If We Can’t Recycle Plastic, Can We Reuse or Repurpose It?

A woman collecting garbage and holding a recycle bin with plastic bottles in the outdoors

There is a big push on right now to eliminate single-use plastics. That means eliminating things like plastic food containers, plastic cups, etc. The idea is to eliminate things that cannot be easily recycled. But is there another option? Can we reuse or repurpose what we can’t recycle?

Food manufacturers rely on single-use plastic packaging because it is cheap and effective. If we were to eliminate plastic food packaging, what would we replace it with? Think about it for a minute. The question is not so easy to answer when you consider how food is mass-produced.

Packing certain types of food products in paper is impractical because paper does not offer the same sanitary benefits. Forget aluminum; it would be too expensive. The point is that we have grown accustomed to a very good way of packaging food items in order to facilitate mass production and low prices. If we start messing with the packaging, we change all that.

Shifting to a Better Strategy

Rather than eliminating all single-use plastics and expecting consumers to accept higher prices and less efficiency, would it be better to promote a different strategy that keeps single-use plastics in place? Why not shift to more effective reuse and repurposing? We are already doing it in other industries. We can do it with single-use plastics as well.

We know single-use plastics are hard to recycle. But guess what? So are carbon fiber and fiberglass composites. But rather than trying to eliminate the two composites, public and private sector stakeholders are looking for ways to repurpose products that reach end-of-life. A good example is the wind turbine blade.

Turbine blades are usually made of fiberglass or carbon fiber. Since both materials are difficult to recycle, turbine blades that reach end-of-life are normally discarded. But that is starting to change now. In Denmark, old turbine blades are being turned into bike shelters. In Ireland, there is a plan to use old blades in the construction of a new bridge greenway.

Old turbine blades can be used to reinforce concrete structures. They can be cut up and used to build roof trusses. In other words, the blades can be reused and repurposed. They do not necessarily have to be discarded or sent to a recycling center.

When Recycling Doesn’t Work

It is clear that some types of plastics can be efficiently recycled. Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics is proof of that. They have built their company on collecting and recycling industrial plastic scrap. They turn scrap into plastic regrind that they can then sell to manufacturers who mix it with virgin plastic.

Unfortunately, recycling single-use plastics is not as easy or cost-effective. In fact, it simply does not work. But that doesn’t necessarily mean single-use plastics have to be thrown away. It also does not mean we have to eliminate single-use plastics from manufacturing and retail.

If we can find ways to reuse old wind turbine blades, we can certainly find ways to reuse single-use plastics. Reusing and repurposing are practices we put to use in so many other areas. The fact that we have not employed them in the realm of single-use plastics only reflects an unwillingness to think outside the box. We do not throw away single-use plastics because we have to. We do it because we want to.

It is true that one way to solve the single-use plastic problem is to completely eliminate such plastics from society. But that is a much more daunting task than most people know. Perhaps a better strategy would be to move toward reusing and repurposing.