too worried about it unless something happens to me. Also, along with recycling, I believe that people should limit their use of resources. If you buy a case of water, then reuse the water bottles (assuming it’s not unhealthy) or even buy a reusable water bottle. If you are in the shower or washing your hands, then turn off the water if you are not using it. In the long run, I believe that we can make the world a better place by living this way.

Baird, Colin. Chemistry in Your Life. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2006. 190-91.

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