A comment often made about plastic recycling in, (I would suggest), a rather disparaging tone, is that it is not recycling but downcycling. 

Which seems dismissive of the recycling program and is  wrong as it does not apply to all forms of plastic recycling

So what is downcycling?

The term down-cycling is applied to a recycled product that is not as structurally strong as the original product as made from virgin materials.

This downcycled material can

  • only be used to make a different product
  • or has to be mixed with virgin materials before it can be reused to remake the original product

Paper for example; the fibres in paper degrade as they are recycled  so it goes from writing paper to loo roll, by way of newspapers.  Cotton too. The recycled fiber is of shorter and harder to spin so it needs to mixed with  virgin cotton fibers to improve yarn strengths before it can be reused.

This is true of plastic that is is mechanically recycled. The plastic gets weaker. One example of plastic  down-cycling chain is as follows

  • virgin PET bottle to fleece or carpet
  • fleece or carpet fibers to plastic lumber
  • plastic lumber to landfill though manufacturers claim that plastic lumber can be recycled again..

But why call it downcycling?

You may think I am being picky but I think that the name has negative connotations. Down-cycling suggests that the products created by recycling are moving down some kind of linear scale. And if this is so, then toilet paper  has a lesser value then writing paper. I beg to differ. Try wiping your bum  with Basildon Bond.

Applying the term downcycling to the process of plastic recycling as outlined above, seems even more counterintuitive. If you consider that a bottle has a lifespan of months, a fleece has a life span of years, a carpet decades and plastic lumber hundreds of years, it seems more like upcycling to me. The base material may not be as strong, it may may even need to be mixed with virgin plastic, but it is being used far more sensibly.

Using the term downcycling to describe this process  diminishes an essential and valuable practice that results in products with proven use whether it’s toilet paper or carpets.  Or have I got it all wrong?

The New Recycling

Just to remind you, not all recycled plastic is “down cycled” and closed loop plastic recycling is already being offered by a number of companies. For example “We take discarded soft drinks and water bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and milk bottles made from high density polyethylene (HDPE) and recycle them back into food-grade plastic. The resulting rPET and rHDPE is then used to make new bottles and food packaging.”

Plus some of the new synthetic fibres can be recycled as the same fabric with no loss of quality almost indefinitely. Patagonia is promoting one such closed loop fabric recycling scheme.

Then there are the associated technologies that turn plastic waste back into oil. While you might argue that is not recycling, you would be hard pushed to call it down cycling.

Find out more about plastics that can be recycled with no loss of quality here

N.B. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think recycling is the answer to plastic (over) use and misuse but as part of a system of controlled usage it has a vital part to play.

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