Well, it’s actually a no-brainer. Everything we use, especially packaging, has to be made from something – and that something requires energy, water and resources to manufacture and to transport. Worse, once we throw it away, it sits in landfill using up land that could be better used for growing veggies, housing, schools or even a park.
But that’s not the worst of it. Plastic in landfill can leach harmful chemicals into the soil and ultimately into the groundwater. And plastic bags in landfills tend not to stay there – especially in windy places like Cape Town or other coastal towns. They blow away in the southeaster and end up in the sea, where they pretend to be jellyfish and get eaten by turtles, who then die. Or they break down into smaller and smaller pieces and float around for ever, eventually joining a gyre (circulating ocean current).
You’ve probably heard about these ‘floating islands’ of garbage. Sounds terrible, most of us agree, so why don’t they just send a big ship with a scoop to load it up and then … oh, I don’t know, do something with it? There’s a very good reason ‘they’ don’t. That’s because the term ‘floating island’ is phenomenally misleading. These are not huge, concentrated areas of visible floating plastic bags. When plastic enters the sea, it is broken down by the sun and the salt water into ever smaller and smaller particles – if it doesn’t get eaten by a turtle or a dolphin first, that is. And then it ends up in one of the five gyres: North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific (the biggest), South Pacific and Indian Ocean. You can’t see it, it doesn’t show up in satellite photos – it’s just that the ocean is turning into a soup of tiny suspended plastic particles. That’s got to do something terrible to sushi.
So recycling is good. But some things are more easily recycled than others. Paper is pretty easy, glass is a snap, and metal recycling has been going on since the beginning of the Iron Age – actually, make that the Bronze Age. But plastic recycling is the one that people seem to struggle with, and that’s because a lot of the things we ‘know’ about plastic recycling are actually wildly outdated. Take, for example, the ‘fact’ that it takes more energy to recycle plastic than to make new plastic, so you’re wasting your time even bothering. If you believe that, you’ll also believe that laws requiring motorists to wear seat belts are passed just to infringe your right to personal freedom.
But what’s the point of recycling if there isn’t a market for recycled goods? So, while recycling is good, using recycled products in preference to those made from virgin materials is truly noble. And you’d be amazed how much really cool recycled product there is out there. You must have noticed walkways, fences and benches made from plastic planks and poles – they’re all over. And what makes them so special is that they’re made from the most pathetically unwanted plastic. Yup, even garbage is graded on a scale of desirability.
High-quality PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, for example, can be recycled into pellets for use in high-tech processes like rotomoulding to make consumer goods, or into fibres to make clothes, duvet fillings and insulation, but much of the plastic we throw away is clingwrap, bits of old stuff, plastic bags, broken toys, bottle tops and various odds and ends. These cannot be used for high-quality plastic recycling. But they can be made into planks and poles.
The waste plastic is cleaned and sorted, then it’s put into a machine similar to a woodchipper and broken down into bits. This is sent to an extruder, where the plastic is heated sufficiently to soften and partially melt it, and then it’s squeezed out through the extruder under pressure. This produces a continuous plank or pole that is cut into predetermined lengths. These are used to make all kinds of things like fences, screens, decks, jetties and garden furniture. The colours are admittedly a bit limited – mostly brown, green or black. But then, hey, the colour of wood is pretty limited too.
Bear in mind that this is not a lower-quality product. It’s a high-quality product made from lower-quality plastic waste, so the gain in utility is huge. If you’re thinking of building a deck, fence, jungle gym, or some other garden structure, seriously consider using plastic planks and poles. They never rot, they last much longer, they need no treatment or varnishing, and they require virtually no maintenance. What better material could you possibly use for fencing, decks and walkways in the estate? Oh – they’re also less slippery than wood in the wet, because that slithery green slime doesn’t grow on them.
You win every way: less landfill, less maintenance, longer life for all your structures. Saving the planet one plank at a time, and saving time and money too: what’s not to love?