Is Plastic Recycling Better Defined as Downcycling?

1 Mar

Across the country, municipal recycling programs require residents to put their recyclable plastics to the curb where they will be picked up along with the trash. Likewise, companies like Seraphim Plastics buy industrial scrap plastic and turn it into regrind that they sell to manufacturers. But do municipal and industrial recycling programs truly recycle, or do they actually downcycle?

The question being posed here was motivated by a recent article in the Free Press Journal, a well-known news site based in India. The article made the case that recycling and downcycling are two different processes that produce different results. Its author suggests that plastic recycling is not really recycling. It is actually downcycling.

What Is The Difference?

According to the Free Press Journal, “recycling converts a material into something of roughly the same value” as its original form. The article points out paper, glass, and aluminum recycling as examples. When each of these materials is recycled, the processes involved do not reduce the integrity or usefulness of the end product. Apparently, the same is not true for plastics.

Downcycling is defined by the Free Press Journal as a process that produces a “product that is not as structurally strong as the original product made from virgin materials.” This much can be confirmed with industrial plastics turned into regrind.

According to Seraphim Plastics, the manufacturers that buy it regrind don’t make new products exclusively from it. Rather, the regrind is added to virgin plastic pellets first. Why? Because the regrind alone doesn’t offer the structural integrity manufacturers need. That seems to confirm that mechanical recycling harms the integrity of the plastic being recycled.

Does It Really Matter?

Based on the definitions provided by the Free Press Journal, it would appear that turning scrap plastic into regrind through mechanical means is actually downcycling rather than recycling. We can probably live with that. It’s no big deal. The more important question is, does it really matter? The term we use to describe what happens to plastic waste is not as important as the fact that it is being transformed into regrind rather than being tossed in a landfill.

One can argue that the differences between recycling and downcycling are merely semantic. And if that is the case, throw upcycling into the mix as well. All three processes are merely variants of the same goal: to take plastic that would otherwise be disposed of and put it to use again. That is the key thing to focus on.

Can It Really Be Done?

There has long been a debate over whether the majority of plastics humanity produces can actually be recycled. Can it be done in a cost-effective way? That depends on who you ask. Based on what Seraphim Plastics does every day, one would have to assume that all plastics could theoretically be recycled. But if you based your answer on the success of municipal plastic recycling, you would probably say it can’t be done.

Regardless of the term we use to describe it, recycling plastic can be as simple or as complicated as we want to make it. Successfully recycling industrial plastic scrap proves we can do it if we stick to the basics and keep things simple. But municipal recycling’s history of failure also proves that making things too complicated doesn’t work out well.

I suppose it doesn’t matter if plastic recycling is actually downcycling by the strictest definition of terms. What matters is that we figure out ways to reduce the amount of plastic we throw away. If we can do that, will be in good shape.