Black Plastics: Why Are They So Bad for the Environment?

CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – Devashish Rawat

Black plastics are almost impossible to recycle, making them even more harmful than other plastics. We’ll take a look at why these materials are so problematic, and what the alternatives are.

Plastic packaging is problematic for several reasons. Plastics are usually made using fossil fuels, making them directly responsible for pollution and global warming. In addition, only a fraction of plastic waste is recycled – the rest is incinerated or simply ends up in landfills. As a result, the oceans are full of trash, and microplastics have been found in fish, drinking water, and even human feces.

The rate at which we recycle plastic waste in the USA is alarming – only 8.7%. We send nine times this much plastic to landfills. One of the culprits for this dismal statistic is black plastic (that is, plastic that is literally black). We’ll take a closer look at exactly why this material leads to so much environmental damage.

Black Plastic Is Almost Impossible to Recycle

Plastic Waste
So much of our trash isn’t even recycled – it’s either stuck in landfill or simply burned. (CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – Jasmin Sessler)

Even if you do sort your trash carefully, not all of it is recycled. Recycling centers separate the different types of waste before they shred and process them. However, a significant portion of plastic waste ultimately ends up in landfills (especially in poorer countries with fewer environmental regulations). This is what happens to almost all black plastics.

Why? Well, recycling plants detect different kinds of waste using near-infrared technology. The sensors identify recyclable plastic by reflected light. This technology can’t detect black plastics; the dark color makes black plastic packaging essentially invisible. Consequently, most black plastic is filtered out rather than recycled. As you can imagine, this isn’t exactly doing the environment any favors.

Black Plastics Are Bad For Your Health

Black Plastic Waste
The chemicals in some black plastics can be incredibly dangerous. (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Radowan Nakif Rehan)

However, black plastic isn’t just a problem for recycling plants. It could also endanger your health.

  • Black plastic is often made using old electrical appliances. Your takeout tray may once have been a cellphone or a laptop!
  • As a result, black plastic often contains, among other things, dangerous chemical substances such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, as this study by the University of Plymouth shows.
  • These heavy metals are potentially toxic for humans and other organisms. Lead, for example, can cause serious physical harm, from anemia and hypertension to nerve, kidney, and brain damage.

There have been some improvements in the recyclability of black plastics. In 2016, German scientists developed a method for sorting black plastics. However, the technology is still not widespread. Ultimately, we need to fundamentally rethink the global plastic waste problem and its consequences.

Plastic Waste: What Can We Do About It?

Zero Waste
Don’t despair – there are lots of easy ways of reducing our plastic consumption! (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Gaelle Marcel)

Reducing black plastic and getting a sustainable grip on the global plastic waste problem requires action from all sides – policymakers, manufacturers, and consumers. Here are some tips for you as an individual:

  • Avoid plastic altogether. Buy food unpackaged and take it home in a canvas bag. Of course, this is easiest at the health food store or farmers’ market. Still, here are some precycling tips for avoiding packaging in everyday life.
  • Reusable glass bottles are inarguably better for the environment in some regards – less trash, for one thing. However, their production and transportation requires much more energy than tetrapaks. Then again, tetrapaks are hard to recycle. Aluminum cans are light and 100% recyclable, so some people consider them the most sustainable form of packaging. Educate yourself as much as possible to help you choose the best option available to you.
  • If you do buy plastic products, try to buy ones made from 100% recycled materials. This plastic can then itself be recycled. In principle, only single-variety plastic is recyclable. This means that as soon as several materials come together – like in a tetrapak – recycling becomes more difficult. This applies to many other types of packaging, for example hard plastic trays with soft lids.
  • If you can’t get around new plastic, buy things that are easy to recycle – look for 100% PET, PP, or PE plastics. Test and see if the product is harder in some places, softer in others – then it consists of different types of plastic. Try to avoid black plastics altogether.

Of course, sometimes these little changes can seem futile. But remember, every action you take makes a real difference. Here are some more easy tips to help you on your way towards a zero waste lifestyle.

This article was translated from German to English by Will Tayler. You can read the original here: Schwarzes Plastik: Darum ist es besonders schlimm

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