Recycled Plastic Vs. “Virgin” Plastic: Which is Really Better for Our Environment?

When it comes to making everything from coffee cups to cutlery, there has been a lot of debate over the benefits of using recycled plastic over new or “virgin” plastics. Many skeptics claim recycled plastics don’t really win over their newer counterparts, citing less durability, higher energy costs, and less consumer desirability resulting in more waste.

 

So do recycled plastics really hold up to their newer counterparts? You’d be surprised by what we’ve uncovered.

 

Durability

 

This is one of the key arguments against products made from recycled plastics. Science tells us that every time a plastic is broken down and reused, its quality degrades. While this is true, it’s not the whole story.

 

Different types of plastic have different degrees of durability. Just because a recycled product has less durability than the new plastic it came from, that does not mean that the products made from it are anything but durable. Additionally, the traditional method of heating and re-molding plastics to make new products is not the only way to re-use plastic waste.

 

Recycle plastic has shown to be so durable and readily available that environmental groups and sustainable construction companies are increasingly encouraging the use of recycled plastic building materials as a way to create affordable, sustainable housing while using discarded plastics that would have otherwise ended up in our oceans or landfills.

 

So the question shouldn’t be “can we make a water bottle from a water bottle?” but rather, “can we turn this water bottle into something else that we need?” 

 

Energy Efficiency

 

Another argument in the plastic debate is the energy required to create recycled plastics. With the heat, pressure and other mechanics required to pulverize plastic into flakes, chips, and melted material, does the energy consumption outweigh the benefits of recycling?

 

In 2020, The Association of Plastic Recyclers released a study comparing the energy profile and environmental burden of virgin plastic and recycled plastic.

 

This study found that “the expended energies of recycled PET, high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) shows the virgin plastic expended energies are 1.7, 3.0 and 3.0 times the expended energies of postconsumer recycled plastic.”

 

In summary, that means that it takes up to 3x more energy to produce a virgin plastic from its raw chemicals than it does to create postconsumer recycled plastics.

 

Environmental Impact

 

Another argument many raise against recycled plastics over virgin plastics is the environmental impact of manufacturing recycled products. There are many fears surrounding “toxic chemicals” being released during the recycling process that can cause environmental damage.

 

The study by The Association of Plastic Recyclers also covered this topic by analyzing several environmental impact factors of both virgin plastic production and postconsumer plastic pellet production.

 

This study looked at the following factors:

  • Total Energy
  • Water Consumption
  • Solid Waste
  • Global Warming Potential
  • Acidification
  • Eutrophication (excessive nutrients in bodies of water due to runoff)
  • Smog

 

It found that in nearly all of these categories, postconsumer plastic production resulted in a 46-79% reduction in environmental impact in these categories over their virgin counterparts. The only factor in which virgin counterparts had less impact over recycled was in water consumption, with postconsumer production requiring 4% more water consumption than virgin production.

 

And this only factors in the direct manufacturing impact of postconsumer recycled plastic. The benefits of recycled plastic go beyond the manufacturing process once you think about how many plastic products are removed from landfills and bodies of water.

 

Instead of producing more tons of plastic that inevitably end up being discarded, recycled products use the plastics we’ve already produced as the building blocks for new, useful materials.

 

What kind of products can be made from recycled plastics?

 

So, now that we’ve weighed the benefits of recycled plastic, what are our options for using recycled plastic to create new products?

 

The good news is, depending on the type of plastic, the options are nearly limitless. From consumer products to industrial goods, recycled plastic is finding its way into new applications almost daily.

 

For example, RIO just released two new products made from recycled ocean plastics. The first are insulated bins used for transporting fresh and frozen seafood, and the second are plastic pallets that can be used in a variety of warehousing and shipping applications. Industrial applications are one of the areas where plastic products need to be affordable and durable and recycled plastics are stepping up to take the lead.

 

You can also find recycled plastics in consumer goods from jewelry, to clothing, to dinnerware. The question now remains not if we can use recycled plastics in our everyday lives, but how many new ways can we find to take discarded plastic out of our oceans and landfills and give it a second life as a sustainable product.