Researchers Find Unhappy Surprise in Plastic Recycling

The process of breaking down the material releases microplastics into the air, says study
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 22, 2023 8:32 AM CDT
Updated May 27, 2023 6:00 AM CDT
Researchers Find Unhappy Surprise in Plastic Recycling
Stock image of plastic at a recycling facility.   (Getty / OperationShooting)

A new study on the recycling of plastic offers a disturbing surprise: In one way, the process may make the environmental problem worse. In the peer-reviewed study at ScienceDirect, UK researchers suggest that recycling plants create and release a troubling amount of microplastic pollution as they break down and wash the material, reports the Washington Post. In fact, up to 13% of the plastic being processed might end up in the air or groundwater in such microscopic fashion. The study is based on just a single, unnamed plant in the UK, though the facility is relatively new and has a modern filtration system. Even so, the researchers were surprised by the levels of microplastic they detected.

“It seems a bit backward, almost, that we do plastic recycling in order to protect the environment, and then end up increasing a different and potentially more harmful problem,” says lead researcher Erina Brown of the University of Strathclyde, per Wired. Judith Enck, a former EPA official not involved in the study who now runs the advocacy group Beyond Plastics, calls the research credible and concerning. "It should inspire environmental regulatory agencies to replicate the study at other plastic recycling facilities," she says. Better filtration systems at plants help, though not for the smallest bits of microplastic, notes a post at Interesting Engineering.

One sentiment emphasized in coverage is that nobody is advocating people stop recycling plastic—it's still seen as the best way to limit the production of new material, even though in the US only an estimated 5% of it gets recycled in the first place. "What it really highlights is that we just really need to consider the impacts of the solutions," says Brown. All in all, "this is not a major reason why we have such a significant problem with microplastics in the environment,” says Enck. "But it’s potentially part of it and there’s an irony to it because it involves recycling." In her view, the real solution is to start using much less plastic, period. (Plastic pollution has created a new disease for seabirds.)

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