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Plastic Recycling - Is It Worth It?

Sep 23, 2022
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22
minutes

We have been recycling for decades, yet only 9% of the world's plastic has ever been successfully recycled.

In this episode, we ask ourselves the heretical question, "is plastic recycling actually worth it?"

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I’m Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about plastic.

[00:00:27] Plastic is clearly everywhere in modern life.

[00:00:30] It seems that everything we unwrap, unbox or throw away today comes with plastic, with the average person in Europe getting through a kilo of plastic every single week.

[00:00:42] But, no matter how much plastic we use, the good news is that if we are good citizens and put it in a recycling bin it will magically be turned into new plastic.

[00:00:53] Or will it?

[00:00:54] In this episode we are going to look at recycling plastic, and ask the perhaps heretical question – “does it really work?”

[00:01:03] Ok then, plastic.

[00:01:06] Today we use plastic in just about everything. 

[00:01:10] Toys, technology, cars, appliances and even building materials all contain plastic.

[00:01:17] The device you’re listening to this on is made possible thanks to plastic.

[00:01:23] Globally we produce over 380 million tonnes of plastic every year. In 1950, this number was just 2 million. 

[00:01:33] And over a quarter of that is packaging.

[00:01:37] The UK alone gets through 7.7 billion water bottles every year – that’s around 150 bottles per person!

[00:01:47] Globally there are an estimated 500 billion plastic water bottles used worldwide. And this is just water bottles - perhaps one of the most visible uses of plastic but only representing a tiny fraction of the total plastic used worldwide.

[00:02:05] And plastic, over the past few years, has got a lot of negative media attention.

[00:02:11] It is thrown into our rivers and oceans, kills fish and birds, and ends up polluting the wonderful, beautiful world we live in.

[00:02:21] There are a few different schools of thoughts about what should be done about this, or at least elements to the discussion.

[00:02:29] Firstly, that it’s the job of governments to better educate people about recycling, to simply get people to recycle more. 

[00:02:38] You may be aware that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled, so we simply aren’t very good at recycling, despite the fact that in much of the Western world at least we have been taught to recycle for decades now.

[00:02:54] Secondly, that we need to use less plastic and find more sustainable options. Instead of plastic bags we should use paper bags, instead of plastic bottles we use glass and so on.

[00:03:09] Thirdly, that we need to get better at reusing, that if we simply reuse the plastic that has already been created, the levels of plastic created would reduce.

[00:03:20] And fourthly, there’s a larger category of placing an increased focus on technological developments to both improve recycling processes and create alternatives to plastic. 

[00:03:34] In this episode we’ll touch on all of these four different categories, but first off, let’s remind ourselves of what plastic actually is, and where it comes from.

[00:03:46] We tend to think of plastic as a pretty modern material. So you might be surprised to find out that it was actually invented in the 19th century. 

[00:03:57] Yes, the first plastic - something called Parkesine - appeared way back in 1862, 160 years ago.

[00:04:06] In the 1920s and 30s, the first modern plastic, Bakelite, came along. 

[00:04:12] It was heat resistant, durable and insulating, Bakelite was used in everything from telephones to light switches.

[00:04:22] But plastic really came into its own in the second half of the 20th century, 100 years after its first appearance.

[00:04:31] As plastic became cheaper and easier to produce, it increasingly replaced older, more expensive materials, such as metal and glass – especially in packaging.

[00:04:43] In the 1960s, the now ubiquitous plastic bag started to make its way into shops, ushering in the true age of plastic. 

[00:04:54] And although it’s frequently bashed, criticised by a lot of environmental campaigners, it would be shortsighted and negligent not to take a minute to underline how much plastic has revolutionised modern life, with some people even dubbing the modern era as “The Plastic Age”.

[00:05:16] Unlike glass, plastic is light and hard to break – making it easier and safer to transport items in plastic containers.

[00:05:25] It doesn’t break down or decompose, meaning it’s hard-wearing and long-lasting. 

[00:05:31] These properties have allowed us to make huge advances in medicine, food production and technology.

[00:05:39] It’s no exaggeration to say that every aspect of our lives would be different without plastic.

[00:05:46] Take food production, for example. 

[00:05:48] Plastic is often a villain of the food industry, because of how much single-use plastic is used in food packaging, but there are many ways in which it actually helps reduce food waste.

[00:06:01] Plastic packaging means produce can be sealed – keeping it fresh for longer, and giving us a wider choice of fresh products on the shelves than ever before.

[00:06:12] Vacuum packaging protects food, slowing decomposition and giving food a longer shelf life

[00:06:19] A study from 2011, for example, showed that the just 2g of plastic that is wrapped around a cucumber extends its shelf life by up to 60 per cent – simply by preventing the cucumber from losing water and drying out.

[00:06:37] Without plastic packaging, much of our food would go bad before it even reached the shops. 

[00:06:43] In fact, a Swiss study suggested that the environmental benefit that wrapping cucumbers in plastic has on reducing food waste is almost 5 times higher than the negative impact of producing the packaging.

[00:06:58] All these benefits are created by just a tiny amount of plastic.

[00:07:03] And of course it’s not just food production.

[00:07:06] Plastic’s insulating properties have given us huge advances in building and heating materials, helping to keep our homes warmer and reduce use of fossil fuels.

[00:07:17] Plastic has also revolutionised healthcare, allowing us to create single use items such as gloves and syringes, which make medicine safer. 

[00:07:27] It’s sterile and hypo-allergenic, and its inherent flexibility has led to all kinds of innovations in medical devices, from pacemakers to blister packs.

[00:07:40] It has even made driving safer – plastic is used in airbags, bumpers and seat belts to name just a few.

[00:07:48] And then there’s the environmental and economic benefit of transporting goods in plastic packaging. Because it’s so lightweight, transporting plastic uses less fuel than other materials, meaning lower energy use and fewer emissions.

[00:08:05] For example, a glass yoghurt pot weighs around 85 grams. But a plastic one only weighs 5.5 grams. So, once you’ve loaded your yoghurt into the truck, the glass jars – the packaging – takes up over a third of your total weight if we’re talking about a small pot of yoghurt.

[00:08:26] For plastic pots it’s less than four per cent! 

[00:08:30] This means you need more trucks – and more fuel – to transport the glass pots.

[00:08:36] Now, based simply on how cheap, durable, lightweight, and hygienic plastic is, an alien arriving on planet Earth might ask “so, what’s the problem then?”

[00:08:48] Well, it’s precisely the properties that make plastic so useful that also become its biggest problems after we’ve finished with it.

[00:08:57] It’s so cheap to make, meaning it’s economically acceptable to use it once and then throw it away.

[00:09:03] Given that only 9% of plastic is ever recycled, the vast majority of it ends up in landfills.

[00:09:11] And once it’s in a landfill, one of its biggest benefits becomes its biggest problem.

[00:09:17] It is so hard-wearing and durable that it can take hundreds of years to decompose.

[00:09:24] And when it does start to decompose, well that’s not good news either.

[00:09:29] Plastics break down into tiny, microscopic particles, known as microplastics, as they decompose. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but these particles can get into our environment, and particularly into the oceans.

[00:09:45] They are then ingested by fish and marine animals, making their way through our ecosystems and even into the human food chain when we eat these fish and animals.

[00:09:57] It’s estimated that a staggering 90% of seabirds now have plastic in their stomachs. 

[00:10:04] And a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation claimed that at least eight million tonnes of plastics are leaked into the ocean every year – that's the equivalent of tipping a rubbish truck into the sea every minute. 

[00:10:19] In fact it is predicted that by the year 2050 there will be, by weight, more plastic in the sea than fish!

[00:10:28] Now, we don’t really know the effect that these microplastics might have on our bodies, but there is growing concern that they could be causing serious damage.

[00:10:39] So, plastic, whilst being cheap, durable and flexible, is also non-biodegradable, takes millennia to break down and pollutes our land and oceans.

[00:10:50] But there is a solution, I hear you saying. Recycling.

[00:10:54] It sounds like a brilliant solution. We get all of the benefits of using plastic without the environmental pollution.

[00:11:02] Except, of course, it’s not quite that simple. 

[00:11:06] Firstly, getting people to actually recycle is really hard. 

[00:11:12] Governments have been telling people to “reduce, reuse and recycle” for over 40 years, but still only 9% of plastic is actually recycled globally.

[00:11:24] Yes, some countries are better, others are worse, but even doubling the global recycling rate would still mean that four out of five pieces of plastic produced worldwide would never be recycled.

[00:11:38] And this is before we get to the question of plastic recycling itself.

[00:11:43] There is an environmental cost to everything, and recycling is no exception.

[00:11:49] And when it comes to recycling plastic, this cost is not insignificant, and in some cases it can be higher than simply producing the plastic from scratch.

[00:12:01] Perhaps it’s useful to think about the process of recycling something, a plastic bottle, let’s say, to illustrate this.

[00:12:10] After I’m finished with the bottle of water, I see a recycling bin and think “great, I’ll just chuck it in there”. 

[00:12:18] Someone needs to come in a truck to collect it, take it to be sorted, it needs to be put together with other similar plastics, because not all plastics can be recycled together, then it will probably be taken on a large ship, transported often thousands of kilometres away, where it will be melted down at high temperatures, to be turned into small plastic pellets, which will only then be resold to plastic plants, who will melt it again to make another bottle. 

[00:12:49] As we see, there is a non-zero environmental cost to this kind of circular economy.

[00:12:56] And this is not to say that this isn’t a cost worth paying, but rather to illustrate that recycling alone isn’t without its environmental cost. 

[00:13:07] So, what is the answer then?

[00:13:09] Well, one theory has it that we should use plastic alternatives.

[00:13:14] Instead of plastic bottles, we use glass bottles.

[00:13:17] Instead of plastic bags, we use cotton bags.

[00:13:21] This might result in less plastic in the oceans, but neither of these options are ideal environmentally.

[00:13:30] There’s an excellent TED talk about this by a Danish professor called Kim Ragaert, where she explains in detail how to think about plastic as an alternative to these options.

[00:13:42] In the case of glass bottles, she explains that glass bottles can be twice as heavy as plastic, meaning the transport costs of the packaging is double.

[00:13:53] You can reuse glass bottles for liquids, but after the glass has been used 8 times it needs to be recycled, and because glass melts at 1,500 degrees Centigrade, the recycling process of glass takes a lot more energy than recycling plastic.

[00:14:12] Similarly, with the plastic versus cotton bag debate, because you need so much cotton to create a bag, and it is such a thirsty crop, it requires so much water, you would need to reuse a cotton bag 173 times for it to have a lower environmental impact than a single plastic bag. 

[00:14:34] To put it another way, if you reused one of those simple plastic bags for a month it would have the same environmental cost as using the same cotton bag for 15 years.

[00:14:47] As you’re probably seeing now, one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental use of plastic is to reduce your use of plastic and reuse the plastic you do use, not to rely on recycling to do the work for us.

[00:15:03] This is, of course, not to say that recycling is pointless or that it isn’t worth it, but that it should be complemented with reducing and reusing.

[00:15:14] In many cases, this is easy to do.

[00:15:17] Instead of buying plastic bottles, reuse old plastic bottles or use a water filter instead of buying plastic bottles in the first place.

[00:15:27] But clearly, reusing or not using plastic in the first place isn’t always an option. 

[00:15:33] Healthcare is an obvious example, but there are situations where even the most devoted anti-plastic campaigner may well admit that the alternatives are considerably worse, and criticism of plastic isn’t actually all that helpful.

[00:15:49] Plastic straws, for example, are a frequent object of government criticism, and multiple cities and countries across the world have banned them.

[00:15:59] Sure, plastic straws are very visible, there were an estimated 500 million plastic straws used every single day in the United States alone, and they are technically unnecessary because it’s perfectly possible to drink without a straw.

[00:16:16] But focussing attention on plastic straws is a distraction, so some critics say.

[00:16:23] Plastic straws make up just 0.025% of all of the plastic that goes into the ocean, and even if plastic straws were banned forever and every single plastic straw that had been washed into the oceans throughout history was magically removed, it still wouldn’t account for 1% of plastic pollution. 

[00:16:46] Put simply, the impact of plastic straws on environmental pollution is absolutely miniscule, it's tiny. 

[00:16:54] This doesn’t mean that plastic straws are good, not at all, but rather that instead of focusing our attention and effort on things like plastic straw use, a renewed focus should be put on things that will actually have an impact.

[00:17:09] So, if you’re waiting for the punchline, what are the things that actually matter, according to environmental campaigners against plastic pollution?

[00:17:19] Well, you likely know them already. Whether it’s Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund, the main recommendations all revolve around choosing non-plastic where the option exists, and reusing the plastic that you already use.

[00:17:34] But there is another category of recommendation, and this is specifically around plastic recycling.

[00:17:42] If you are going to recycle, which of course you should do, make sure that you do it properly. 

[00:17:48] One of the biggest problems with plastic recycling is stuff being put in the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there, leading to contamination

[00:17:57] And this doesn’t just mean contamination of your recycling, but all of the other recycling that’s in the batch with it, so the importance of actually recycling properly cannot be understated.

[00:18:10] As the saying goes in the UK, “if in doubt, leave it out”, meaning if you don’t know whether something can be recycled, just put it in the normal rubbish bin instead.

[00:18:22] Now, plastic is clearly a very useful material for almost everything, and we have an almost 50-year history of trying to get people to recycle it, with quite limited success.

[00:18:34] But what if there were a way to have some of the evident convenience of single-use plastic without the environmental problems that our current usage brings? 

[00:18:44] Well, one possibility is something called bioplastics. 

[00:18:49] These are plastics that are made from natural materials, such as corn starch or sugar cane, and are often designed to decompose easily.

[00:18:59] Unlike conventional plastics, bioplastics don’t rely on fossil fuels, such as oil, for production.

[00:19:07] They can often be composted – but usually only in special industrial facilities. Other types still need to be recycled, which takes us back to the same issues we have with regular plastic. Now, bioplastics are still fairly new, and currently make up less than 1 percent of total plastic production.

[00:19:27] So, bioplastics are a work in progress, and the jury is still out on whether they will be part of the answer to our plastic problem.

[00:19:37] So, what about improving plastic recycling? 

[00:19:40] Well, a new type of process called ‘chemical recycling’ could change the way we deal with our plastic waste.

[00:19:48] The way we recycle plastic at the moment, mechanically, means that the actual structure of the plastic doesn’t change when it goes through the recycling process. With chemical recycling, plastic is broken down into its chemical components – its building blocks – before being made into new material.

[00:20:08] In theory, the benefit of chemical recycling is that plastics don’t have to be sorted into different types in the same way as they do today. 

[00:20:18] That means more recycling and less waste, but there’s still the same issue of persuading people to actually put their plastic in the recycling bin in the first place.

[00:20:29] Again, the jury is still out on chemical recycling.

[00:20:33] So, to wrap up this episode, we started with a heretical question, “does plastic recycling really work?”

[00:20:42] And what’s the answer? 

[00:20:44] It’s that yes, it can work structurally, the actual mechanism of recycling works, we can turn plastic into new plastic.

[00:20:54] But human beings, all 8 billion of us, are not nearly as good at recycling our plastic as we should be, and often our priorities are misplaced.

[00:21:05] The reality is that plastic is an incredibly useful invention, used in practically every aspect of modern life, and that simply getting rid of plastic, without having an alternative, is not a viable option.

[00:21:20] So, while we continue to dump 8 million metric tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year and we aren’t getting much better at recycling it, it seems like The Plastic Age is going to continue for quite a while longer.

[00:21:35] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Plastic Recycling.

[00:21:40] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:43] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:47] What is the general mentality about plastic recycling like in your country?

[00:21:52] Are you optimistic about the potential of a future world without plastic?

[00:21:56] I would love to know.

[00:21:58] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:06] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:11] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I’m Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about plastic.

[00:00:27] Plastic is clearly everywhere in modern life.

[00:00:30] It seems that everything we unwrap, unbox or throw away today comes with plastic, with the average person in Europe getting through a kilo of plastic every single week.

[00:00:42] But, no matter how much plastic we use, the good news is that if we are good citizens and put it in a recycling bin it will magically be turned into new plastic.

[00:00:53] Or will it?

[00:00:54] In this episode we are going to look at recycling plastic, and ask the perhaps heretical question – “does it really work?”

[00:01:03] Ok then, plastic.

[00:01:06] Today we use plastic in just about everything. 

[00:01:10] Toys, technology, cars, appliances and even building materials all contain plastic.

[00:01:17] The device you’re listening to this on is made possible thanks to plastic.

[00:01:23] Globally we produce over 380 million tonnes of plastic every year. In 1950, this number was just 2 million. 

[00:01:33] And over a quarter of that is packaging.

[00:01:37] The UK alone gets through 7.7 billion water bottles every year – that’s around 150 bottles per person!

[00:01:47] Globally there are an estimated 500 billion plastic water bottles used worldwide. And this is just water bottles - perhaps one of the most visible uses of plastic but only representing a tiny fraction of the total plastic used worldwide.

[00:02:05] And plastic, over the past few years, has got a lot of negative media attention.

[00:02:11] It is thrown into our rivers and oceans, kills fish and birds, and ends up polluting the wonderful, beautiful world we live in.

[00:02:21] There are a few different schools of thoughts about what should be done about this, or at least elements to the discussion.

[00:02:29] Firstly, that it’s the job of governments to better educate people about recycling, to simply get people to recycle more. 

[00:02:38] You may be aware that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled, so we simply aren’t very good at recycling, despite the fact that in much of the Western world at least we have been taught to recycle for decades now.

[00:02:54] Secondly, that we need to use less plastic and find more sustainable options. Instead of plastic bags we should use paper bags, instead of plastic bottles we use glass and so on.

[00:03:09] Thirdly, that we need to get better at reusing, that if we simply reuse the plastic that has already been created, the levels of plastic created would reduce.

[00:03:20] And fourthly, there’s a larger category of placing an increased focus on technological developments to both improve recycling processes and create alternatives to plastic. 

[00:03:34] In this episode we’ll touch on all of these four different categories, but first off, let’s remind ourselves of what plastic actually is, and where it comes from.

[00:03:46] We tend to think of plastic as a pretty modern material. So you might be surprised to find out that it was actually invented in the 19th century. 

[00:03:57] Yes, the first plastic - something called Parkesine - appeared way back in 1862, 160 years ago.

[00:04:06] In the 1920s and 30s, the first modern plastic, Bakelite, came along. 

[00:04:12] It was heat resistant, durable and insulating, Bakelite was used in everything from telephones to light switches.

[00:04:22] But plastic really came into its own in the second half of the 20th century, 100 years after its first appearance.

[00:04:31] As plastic became cheaper and easier to produce, it increasingly replaced older, more expensive materials, such as metal and glass – especially in packaging.

[00:04:43] In the 1960s, the now ubiquitous plastic bag started to make its way into shops, ushering in the true age of plastic. 

[00:04:54] And although it’s frequently bashed, criticised by a lot of environmental campaigners, it would be shortsighted and negligent not to take a minute to underline how much plastic has revolutionised modern life, with some people even dubbing the modern era as “The Plastic Age”.

[00:05:16] Unlike glass, plastic is light and hard to break – making it easier and safer to transport items in plastic containers.

[00:05:25] It doesn’t break down or decompose, meaning it’s hard-wearing and long-lasting. 

[00:05:31] These properties have allowed us to make huge advances in medicine, food production and technology.

[00:05:39] It’s no exaggeration to say that every aspect of our lives would be different without plastic.

[00:05:46] Take food production, for example. 

[00:05:48] Plastic is often a villain of the food industry, because of how much single-use plastic is used in food packaging, but there are many ways in which it actually helps reduce food waste.

[00:06:01] Plastic packaging means produce can be sealed – keeping it fresh for longer, and giving us a wider choice of fresh products on the shelves than ever before.

[00:06:12] Vacuum packaging protects food, slowing decomposition and giving food a longer shelf life

[00:06:19] A study from 2011, for example, showed that the just 2g of plastic that is wrapped around a cucumber extends its shelf life by up to 60 per cent – simply by preventing the cucumber from losing water and drying out.

[00:06:37] Without plastic packaging, much of our food would go bad before it even reached the shops. 

[00:06:43] In fact, a Swiss study suggested that the environmental benefit that wrapping cucumbers in plastic has on reducing food waste is almost 5 times higher than the negative impact of producing the packaging.

[00:06:58] All these benefits are created by just a tiny amount of plastic.

[00:07:03] And of course it’s not just food production.

[00:07:06] Plastic’s insulating properties have given us huge advances in building and heating materials, helping to keep our homes warmer and reduce use of fossil fuels.

[00:07:17] Plastic has also revolutionised healthcare, allowing us to create single use items such as gloves and syringes, which make medicine safer. 

[00:07:27] It’s sterile and hypo-allergenic, and its inherent flexibility has led to all kinds of innovations in medical devices, from pacemakers to blister packs.

[00:07:40] It has even made driving safer – plastic is used in airbags, bumpers and seat belts to name just a few.

[00:07:48] And then there’s the environmental and economic benefit of transporting goods in plastic packaging. Because it’s so lightweight, transporting plastic uses less fuel than other materials, meaning lower energy use and fewer emissions.

[00:08:05] For example, a glass yoghurt pot weighs around 85 grams. But a plastic one only weighs 5.5 grams. So, once you’ve loaded your yoghurt into the truck, the glass jars – the packaging – takes up over a third of your total weight if we’re talking about a small pot of yoghurt.

[00:08:26] For plastic pots it’s less than four per cent! 

[00:08:30] This means you need more trucks – and more fuel – to transport the glass pots.

[00:08:36] Now, based simply on how cheap, durable, lightweight, and hygienic plastic is, an alien arriving on planet Earth might ask “so, what’s the problem then?”

[00:08:48] Well, it’s precisely the properties that make plastic so useful that also become its biggest problems after we’ve finished with it.

[00:08:57] It’s so cheap to make, meaning it’s economically acceptable to use it once and then throw it away.

[00:09:03] Given that only 9% of plastic is ever recycled, the vast majority of it ends up in landfills.

[00:09:11] And once it’s in a landfill, one of its biggest benefits becomes its biggest problem.

[00:09:17] It is so hard-wearing and durable that it can take hundreds of years to decompose.

[00:09:24] And when it does start to decompose, well that’s not good news either.

[00:09:29] Plastics break down into tiny, microscopic particles, known as microplastics, as they decompose. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but these particles can get into our environment, and particularly into the oceans.

[00:09:45] They are then ingested by fish and marine animals, making their way through our ecosystems and even into the human food chain when we eat these fish and animals.

[00:09:57] It’s estimated that a staggering 90% of seabirds now have plastic in their stomachs. 

[00:10:04] And a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation claimed that at least eight million tonnes of plastics are leaked into the ocean every year – that's the equivalent of tipping a rubbish truck into the sea every minute. 

[00:10:19] In fact it is predicted that by the year 2050 there will be, by weight, more plastic in the sea than fish!

[00:10:28] Now, we don’t really know the effect that these microplastics might have on our bodies, but there is growing concern that they could be causing serious damage.

[00:10:39] So, plastic, whilst being cheap, durable and flexible, is also non-biodegradable, takes millennia to break down and pollutes our land and oceans.

[00:10:50] But there is a solution, I hear you saying. Recycling.

[00:10:54] It sounds like a brilliant solution. We get all of the benefits of using plastic without the environmental pollution.

[00:11:02] Except, of course, it’s not quite that simple. 

[00:11:06] Firstly, getting people to actually recycle is really hard. 

[00:11:12] Governments have been telling people to “reduce, reuse and recycle” for over 40 years, but still only 9% of plastic is actually recycled globally.

[00:11:24] Yes, some countries are better, others are worse, but even doubling the global recycling rate would still mean that four out of five pieces of plastic produced worldwide would never be recycled.

[00:11:38] And this is before we get to the question of plastic recycling itself.

[00:11:43] There is an environmental cost to everything, and recycling is no exception.

[00:11:49] And when it comes to recycling plastic, this cost is not insignificant, and in some cases it can be higher than simply producing the plastic from scratch.

[00:12:01] Perhaps it’s useful to think about the process of recycling something, a plastic bottle, let’s say, to illustrate this.

[00:12:10] After I’m finished with the bottle of water, I see a recycling bin and think “great, I’ll just chuck it in there”. 

[00:12:18] Someone needs to come in a truck to collect it, take it to be sorted, it needs to be put together with other similar plastics, because not all plastics can be recycled together, then it will probably be taken on a large ship, transported often thousands of kilometres away, where it will be melted down at high temperatures, to be turned into small plastic pellets, which will only then be resold to plastic plants, who will melt it again to make another bottle. 

[00:12:49] As we see, there is a non-zero environmental cost to this kind of circular economy.

[00:12:56] And this is not to say that this isn’t a cost worth paying, but rather to illustrate that recycling alone isn’t without its environmental cost. 

[00:13:07] So, what is the answer then?

[00:13:09] Well, one theory has it that we should use plastic alternatives.

[00:13:14] Instead of plastic bottles, we use glass bottles.

[00:13:17] Instead of plastic bags, we use cotton bags.

[00:13:21] This might result in less plastic in the oceans, but neither of these options are ideal environmentally.

[00:13:30] There’s an excellent TED talk about this by a Danish professor called Kim Ragaert, where she explains in detail how to think about plastic as an alternative to these options.

[00:13:42] In the case of glass bottles, she explains that glass bottles can be twice as heavy as plastic, meaning the transport costs of the packaging is double.

[00:13:53] You can reuse glass bottles for liquids, but after the glass has been used 8 times it needs to be recycled, and because glass melts at 1,500 degrees Centigrade, the recycling process of glass takes a lot more energy than recycling plastic.

[00:14:12] Similarly, with the plastic versus cotton bag debate, because you need so much cotton to create a bag, and it is such a thirsty crop, it requires so much water, you would need to reuse a cotton bag 173 times for it to have a lower environmental impact than a single plastic bag. 

[00:14:34] To put it another way, if you reused one of those simple plastic bags for a month it would have the same environmental cost as using the same cotton bag for 15 years.

[00:14:47] As you’re probably seeing now, one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental use of plastic is to reduce your use of plastic and reuse the plastic you do use, not to rely on recycling to do the work for us.

[00:15:03] This is, of course, not to say that recycling is pointless or that it isn’t worth it, but that it should be complemented with reducing and reusing.

[00:15:14] In many cases, this is easy to do.

[00:15:17] Instead of buying plastic bottles, reuse old plastic bottles or use a water filter instead of buying plastic bottles in the first place.

[00:15:27] But clearly, reusing or not using plastic in the first place isn’t always an option. 

[00:15:33] Healthcare is an obvious example, but there are situations where even the most devoted anti-plastic campaigner may well admit that the alternatives are considerably worse, and criticism of plastic isn’t actually all that helpful.

[00:15:49] Plastic straws, for example, are a frequent object of government criticism, and multiple cities and countries across the world have banned them.

[00:15:59] Sure, plastic straws are very visible, there were an estimated 500 million plastic straws used every single day in the United States alone, and they are technically unnecessary because it’s perfectly possible to drink without a straw.

[00:16:16] But focussing attention on plastic straws is a distraction, so some critics say.

[00:16:23] Plastic straws make up just 0.025% of all of the plastic that goes into the ocean, and even if plastic straws were banned forever and every single plastic straw that had been washed into the oceans throughout history was magically removed, it still wouldn’t account for 1% of plastic pollution. 

[00:16:46] Put simply, the impact of plastic straws on environmental pollution is absolutely miniscule, it's tiny. 

[00:16:54] This doesn’t mean that plastic straws are good, not at all, but rather that instead of focusing our attention and effort on things like plastic straw use, a renewed focus should be put on things that will actually have an impact.

[00:17:09] So, if you’re waiting for the punchline, what are the things that actually matter, according to environmental campaigners against plastic pollution?

[00:17:19] Well, you likely know them already. Whether it’s Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund, the main recommendations all revolve around choosing non-plastic where the option exists, and reusing the plastic that you already use.

[00:17:34] But there is another category of recommendation, and this is specifically around plastic recycling.

[00:17:42] If you are going to recycle, which of course you should do, make sure that you do it properly. 

[00:17:48] One of the biggest problems with plastic recycling is stuff being put in the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there, leading to contamination

[00:17:57] And this doesn’t just mean contamination of your recycling, but all of the other recycling that’s in the batch with it, so the importance of actually recycling properly cannot be understated.

[00:18:10] As the saying goes in the UK, “if in doubt, leave it out”, meaning if you don’t know whether something can be recycled, just put it in the normal rubbish bin instead.

[00:18:22] Now, plastic is clearly a very useful material for almost everything, and we have an almost 50-year history of trying to get people to recycle it, with quite limited success.

[00:18:34] But what if there were a way to have some of the evident convenience of single-use plastic without the environmental problems that our current usage brings? 

[00:18:44] Well, one possibility is something called bioplastics. 

[00:18:49] These are plastics that are made from natural materials, such as corn starch or sugar cane, and are often designed to decompose easily.

[00:18:59] Unlike conventional plastics, bioplastics don’t rely on fossil fuels, such as oil, for production.

[00:19:07] They can often be composted – but usually only in special industrial facilities. Other types still need to be recycled, which takes us back to the same issues we have with regular plastic. Now, bioplastics are still fairly new, and currently make up less than 1 percent of total plastic production.

[00:19:27] So, bioplastics are a work in progress, and the jury is still out on whether they will be part of the answer to our plastic problem.

[00:19:37] So, what about improving plastic recycling? 

[00:19:40] Well, a new type of process called ‘chemical recycling’ could change the way we deal with our plastic waste.

[00:19:48] The way we recycle plastic at the moment, mechanically, means that the actual structure of the plastic doesn’t change when it goes through the recycling process. With chemical recycling, plastic is broken down into its chemical components – its building blocks – before being made into new material.

[00:20:08] In theory, the benefit of chemical recycling is that plastics don’t have to be sorted into different types in the same way as they do today. 

[00:20:18] That means more recycling and less waste, but there’s still the same issue of persuading people to actually put their plastic in the recycling bin in the first place.

[00:20:29] Again, the jury is still out on chemical recycling.

[00:20:33] So, to wrap up this episode, we started with a heretical question, “does plastic recycling really work?”

[00:20:42] And what’s the answer? 

[00:20:44] It’s that yes, it can work structurally, the actual mechanism of recycling works, we can turn plastic into new plastic.

[00:20:54] But human beings, all 8 billion of us, are not nearly as good at recycling our plastic as we should be, and often our priorities are misplaced.

[00:21:05] The reality is that plastic is an incredibly useful invention, used in practically every aspect of modern life, and that simply getting rid of plastic, without having an alternative, is not a viable option.

[00:21:20] So, while we continue to dump 8 million metric tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year and we aren’t getting much better at recycling it, it seems like The Plastic Age is going to continue for quite a while longer.

[00:21:35] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Plastic Recycling.

[00:21:40] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:43] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:47] What is the general mentality about plastic recycling like in your country?

[00:21:52] Are you optimistic about the potential of a future world without plastic?

[00:21:56] I would love to know.

[00:21:58] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:06] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:11] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I’m Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about plastic.

[00:00:27] Plastic is clearly everywhere in modern life.

[00:00:30] It seems that everything we unwrap, unbox or throw away today comes with plastic, with the average person in Europe getting through a kilo of plastic every single week.

[00:00:42] But, no matter how much plastic we use, the good news is that if we are good citizens and put it in a recycling bin it will magically be turned into new plastic.

[00:00:53] Or will it?

[00:00:54] In this episode we are going to look at recycling plastic, and ask the perhaps heretical question – “does it really work?”

[00:01:03] Ok then, plastic.

[00:01:06] Today we use plastic in just about everything. 

[00:01:10] Toys, technology, cars, appliances and even building materials all contain plastic.

[00:01:17] The device you’re listening to this on is made possible thanks to plastic.

[00:01:23] Globally we produce over 380 million tonnes of plastic every year. In 1950, this number was just 2 million. 

[00:01:33] And over a quarter of that is packaging.

[00:01:37] The UK alone gets through 7.7 billion water bottles every year – that’s around 150 bottles per person!

[00:01:47] Globally there are an estimated 500 billion plastic water bottles used worldwide. And this is just water bottles - perhaps one of the most visible uses of plastic but only representing a tiny fraction of the total plastic used worldwide.

[00:02:05] And plastic, over the past few years, has got a lot of negative media attention.

[00:02:11] It is thrown into our rivers and oceans, kills fish and birds, and ends up polluting the wonderful, beautiful world we live in.

[00:02:21] There are a few different schools of thoughts about what should be done about this, or at least elements to the discussion.

[00:02:29] Firstly, that it’s the job of governments to better educate people about recycling, to simply get people to recycle more. 

[00:02:38] You may be aware that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled, so we simply aren’t very good at recycling, despite the fact that in much of the Western world at least we have been taught to recycle for decades now.

[00:02:54] Secondly, that we need to use less plastic and find more sustainable options. Instead of plastic bags we should use paper bags, instead of plastic bottles we use glass and so on.

[00:03:09] Thirdly, that we need to get better at reusing, that if we simply reuse the plastic that has already been created, the levels of plastic created would reduce.

[00:03:20] And fourthly, there’s a larger category of placing an increased focus on technological developments to both improve recycling processes and create alternatives to plastic. 

[00:03:34] In this episode we’ll touch on all of these four different categories, but first off, let’s remind ourselves of what plastic actually is, and where it comes from.

[00:03:46] We tend to think of plastic as a pretty modern material. So you might be surprised to find out that it was actually invented in the 19th century. 

[00:03:57] Yes, the first plastic - something called Parkesine - appeared way back in 1862, 160 years ago.

[00:04:06] In the 1920s and 30s, the first modern plastic, Bakelite, came along. 

[00:04:12] It was heat resistant, durable and insulating, Bakelite was used in everything from telephones to light switches.

[00:04:22] But plastic really came into its own in the second half of the 20th century, 100 years after its first appearance.

[00:04:31] As plastic became cheaper and easier to produce, it increasingly replaced older, more expensive materials, such as metal and glass – especially in packaging.

[00:04:43] In the 1960s, the now ubiquitous plastic bag started to make its way into shops, ushering in the true age of plastic. 

[00:04:54] And although it’s frequently bashed, criticised by a lot of environmental campaigners, it would be shortsighted and negligent not to take a minute to underline how much plastic has revolutionised modern life, with some people even dubbing the modern era as “The Plastic Age”.

[00:05:16] Unlike glass, plastic is light and hard to break – making it easier and safer to transport items in plastic containers.

[00:05:25] It doesn’t break down or decompose, meaning it’s hard-wearing and long-lasting. 

[00:05:31] These properties have allowed us to make huge advances in medicine, food production and technology.

[00:05:39] It’s no exaggeration to say that every aspect of our lives would be different without plastic.

[00:05:46] Take food production, for example. 

[00:05:48] Plastic is often a villain of the food industry, because of how much single-use plastic is used in food packaging, but there are many ways in which it actually helps reduce food waste.

[00:06:01] Plastic packaging means produce can be sealed – keeping it fresh for longer, and giving us a wider choice of fresh products on the shelves than ever before.

[00:06:12] Vacuum packaging protects food, slowing decomposition and giving food a longer shelf life

[00:06:19] A study from 2011, for example, showed that the just 2g of plastic that is wrapped around a cucumber extends its shelf life by up to 60 per cent – simply by preventing the cucumber from losing water and drying out.

[00:06:37] Without plastic packaging, much of our food would go bad before it even reached the shops. 

[00:06:43] In fact, a Swiss study suggested that the environmental benefit that wrapping cucumbers in plastic has on reducing food waste is almost 5 times higher than the negative impact of producing the packaging.

[00:06:58] All these benefits are created by just a tiny amount of plastic.

[00:07:03] And of course it’s not just food production.

[00:07:06] Plastic’s insulating properties have given us huge advances in building and heating materials, helping to keep our homes warmer and reduce use of fossil fuels.

[00:07:17] Plastic has also revolutionised healthcare, allowing us to create single use items such as gloves and syringes, which make medicine safer. 

[00:07:27] It’s sterile and hypo-allergenic, and its inherent flexibility has led to all kinds of innovations in medical devices, from pacemakers to blister packs.

[00:07:40] It has even made driving safer – plastic is used in airbags, bumpers and seat belts to name just a few.

[00:07:48] And then there’s the environmental and economic benefit of transporting goods in plastic packaging. Because it’s so lightweight, transporting plastic uses less fuel than other materials, meaning lower energy use and fewer emissions.

[00:08:05] For example, a glass yoghurt pot weighs around 85 grams. But a plastic one only weighs 5.5 grams. So, once you’ve loaded your yoghurt into the truck, the glass jars – the packaging – takes up over a third of your total weight if we’re talking about a small pot of yoghurt.

[00:08:26] For plastic pots it’s less than four per cent! 

[00:08:30] This means you need more trucks – and more fuel – to transport the glass pots.

[00:08:36] Now, based simply on how cheap, durable, lightweight, and hygienic plastic is, an alien arriving on planet Earth might ask “so, what’s the problem then?”

[00:08:48] Well, it’s precisely the properties that make plastic so useful that also become its biggest problems after we’ve finished with it.

[00:08:57] It’s so cheap to make, meaning it’s economically acceptable to use it once and then throw it away.

[00:09:03] Given that only 9% of plastic is ever recycled, the vast majority of it ends up in landfills.

[00:09:11] And once it’s in a landfill, one of its biggest benefits becomes its biggest problem.

[00:09:17] It is so hard-wearing and durable that it can take hundreds of years to decompose.

[00:09:24] And when it does start to decompose, well that’s not good news either.

[00:09:29] Plastics break down into tiny, microscopic particles, known as microplastics, as they decompose. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but these particles can get into our environment, and particularly into the oceans.

[00:09:45] They are then ingested by fish and marine animals, making their way through our ecosystems and even into the human food chain when we eat these fish and animals.

[00:09:57] It’s estimated that a staggering 90% of seabirds now have plastic in their stomachs. 

[00:10:04] And a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation claimed that at least eight million tonnes of plastics are leaked into the ocean every year – that's the equivalent of tipping a rubbish truck into the sea every minute. 

[00:10:19] In fact it is predicted that by the year 2050 there will be, by weight, more plastic in the sea than fish!

[00:10:28] Now, we don’t really know the effect that these microplastics might have on our bodies, but there is growing concern that they could be causing serious damage.

[00:10:39] So, plastic, whilst being cheap, durable and flexible, is also non-biodegradable, takes millennia to break down and pollutes our land and oceans.

[00:10:50] But there is a solution, I hear you saying. Recycling.

[00:10:54] It sounds like a brilliant solution. We get all of the benefits of using plastic without the environmental pollution.

[00:11:02] Except, of course, it’s not quite that simple. 

[00:11:06] Firstly, getting people to actually recycle is really hard. 

[00:11:12] Governments have been telling people to “reduce, reuse and recycle” for over 40 years, but still only 9% of plastic is actually recycled globally.

[00:11:24] Yes, some countries are better, others are worse, but even doubling the global recycling rate would still mean that four out of five pieces of plastic produced worldwide would never be recycled.

[00:11:38] And this is before we get to the question of plastic recycling itself.

[00:11:43] There is an environmental cost to everything, and recycling is no exception.

[00:11:49] And when it comes to recycling plastic, this cost is not insignificant, and in some cases it can be higher than simply producing the plastic from scratch.

[00:12:01] Perhaps it’s useful to think about the process of recycling something, a plastic bottle, let’s say, to illustrate this.

[00:12:10] After I’m finished with the bottle of water, I see a recycling bin and think “great, I’ll just chuck it in there”. 

[00:12:18] Someone needs to come in a truck to collect it, take it to be sorted, it needs to be put together with other similar plastics, because not all plastics can be recycled together, then it will probably be taken on a large ship, transported often thousands of kilometres away, where it will be melted down at high temperatures, to be turned into small plastic pellets, which will only then be resold to plastic plants, who will melt it again to make another bottle. 

[00:12:49] As we see, there is a non-zero environmental cost to this kind of circular economy.

[00:12:56] And this is not to say that this isn’t a cost worth paying, but rather to illustrate that recycling alone isn’t without its environmental cost. 

[00:13:07] So, what is the answer then?

[00:13:09] Well, one theory has it that we should use plastic alternatives.

[00:13:14] Instead of plastic bottles, we use glass bottles.

[00:13:17] Instead of plastic bags, we use cotton bags.

[00:13:21] This might result in less plastic in the oceans, but neither of these options are ideal environmentally.

[00:13:30] There’s an excellent TED talk about this by a Danish professor called Kim Ragaert, where she explains in detail how to think about plastic as an alternative to these options.

[00:13:42] In the case of glass bottles, she explains that glass bottles can be twice as heavy as plastic, meaning the transport costs of the packaging is double.

[00:13:53] You can reuse glass bottles for liquids, but after the glass has been used 8 times it needs to be recycled, and because glass melts at 1,500 degrees Centigrade, the recycling process of glass takes a lot more energy than recycling plastic.

[00:14:12] Similarly, with the plastic versus cotton bag debate, because you need so much cotton to create a bag, and it is such a thirsty crop, it requires so much water, you would need to reuse a cotton bag 173 times for it to have a lower environmental impact than a single plastic bag. 

[00:14:34] To put it another way, if you reused one of those simple plastic bags for a month it would have the same environmental cost as using the same cotton bag for 15 years.

[00:14:47] As you’re probably seeing now, one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental use of plastic is to reduce your use of plastic and reuse the plastic you do use, not to rely on recycling to do the work for us.

[00:15:03] This is, of course, not to say that recycling is pointless or that it isn’t worth it, but that it should be complemented with reducing and reusing.

[00:15:14] In many cases, this is easy to do.

[00:15:17] Instead of buying plastic bottles, reuse old plastic bottles or use a water filter instead of buying plastic bottles in the first place.

[00:15:27] But clearly, reusing or not using plastic in the first place isn’t always an option. 

[00:15:33] Healthcare is an obvious example, but there are situations where even the most devoted anti-plastic campaigner may well admit that the alternatives are considerably worse, and criticism of plastic isn’t actually all that helpful.

[00:15:49] Plastic straws, for example, are a frequent object of government criticism, and multiple cities and countries across the world have banned them.

[00:15:59] Sure, plastic straws are very visible, there were an estimated 500 million plastic straws used every single day in the United States alone, and they are technically unnecessary because it’s perfectly possible to drink without a straw.

[00:16:16] But focussing attention on plastic straws is a distraction, so some critics say.

[00:16:23] Plastic straws make up just 0.025% of all of the plastic that goes into the ocean, and even if plastic straws were banned forever and every single plastic straw that had been washed into the oceans throughout history was magically removed, it still wouldn’t account for 1% of plastic pollution. 

[00:16:46] Put simply, the impact of plastic straws on environmental pollution is absolutely miniscule, it's tiny. 

[00:16:54] This doesn’t mean that plastic straws are good, not at all, but rather that instead of focusing our attention and effort on things like plastic straw use, a renewed focus should be put on things that will actually have an impact.

[00:17:09] So, if you’re waiting for the punchline, what are the things that actually matter, according to environmental campaigners against plastic pollution?

[00:17:19] Well, you likely know them already. Whether it’s Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund, the main recommendations all revolve around choosing non-plastic where the option exists, and reusing the plastic that you already use.

[00:17:34] But there is another category of recommendation, and this is specifically around plastic recycling.

[00:17:42] If you are going to recycle, which of course you should do, make sure that you do it properly. 

[00:17:48] One of the biggest problems with plastic recycling is stuff being put in the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there, leading to contamination

[00:17:57] And this doesn’t just mean contamination of your recycling, but all of the other recycling that’s in the batch with it, so the importance of actually recycling properly cannot be understated.

[00:18:10] As the saying goes in the UK, “if in doubt, leave it out”, meaning if you don’t know whether something can be recycled, just put it in the normal rubbish bin instead.

[00:18:22] Now, plastic is clearly a very useful material for almost everything, and we have an almost 50-year history of trying to get people to recycle it, with quite limited success.

[00:18:34] But what if there were a way to have some of the evident convenience of single-use plastic without the environmental problems that our current usage brings? 

[00:18:44] Well, one possibility is something called bioplastics. 

[00:18:49] These are plastics that are made from natural materials, such as corn starch or sugar cane, and are often designed to decompose easily.

[00:18:59] Unlike conventional plastics, bioplastics don’t rely on fossil fuels, such as oil, for production.

[00:19:07] They can often be composted – but usually only in special industrial facilities. Other types still need to be recycled, which takes us back to the same issues we have with regular plastic. Now, bioplastics are still fairly new, and currently make up less than 1 percent of total plastic production.

[00:19:27] So, bioplastics are a work in progress, and the jury is still out on whether they will be part of the answer to our plastic problem.

[00:19:37] So, what about improving plastic recycling? 

[00:19:40] Well, a new type of process called ‘chemical recycling’ could change the way we deal with our plastic waste.

[00:19:48] The way we recycle plastic at the moment, mechanically, means that the actual structure of the plastic doesn’t change when it goes through the recycling process. With chemical recycling, plastic is broken down into its chemical components – its building blocks – before being made into new material.

[00:20:08] In theory, the benefit of chemical recycling is that plastics don’t have to be sorted into different types in the same way as they do today. 

[00:20:18] That means more recycling and less waste, but there’s still the same issue of persuading people to actually put their plastic in the recycling bin in the first place.

[00:20:29] Again, the jury is still out on chemical recycling.

[00:20:33] So, to wrap up this episode, we started with a heretical question, “does plastic recycling really work?”

[00:20:42] And what’s the answer? 

[00:20:44] It’s that yes, it can work structurally, the actual mechanism of recycling works, we can turn plastic into new plastic.

[00:20:54] But human beings, all 8 billion of us, are not nearly as good at recycling our plastic as we should be, and often our priorities are misplaced.

[00:21:05] The reality is that plastic is an incredibly useful invention, used in practically every aspect of modern life, and that simply getting rid of plastic, without having an alternative, is not a viable option.

[00:21:20] So, while we continue to dump 8 million metric tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year and we aren’t getting much better at recycling it, it seems like The Plastic Age is going to continue for quite a while longer.

[00:21:35] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Plastic Recycling.

[00:21:40] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:43] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:47] What is the general mentality about plastic recycling like in your country?

[00:21:52] Are you optimistic about the potential of a future world without plastic?

[00:21:56] I would love to know.

[00:21:58] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:06] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:11] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]