The Tradeoffs of Energy Used to Recycle vs Make New Plastics

Effects of waste products have become a major challenge to many countries of the world. Billions of tonnes of waste products are produced in many countries across the world each year. For instance, about 3 billion tonnes of waste are being generated in the European Union countries every year (JRC 2011). These wastes often cause negative impacts on the environment; leading to pollution and emission of greenhouse gas. As a result, this causes climate change. Goods and services cause various environmental impacts over their lifetime; from their production to consumption.

During this whole period, resources are consumed and pressure is caused on the environment and human health.

The lifetime of these products also play a crucial role in the environmental problems related to wastes. Measures to combat the effects of wastes at one time period may lead to more problems in another period. For instance, an attempt to reduce the negative environmental effects of a product at its production level may result in further environmental havoc in some later stages of production or consumption of the product.

Some of the most common products that lead to environmental impacts include industrial products which emit gases, vehicles that emit gases, waste products such as household wastes and plastics as well as noise and chemicals from industries (Dodbiba and Fujita 168). These products have varied effects on human health and the environment. Household wastes such as food packages and plastics lead to environmental effects in various ways. This will be our focus area in this research paper. Plastic wastes have become objects of concern to world environmentalists and conserves as well as governments and other authorities vested with the responsibility to protect the welfare of people.

Consumers often throw away plastic bottles while less of the plastic products are recycled. Throwing away of such products may degrade the environment and lead to destruction of the rain forests. Therefore, packaging is one of the most dangerous environmental degraders which result from household wastes. In United States, plastic wastes contribute to a third of the total municipal wastes. Nowadays, as compared to the past, packaging is a common phenomenon yet wasteful. Plastic packages are used to package such commodities as milk, soda, fruit Juice, alcohol and water. These drinks are often consumed once and the plastic packages are thrown away instead f being recycled. This is a big threat to the environment because several of such plastic bottles are produced yearly and contribute to garbage disposal which impact negatively on the environment.

The urban societies of the modern world experience plastic wastes as part of their daily life experiences. This is mainly due to the fact that urban centers are characterized by industrial activities whose major element is packaging to attract customers and win a big share of the market. The world is one in which every individual, corporation and every society is striving to outdo the other through attractive mechanisms that can be used to win customers or clients. This has resulted in the use of many strategies, one of which is through packaging. Most of the packaging materials used by producers are plastic bottles and bags because they are cheaper, can be easily accessed and are most preferred by consumers.

Consumers prefer packaged products because they protect their goods especially as they travel. Plastics are also more preferred due to their low weight. As a result, plastic bottles form part of every consumer’s purchase bundles especially in urban centers. These are the same bottles which often contribute to land fill through waste disposal mechanisms. Plastic Waste Management Institute of Japan (2002) suggests that in 2002, plastic consumption was approximately 100 million tonnes per year but only 50% are recycled. It is therefore evident that plastics in that country form part of the most polluters. Some of the pollutant plastic materials used in the world today include polythene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), polythene (PE), Polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Dodbiba and Fujita (166) argue that the growing rate of plastic wastes impacts negatively on the environment.

The mechanisms used to dispose plastics such as land filling and incineration have not been effective mechanisms. Land filling has not been sustainable due to reducing capacity in most countries while incineration leads to emission of poisonous gases generates toxic fly as well as bottom ash made of lead and cadmium (Dodbiba and Fujita 168). These have negative environmental impacts. Therefore, there is need to device mechanisms through which plastic wastes should be handled in order to reduce their resultant impacts on the environment.

First is the best option which is to prevent wastes. This refers to the process of avoiding the practices which results in generation of wastes. This mechanism is very difficult to achieve because most convenient ways using materials involve materials that are used only shortly and then disposed.

The second option is to prepare waste for re-use. This is a mechanical recycling method whereby plastic wastes are re-used as new resources without interfering with the original structure of the material. It may involve either the use of the waste material as an equivalent of the original material or as a material of a lower quality.

The other mechanism is recycling which is mostly a chemical process of breaking down the original structure of the plastic wastes to produce new constituents. For instance, polymers are broken down into monomers that can be used in new forms.

Finally, energy recovery is a process in which the plastic wastes are recycled to recover or generate thermal energy. This may involve incineration of plastic wastes to produce wastes. In this paper we will be mostly concerned with the third mechanism of plastic waste management; recycling.

The main question of concern is whether plastics can be recycled or not. If they can be recycled, what is the trade-off between energy used to recycle them and the energy used to make new plastics? This question has elicited quite a number of researches to determine if it is viable in terms of energy to recycle plastics or to manufacture new ones. Recycling is used by many countries as an option to deal with the environmental problems caused by plastic wastes. Most people claim that this method is effective (JCR 2011). However, other researches show that it saves more energy to produce new plastics than to recycle the plastic wastes available.

These contradicting schools of thought pose a big challenge to potential and aspiring environmental and conservation researchers. While it may seem plausible to believe that recycling plastic wastes leads to conservation of the environment, opposing ideas hold that more energy will be used to recycle the plastic wastes than if new ones were manufactured. To deal with this problem, this research will seek to address the issue from the three fundamental perspectives of sustainable development: environmental, economic and social elements. It is not enough to consider plastic waste as an environmental concern only. It is also an issue of economic and social concern because it impacts on commercial aspect of business, consumption and utility patterns of consumers as well as the social status of the society.

Since the environmental problems associated with plastic wastes impacts on the public in general, it is always the responsibility of the state to collaborate with its citizens to curb these problems. While doing that, the government undertakes all possible techniques to ensure that the problem is addressed rather than adding more environmental problems to the system (Murakami 7). In essence, it is not prudent to attempt to solve environmental problems related to plastic wastes through recycling by using more energy than could have been used to produce new plastics. However, if such measures add to the overall social and economic wellbeing of the society then it becomes plausible to take such a course of action. The government of any nation facing environmental problems related to plastic wastes should therefore engage in various activities aimed at solving the entire problem and not focusing only on environmental impacts.

The process of recycling consumer waste can be done in two steps namely, collection and sorting. This is often the work of the state, although members of the public also play a vital role by ensuring that they dispose plastic wastes at centers specified by the government authorities responsible for the recycling process. The process is often faced by the challenge of communication between the public and the government. Some members of the public are also ignorant and may not collaborate effectively with the state. This may lead the government to engage more energy in resolving the issue than it could have used to produce new plastics. Therefore, the government should ensure that they engage in good mechanisms to involve every user of plastic materials in the recycling process.

Collection of plastic wastes should be done in such a way that all plastic wastes are assembled in a central place (Murakami 8). This may not be an easy task because there is a tendency for conflict between the government’s expense and public convenience. To deal with this conflict, the government may define specific and convenient mechanisms such as drop off centres, curbside collection centres and buyback stations. Drop-off centres are central stations where the plastic users drop their plastic wastes. This system is not effective because it lacks sufficient throughput. There are many loopholes for plastic users to evade the duty to dispose their plastic wastes at the drop off centers because there is no incentive to do so.

Curbside collection involves many systems which vary in terms of collection and sorting. In this case, a vehicle is used to pick the waste materials in different curbside collection centers. This method may also be considered by some people as energy wasting because the vehicles used to pick the garbage use energy in form of fuel and the money used to pay the workers would have been used to buy more energy.

Buyback centers refer to stations whereby the plastic wastes are bought (Murakami 7). This gives a plastic waster an incentive to dispose his/her used plastics at the buyback centers. The money used to buy back the plastic waste products are often in form of government subsidies which are often not fully recovered because the amount of money received from the sale of processed materials always exceed the amount of money used to buy the plastic wastes at the buyback centers. Therefore, this method may not be energy saving in the sense that the amount of money used to buy the plastic wastes would be used in other energy generation alternatives. However, if the amount of money used to buy back the plastic products is less compared to the amount of money to produce new plastics, then it is justifiable to recycle the plastic bags.

The most important aspect here is the government’s effectiveness in fiscal policy formulation and implementation (Saeki 15). If the government uses appropriate policy options to encourage most consumers to take their plastic wastes to the buyback, drop off and curbside centers at the least possible cost, then trade-off between energy used in recycling plastic wastes and energy used in producing new ones may be in favour of recycling. It may also be argued that the government’s action to recycle plastic wastes in this manner is in the best interest of the public in terms of social welfare and environmental friendliness.

Recycling will create a good environment where the members of the public can enjoy working comfortably with less pollution. The environmental effects associated with plastic wastes are also avoided through the recycling process, hence reducing the problems of global warming and climate change. This way, such calamities as droughts and famine may be reduced and the economic and social conditions of the country become favourable. Therefore, in overall the energy saving will increase and the energy use in a situation of recycling will be low relative to the situation of producing new plastics.

The consumer wastes sorting process is the next step that the government can take to recycle plastic wastes. In this process, different plastic materials are collected and sorted in a central collection structure (Saeki 15). The materials may be sorted automatically in a single-stream recycling process. Plastic bags are sorted in this process. The next set of processes will involve sorting of Polythene and polythene terephthalate (Saeki 15). This process involves the use of energy, hence making the process of recycling seem like a more energy-consuming process than production of new plastic materials.

Government recycling program for industries is also a widely used program. Recycling from the industrial perspective is more concerned with cost-effectiveness, especially in terms of energy. It has been a center of debate for a long time whether it is economically efficient to engage in recycling of plastic wastes or simply produce new plastic materials. As earlier noted, governments formulate and implement fiscal policies to guide its recycling processes. This has been noted as contributing factor to reduced landfill in cities (Lavee 48). Reduced landfills create more space for other economically viable activities. Therefore, recycling becomes an economically viable alternative to producing new plastic materials.

Research shows that recycling is the best alternative of disposing household plastic wastes. This is because recycling results in economically beneficial externalities such as reduced greenhouse emissions and air pollution as well as a decrease in consumption of energy. As a result, recycling is considered to be using less energy or saves more energy than other methods of disposing plastic wastes such as incineration and land filling. Recycling also results in the reduction of resource consumption and waste production. Reduction of wastes and resource usage means that the system in place (recycling) is economically effective.

On the other hand, production of new plastic products means that the existing plastic wastes should either be disposed in landfills or incinerated. Landfills lead to dangerous waste leaching while incineration leads to air pollution and green house emissions. All these effects result in negative environmental impacts in form of negative externalities. Therefore, recycling of plastic wastes is also considered to be more economical than producing new plastic materials.

The United states Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggest that recycling programs in the USA reduced carbon emissions in that country from in 2005 by 49M tonnes (Dodbiba and Fujita 168). The UK’s Waste and Resources Action Program also hold that UK’s recycling methods reduces carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 10 to 15 tonnes annually (Dodbiba and Fujita 168). However, recycling is economically feasible only if the plastic waste centers are sufficient and the demand for recycled products is high. The government should therefore shift from providing subsidies for the negative externalities produced through incineration and landfills to encouraging measures to increase demand for recycled products.

Recycling also saves some energy depending on the products that undergo recycling and the mechanism used to measure the amount of energy used. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that a given plastic manufacturer can use up to 40% less energy to manufacture a plastic bottle using a recycled plastic bottle than it does to manufacture it from a new plastic material (Energy Information Administration 2006). It is therefore clear that energy involved in recycling is less than the energy used to make new products because the recycling process uses materials which have already undergone processing.

On the other hand, producing new products requires the use of new unprocessed materials which will obviously require more energy to process for the first time. For instance, trucks required to transport new plastic materials to the manufacturing center are more than the trucks required to transport plastic wastes from a curbside to the collection processing center. Therefore, more energy is used by the more trucks used in manufacturing new products than the less trucks used in recycling process.

JRC states that to produce new plastic products from a plastic raw material one requires approximately 80MJ/Kg. incineration produces about 3 MJ/Kg terms of electricity and a further 10 MJ from recovered energy due to process steam (JRC 2011). This energy gain is very small as compared to the energy required to produce new plastic products from new raw materials. On the other hand, recycling uses approximately 9 MJ/Kg (JRC 2011). Since recycling does not use consume as much energy as the production of new plastic from plastic raw materials, it leads to consumption of lower energy compared to incineration and of plastic materials and producing new plastic materials from raw materials. Therefore, assuming the recycling material is not over-soiled and not degraded during recycling, the recycling of plastic wastes results in less energy usage than production of new plastic products. Taking into account the lifecycle assessment of the plastic materials and products, recycling is considered to be better than energy recovery.

Indeed, recycling of plastic wastes and producing new plastic products both have different advantages and disadvantages in terms of energy. The tradeoffs between the two in terms of energy consumption and saving have been analyzed in depth and various aspects of recycling and energy recovery were compared. It was noted that if appropriate fiscal policies are used by relevant authorities to implement recycling programs, the programs will result in energy saving and economic and social benefits to the society (Murakami 7). It is evident from the research that more energy is used to manufacture new products than to recycle existing plastic materials. It is also clear that producing new products involves energy recovery through incinerating. This has been noted to result in gas emissions and air pollutions and hence results in negative environmental impacts. It is therefore acceptable to conclude that recycling and producing new products both use energy but recycling involves less energy consumption than producing new products.

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