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Recycled plastics vs. virgin plastics: Weighing the pros and cons

January 30, 2024

#tide ocean material_recycled plastic pellets_recycled plastic supplier

[Reading time 6.5 min]

Synthetic polymers have revolutionized the world. The first such polymer was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 as a substitute for ivory. A few decades later, a team at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), a British company, discovered polyethylene, the world's most popular polymer, as the result of a failed experiment. Because of its unique properties, namely its malleability, heat resistance and robustness, this discovery introduced drastic change in our everyday lives. The mass production of synthetic polymers after World War II improved the quality of life, healthcare, namely due to the introduction of single-use medical devices which drastically reduce cross-contamination and led to major cultural shifts.

The benefits of synthetic polymers are undeniable. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), for example, is a lightweight, safe, versatile, and inexpensive material.

But the mass production of synthetic polymers has come at a very high cost: environmental destruction.

For the purpose of this argument, we will thoroughly examine 7 topics that will weigh the pros and cons of virgin plastic and recycled plastic:

  1. Environmental impact

  2. Material quality and properties

  3. Impact on wildlife

  4. Waste reduction

  5. Public opinion

  6. Economic consideration

  7. Legislation

1. Environmental impact

Most new synthetic plastics are made from finite fossil resources. Today, about 8% of newly extracted fossil fuels are used to make synthetic polymers.

In terms of CO2 emissions, plastics are estimated to account for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic recycling saves between 30% and 80% of the carbon emissions associated with virgin plastic. For example, Tide Ocean's recycled PET pellets produce 80% less CO2 than their virgin counterparts.

Fossil fuel axtraction

In addition, recycling plastic helps save energy; the UK Plastics Pact 2020/21 Annual Report shows that it takes 75% less energy to make a plastic bottle from recycled plastic.

Recycled plastic not only saves energy, but also helps to combat climate change, particularly the depletion of fossil fuels; keeping fossil fuels in the ground is key to preventing global temperatures from rising. Decarbonizing wide parts of our economy is crucial.

2. Material quality and properties

Conventional wisdom holds that recycled plastic may have slightly inferior physical properties compared to virgin plastic. There is also a risk of contamination with recycled plastics if the plastics are not properly separated and washed.

Some manufacturers and brands are still reluctant to use recycled plastic in their processes because they believe that recycled plastic can't achieve premium quality.

However, this is highly dependent on the recycling process and equipment used. Plastic recycling used to be a process involving several independent actors. When each step of the chain is done by specialized companies without an overarching control and goal in mind, material degradation is unavoidable. #tide has built an integrated supply chain (target-oriented recycling), where every step of the process is overseen by our technical department. Enabling unparalleled material quality.

Tide Ocean's recycled plastic pellets are very close in quality to virgin plastic. That's because we use high-end equipment and adhere to the strictest standards for plastic sorting, washing, and recycling processes.

Tide ocean's recycled plastic pellets have been used to create a variety of durable and high-quality products. Here are a few examples:

3. Impact on Wildlife

The first records of the effects of plastic pollution in the environment date back to the 1960s, when scientists reported the ingestion of plastic by birds on the Hawaiian Islands.

The impact of plastic pollution on wildlife is truly staggering. Many species ingest or become entangled in plastic debris. An estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year from plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is also having a terrible impact on land animals. In 2018, a 20-year-old elephant died because the plastic in the animal's intestines caused internal bleeding and organ failure.

A large proportion of plastic production ends up as waste. We need to produce less of it, so the plastic is less likely to threaten wildlife. We need to find a sensible way of dealing with plastic by creating waste banks, collection systems, and recycling waste before it ends up in the environment. The more we rely on recycling models, the better life will be for these animals and for biodiversity in general.

Zimy Da Kid_Shark_#tide ocean material

Did you know?

Research shows that out of 46 sharks examined, 2 out of 3 sharks had plastic in their digestive tracks and stomachs. Sharks play an essential role in the balance of the ocean. Their protection is of paramount importance to avoid disrupting the ocean's ecosystem.

Photo: Zimy Da Kid, #tide ambassador and founder of Deep Sea Guardians, a shark conservation organization.

4. Waste reduction

Every year, an estimated 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean. The mismanagement of used plastics has created a global plastic crisis.

While the rapidly growing production of virgin plastics increases the likelihood that these plastics will end up in landfills and the ocean, recycled plastics help divert plastic waste from the environment; plastic recycling is a responsible approach to a major problem.

A change in perspective is needed: plastic waste is an abundant resource. It's just waiting to be used.

#tide ocean_Mexico_Plastic pollution

5. Public opinion

There is a growing global awareness of the negative environmental and human impacts of the linear plastics economy.

More and more artists are tackling the issues of climate change, plastic pollution, and ecosystem protection to raise awareness, denounce certain practices, and call for change. Netflix documentaries like Plastic Island and Seaspiracy do just that. These forms of media play an important role in changing perceptions about certain issues and habits.

The effect is clearly visible: A study shows that 86% of people in the United States believe that the plastics economy needs to change to more circular models. A survey in Finland also found that 86% of consumers said that the use of recycled plastics influenced their purchasing decision, and 93% said they would buy such products again.

All of these data and media forms support fundamental changes in the exploitation of resources and shifts in consumption patterns. A circular economy for plastics is underway. It is the only solution, and there is no escaping it.

6. Economic consideration

Plastic recycling can help reduce waste management costs (treatment and disposal). In addition, the implementation of more circular models for plastics supports job creation in the recycling industry. A study conducted in 2013 by McKinsey demonstrates that a circular economy would lead to net material cost savings of up to 630 billion USD per year.

As government policies and incentives grow and consumer preferences change, so will the demand for recycled materials. Demand for recycled plastics is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years.

Compared to its linear counterpart, the circular economy for plastics is a viable system for both the environment and the economy. ♻️

7. Legislation


Governments around the world are moving away from the linear plastics economy towards more circular approaches. This includes legislation on mandatory recycled plastic content in certain products.

In the EU, for example, the updated proposal for the Ecodesign Directive, the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), includes a framework of legislative requirements to promote circular models. This includes the introduction of product passports by 2026, which will include information on a product's sustainability factors. In addition, Spain was the first European country to introduce a tax on single-use plastics. The American Assembly Bill 793 states that in California plastic beverage containers will have to contain at least 50% recycled plastics by 2030.

The transition to a circular economy for plastics is underway. Companies will have to comply with local legislation, which will cause them to rethink product design and adjust supply chains. It will shake the foundations of the plastics economy as we know it.

Plastic recycling_

What's the takeaway?

  • Plastic recycling saves up to 80% of the carbon emissions associated with virgin plastic.

  • Recycled plastic pellets can also be very high quality, similar to virgin plastic.

  • Recycling is an effective way to protect wildlife. It reduces the likelihood of species ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic.

  • Collecting and recycling plastic waste keeps plastic out of the environment.

  • There is a growing consensus on the importance of moving towards a circular economy for plastics.

  • A circular economy would result in net material cost savings of up to $630 billion per year.

  • Governments are moving away from the linear plastics economy to focus on circular approaches. Companies will need to comply with local legislation.

The environmental drawbacks of virgin plastics far outweigh their benefits. Recycled plastics help reduce greenhouse gases, protect the environment and wildlife, and have the potential to boost the economy. And by following strict processes and using the right equipment, recycled materials can also achieve premium quality.

This leaves virgin plastic with nothing to argue with.