How does recycling plastic help the environment?

Hand in bin full of plastic resin

From setting sustainable objectives to putting recycling bins in the office, many businesses are working hard to recycle plastic waste and also to purchase plastic products, such as caps and plugs that can contain recycled plastic.

However, a recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN Environment Programme has called on businesses to do more. Though recognizing that some progress has been made by the more than 1,000 companies signed up to the Global Commitment and Plastic Pact, it also noted that many 2025 targets will be missed.

This includes the goals of reaching 26% usage of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic and decreasing their overall use of virgin plastic, neither of which will be reached by some companies. Essentra Components has been able to make a number of LPDE components including tapered caps and plugs, corner protectors, tube end plugs and tube end caps from 98% recycled plastic. The additional 2% is made up of colourants.

As such, organizations of all sizes need to take urgent action around recycling and reusing plastics. But what exactly will the impact be and how can businesses make the case for increasing plastic recycling in their organizations?

In this article, we’ll cover:

How does plastic impact the environment?

Though many individuals and businesses are already recycling their plastic, some may not realize the environmental consequences of not doing so. With 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic there are a variety of ways polymer waste is negatively impacting the planet.

  • Use of fossil fuels: with 98% of single-use plastic products made from fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and petroleum, producing polymers requires the extraction and refinement of scarce natural resources. The production, use and disposal of these raw materials also require significant amounts of energy and produce large amounts of carbon emissions.
  • Significant carbon footprint: from the energy-intensive production of plastic products to their end-of-life incineration or landfill disposal, new plastic production creates huge amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.
  • Damaging waste: even if plastic bottles are put in the recycling bin, they don't always end up being reused. The same is true for items manufactured by OEMs used in end products. At the end of their life, products such as server cabinets and circuit boards, which are made up of a mix of recyclable and non-recyclable components, aren’t always broken up into their recyclable parts. As a result, landfill space and natural environments become full of plastic waste posing risks to biodiversity and human health.
Landfill waste

Although recycling plastics isn't the only answer to addressing these challenges, it has been noted as a key to achieving environmental targets. Developing more sustainable products from alternative polymer materials, building an effective circular economy and promoting the reuse of plastic products will also help reach these goals.

What are the environmental benefits of recycling plastic?

Within businesses, increasing plastic recycling can make processes, operations and organizations more sustainable in a range of ways.

Saves energy

When it comes to energy conservation, recycling plastics has a significant impact. Compared to the production of new plastics and the incineration of polymer products such as food packaging, the amount of energy required is considerably lower.

To make a plastic bottle from recycled polymers, 75% less energy is needed. Plus, recycling plastic products rather than burning them means fossil fuel doesn't need to be extracted and used to create more plastic, so significantly less energy is needed.

These energy-saving capabilities make plastics recycling a particularly important strategy while fossil fuels are still being used to produce the majority of electrical energy, rather than renewable sources.

Turtle swimming in ocean

Protects from environmental damage

Recycling conserves natural resources and means less plastic is left in the environment. Reforming recycling programmes to make sure plastic waste doesn't end up in animal habitats, the sea or in the soil is key to minimizing the spread and damage of the microplastics and toxic chemicals released as the plastics degrade.

Already travelling to some of the most remote parts of the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic, plastic makes up 85% of marine waste and causes $13 billion in ecosystem damage each year. Plus, plastic bags have been reported as one of the biggest killers of whales, turtles and seabirds.

Reduces landfill use

Landfill space is at a premium across the world. Restriction on landfills means rubbish is being transported from the West to parts of Asia and Africa, or even being sent to space. Solid waste is overflowing and causing damage to both wildlife and humans.

Shipping landfill waste

Increasing plastic recycling leads directly to reduced landfill use by turning recyclable plastics into new products and removing significant amounts of waste from the environment. This also means common landfill gases, such as methane, aren't released into the atmosphere to cause damage to the planet or human health.

Decreases demand for raw materials

The raw material used to create the majority of plastic is oil. This oil (alongside another fossil fuel used to create plastic - natural gas) is in short supply and highly damaging to the environment when it's extracted and refined. This includes a high amount of energy usage and a significant level of greenhouse gases released during this process.

To combat this, a circular economy is being developed, where plastic waste is processed and remade into new products, such as plastic containers or medical devices. This means fewer polymer virgin materials need to be produced and less oil and gas are used. There is a challenge for manufacturers around sourcing high quality raw recycled plastic, however Essentra Components is working closely with suppliers to continue developing new products for future industries. 

Minimizes greenhouse gas emissions

To halt climate change, it's key that countries, businesses and individuals work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling always wins over virgin production on all environmental indicators. Producing recycled plastic can help each individual save just over 1kg of carbon dioxide per month based on the standard waste produced by each US adult.

Plus, as research and innovation in plastic recycling technology continue, businesses can reduce greenhouse gas emissions more effectively. For example, a recent study found that mechanical recycling is significantly less emission-producing than chemical processes, a finding which could change how organisations deal with their plastic waste.

What are the business benefits of recycling plastic?

Though the environmental benefits of plastic recycling and using recycled plastic are well-known and reported, making the business case for prioritizing recycled materials over new plastics can be more difficult. However, there is a range of gains that can be made by organizations which introduce a thorough plastic recycling programme.

Reduces costs

By putting in systems that minimize or recycle any plastic waste back into production processes, operations can make the most of their raw materials. This provides cost as well as environmental benefits.

Using raw materials in production

Creates a competitive advantage

More customers (even business-to-business ones) are becoming aware of the carbon footprint of their purchases. By developing products using new types of plastics, creating recycled products or working to become more sustainable, businesses can set themselves apart from their competitors.

By showing itself as an environmental innovator, a business can excite its customers about new, more sustainable products and reassure them of its green credentials. This is important to any customer looking to reduce their carbon impact.

Achieves environmental compliance

Whether it's cutting down the number of greenhouse gases produced, avoiding fines from regulators or reaching strict environmental standards, introducing an effective plastic recycling programme will help reach these compliance goals.

Plastic recycling helps to future-proof operations and avoid being on the wrong side of environmental law.

How manufacturers can increase plastic recycling and usage of recycled plastic in their products

Though the benefits of plastic recycling to both businesses and the environment are clear, there are still challenges that manufacturers face when building a comprehensive programme. This includes investing in the right infrastructure to minimize waste, gaining complete visibility over the product lifecycle and developing new, more sustainable products. 

Essentra Components has worked to overcome these challenges and improve its sustainability by:

  • Balancing materials innovation with product quality. For example, developing security seals that have premium characteristics, such as tensile strength, and are made with a minimum of 45% recycled polypropylene.
  • Introducing recycled materials into the production process. This includes using up to 98% recycled LDPE in a selected range of products, including tapered caps and plugs, tube end plugs and tube end caps. Also, Essentra Components has increased the percentage of recycled LDPE in its core range from 40% to 50%.
  • Supporting customers with their end-of-life processes. Saving 2.5 million plastic parts from going to landfill by developing sustainable components that can be broken down and reused in another manufacturing process by customer Iracroft
  • Introducing heat jackets for injection molding machines which can cut energy usage for Essentra Components by 15% globally. 

In short, by taking a comprehensive look at plastics recycling and integrating sustainability into its wider strategy, Essentra Components has managed to benefit both its business and customers. 

The company has committed to making it easier for customers to achieve their own sustainability goals, through more sustainable industrial component solutions. In addition, the components manufacturer has set itself strict environmental targets, including a 25% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2025. This means Essentra Components can reduce its environmental impact while still delivering a hassle-free service to customers.