Various methods of disposing plastics
Plastics are everywhere! Our increasing consumption and production of plastic waste needs a solution. Let us find out more about how and where plastic waste is disposed of and the better methods of disposing plastics.
Organic waste such as the peels of vegetables, fruits and food remains can get broken down by bacteria in the soil to create a rich source of nutrients in the form of compost. A material that gets decomposed through natural processes and action by bacteria is called biodegradable.
Plastics do not decompose by natural processes and action of bacteria and are therefore not biodegradable. It is important for us to separate our biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste and dispose of them separately. A lot of the plastic produced globally is designed to be used only once and thrown away, creating a large amount of plastic waste. Plastic waste ends up being recycled, incinerated, landfilled, dumped or ends up littering our environment. It is estimated that from all the plastic waste ever produced, 79% is in landfills, dumps or in the environment, 12% has been incinerated and only a small 9% is recycled.
Let us learn more about what happens with the plastic waste. One way to look at plastic disposal is the 5R Principle – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover. We have already learned about the waste pyramid and how the different methods of waste disposal can be seen in terms of the best option to the least favourable in this order: Refuse (Avoid), Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover (Compost and Incinerate) and Landfill.
The best thing to do is to avoid using plastic products. One-time use throwaway plastics can often be avoided. For example, we can carry cotton or jute bags when we go shopping and say no when a shopkeeper offers us a plastic bag.
Reducing the amount of plastic we use is important. Before buying a plastic product we can check to see if there are any substitutes or alternatives that can be used. If we use fewer plastics, we will create less plastic waste. However, even if we try to reduce the amount of plastics we use and throw away, it is impossible to stop using plastics completely.
If possible products made of plastics can be used again and again. For example, if we have a plastic bag in good condition, instead of throwing it away we can use it again the next time we go for shopping. If we have a plastic product and if you do not feel like using it again, we can give it to others instead of throwing it out.
It is better to recycle plastic waste. Separating plastic waste and making sure it gets recycled is good as it turns waste materials into something new. Then it will not be thrown away in landfills, open dumps or ending up as litter in the environment. Many thermoplastics can be recycled. They can be softened by heating and can be made into another article by recycling, but thermosetting plastics cannot be recycled. Recycling of plastics is challenging and it is important to know that plastics cannot be recycled forever. There are so many different types of plastics, which are often mixed together making it difficult to separate them back into the original material. Every time plastic is melted and recycled it loses quality, this is called ‘downcycling’. Recycling of plastic waste cannot be the only solution to plastic pollution.
Recover (Compost And Incinerate)
Solid waste can be converted into resources such as electricity and compost through thermal and biological means. Burning plastics in a large furnace or in the open is bad for the environment.
Open burning releases toxic pollutants into the air and soil, which are harmful to our health, animals and the environment. Burning plastics at high temperatures in incinerators and trapping the gases and collecting the toxic ash is widely used to produce energy. This is often seen as a positive way to deal with plastic waste. However, burning plastics releases super toxic gases, and the remaining ash contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Burning of plastics is not a good solution, as we end up wasting non-renewable resources and produce super toxic chemicals that are difficult to store or dispose safely.
Compost your organic waste
Open burning and incineration
Plastic waste often ends up in landfills that are huge holes where waste is buried to keep it separate from the environment. This is the most common way for plastics to be disposed of around the world. Plastics make up 7-13% of waste that is sent to landfills on a global scale. Plastics in landfills can still lead to pollution of the air, soil and groundwater. Over time landfills can degrade, and the toxic chemicals in certain plastics can leak out into the environment.