‘Recycling’ is a very broad term. In general, it means to convert waste materials into new materials and objects. This could mean using old material to create a new supply of the material, for example, making glass out of recycled glass, or reusing them to make other materials, like paper for paperboard. It also refers to reclaiming certain materials from products because of their intrinsic value, like gold in circuit boards, or their hazardous nature, like mercury in thermometers. There is a large range of materials that are recyclable – glass, paper, water, metal, electronic devices – but for the purpose of this paper, I shall be discussing only one, plastic. I strongly believe that recycling of all materials, but most of all, plastic, should be made mandatory because, besides the fact that recycling plastic waste can save the environment from the damage that mankind has already caused it, it improves a nation’s economy and is the only way to ensure that we do not deplete Earth’s limited resources.
There are various kinds of plastics, but they all have certain common properties that make them particularly useful to humans – they are durable, lightweight, and strong. It is for precisely these reasons that plastic is so dangerous for our natural surroundings. Annually, around eight million metric tons of plastic are thrown into oceans. The amount of microplastics (fragments of plastic smaller than 5mm) in that number varies substantially between 93 and 236 thousand tons (van Sebille et al., 2015). Plastics take hundreds of years to decompose, so just imagine how long it will take for the plastic in our oceans and even our landfills to finally be gone. What consequences will live on Earth have to face while the pile of plastic waste grows larger and the decomposition time gets longer? Somewhere between California and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean is the largest accumulation of marine debris in the world, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is extremely difficult to measure exactly how large it is because it is not just an island of plastic bags and bottles, as the media like to portray it. In reality, it is “mostly an unstrained consommé of small bits of floating plastic”, with smaller amounts of discarded fishing gear, Styrofoam, plastic wrappers, and raw resin pellets (Kaiser, 2010). This problem of such accumulation of non-biodegradable substances in our waters also affects aquatic life greatly. In 2018, Joseph B. Lamb and ten other scientists conducted a survey on 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, to assess the influence of plastic waste on disease risk in 124,000 reef-building corals. They found that “the likelihood of disease increases from 4% to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic”. This is because plastic waste can host pathogens (microorganisms that can cause diseases), and these pathogens trigger disease outbreaks in the coral reefs. The more structurally complex the coral, the more susceptible it is to pathogens (Lamb, 2018). Disease in coral reefs, amplified by the presence of plastic waste, threatens one of Earth’s most diverse ecosystems. In addition to this, plastic waste in oceans also poses a massive problem to aquatic animals. In places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, there is more plastic waste than natural prey. Animals like fish and sea turtles and even birds like seagulls and albatrosses unwittingly consume plastic for lack of real food, and since they cannot digest it, they starve because their stomachs are filled with plastic that prevents them from eating real food. Even in areas of the ocean where plastic waste is not as abundant, marine wildlife still consumes plastic, including fish that humans eat. In 2016, Daniele de A. Miranda and Gustavo Freire de Carvalho-Souza described in one of their papers, an assessment of plastic pellet ingestion by two important species of fish along the Brazilian coast that were caught by humans for consumption. They found that “the rate of plastic ingestion by king mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla) was quite high (62.5%), followed by the Brazilian sharpnose shark (Rhizoprionodon Lalande, 33%). From 2 to 6 plastic resin pellets were encountered in the stomachs of each fish with sizes from 1 to 5 mm” (Miranda and Carvalho-Souza, 2016).
The process of recycling also has been shown to improve a nation’s economy. Recycling, like any other industry, provides jobs to the unemployed, which increases consumer spending as more people earn more money, which in turn stimulates economic growth. The 2016 Recycling Economic Information (REI) report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that, in 2007, “recycling activities contributed 757,000 jobs (0.52% of all jobs in the U.S. economy), $36.6 billion in wages (0.62% of all wages paid), and $6.7 billion in tax revenues (0.90% of total revenues)”. The results of the REI report indicate that recycling has positive economic impacts in the United States, along with environmental and social benefits. Recycling can also bring us closer to a circular global economy. A circular economy is “a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing and recycling” (Geissdoerfer et al., 2017). In short, a circular economy is an economic system that works towards minimizing waste and being as resourceful as possible. The traditional linear economy with its ‘take, make, dispose of’ model, is slowly reaching its limits as we get closer to taking away all of Earth’s natural resources, making a circular economy the most ideal option.
The Earth is thought to have been formed approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The natural resources that we use in our lives: fossil fuels like petroleum, coal, and natural gas, were formed over millions of years by decomposing buried dead organisms. This was the Earth’s own natural way of recycling, but now, we cannot depend on the Earth to decompose everything. The human population on Earth is probably the highest it has ever been, clocking in at over 7.6 billion individuals around the globe, and the United Nations Organization estimates that by 2100, the total population will reach over 11 billion people. The more people on Earth, the more requirements they have to live, and the more natural resources used to fulfill those requirements. More forests cut down for land, more fossil fuel burnt for energy, and more wastage because of higher consumption. The time that the Earth would take to naturally recycle our wastage is far longer than we can wait. We are, essentially, living off of Earth’s natural capital, and sooner than we realize, we will have depleted the Earth completely of its natural resources, leaving the generations of the future with nothing.
Not everyone would agree that recycling plastic waste should be made mandatory because recently it has actually become easier and cheaper to make new, ‘virgin’ plastic than to recycle plastic. This is because of the fluctuations in the price of petroleum. Plastics are mostly manufactured using petroleum, so when the prices of petroleum change, the costs of plastic manufacturing go back and forth as well. Cleaning and preparing used plastic for recycling also adds to the cost of recycling. However, despite the extra costs of recycling, it is the only way we can live on Earth without destroying it completely. (how is plastic recycled?)
Another reason why people do not approve of making recycling a mandatory process is that it would be a very difficult law to implement. Even if governments around the world passed legislatures to make domestic and industrial recycling compulsory, it would be extremely laborious to ensure that the law was being properly followed. Law enforcement teams like the police already have enough work to do with more serious crimes like theft and homicide, and it would be futile to assign them to look into something as simple as not recycling. Additionally, a lot of people tend to complain that recycling is not always the most convenient and easy task, as recycling centers are often few and far between. Sometimes they are unsure as to what materials can and cannot be recycled. As the rewards that come from recycling, and the consequences of not recycling are both long-term, and the effects are not immediate, it can be hard for people to associate their bad habits of not recycling with its even worse results (Schumaker, 2016). People often avoid doing things unless they are extremely easy, which is why, as shown in a 2011 Ipsos Public Affairs survey, that while 87% of American adults claimed to recycle, only 51% recycled daily, 36% recycled infrequently, while 13% said that they do not recycle at all.
Recycling should be made mandatory by law because it improves the economy, it can at least slow down the effects of the havoc we have already wreaked on the environment, and it is the only way we can ensure that we do not run out of resources and leave the next generations with nothing. Even though it might be an unwelcome change to society, I truly believe that we need a law like this one, for the welfare of humans, and every living thing on Earth.