Plastic Recycling Isn’t Working. Here’s how the world must adapt!

Plastic Recycling Isn’t Working. Here’s how the world must adapt!

, by Planet Green, 6 min reading time

The excessive production of new or virgin plastic used to be tackled through recycling, which was once seen as the obvious solution. However, the current reality is that global recycling capacity is unable to keep up with the continuous cycle of extraction, production, and waste generation of natural resources.

As affluent nations like the UK ship their recycling overseas, a concerning trend has emerged. According to reports, the poorest countries are increasingly facing the challenge of accumulating large quantities of plastic waste, leading to growing mountains of discarded plastics. In fact, some nations have been observed to import more plastic waste than they have the capacity to effectively recycle.

Moreover, the recycling process itself poses its own set of challenges. A recent report by Greenpeace and the International Pollutants Elimination Network highlights the issue of plastics containing or coming into contact with other toxic chemicals, such as flame retardants. These plastics contaminate the recycling process while spreading toxins throughout subsequent batches of plastic waste.

Another study revealed that recycling facilities themselves release hundreds of tonnes of microplastics into the environment annually. The study conducted by Hurley et al. (2018) reveals how recycling facilities are significant sources of microplastic pollution due to the breakdown of plastic materials during the recycling process, which leads to the release of microplastic particles that negatively affect ocean life.

In the study conducted by Geyer et al. (2017), it is noted that only a small fraction of all plastic ever produced, approximately 6-9%, has been sent for recycling. The research provides an extensive analysis of global plastic production, use, and disposal, highlighting the limited extent of recycling in relation to overall plastic waste generation. While most countries collect plastic and other waste with the intent of recycling, the proportion of material remade into the same or similar products, known as closed-loop recycling, is astonishingly low.

Merely 2% of plastic waste undergoes closed-loop recycling, meaning it is not down-cycled into something of lower quality. Recycling can only be performed a limited number of times before the necessary properties of the material diminish, leading to downgraded materials that cannot be used for the same purpose. In light of these challenges, it is evident that recycling alone cannot entirely replace the need for virgin materials. Its limitations, including the inability to maintain necessary properties after multiple recycling cycles and the prevalence of down-cycling, make it clear that alternative solutions and approaches must be explored to address the plastic waste crisis effectively. The world needs to adapt to this crisis.

(Example of Downcycling)

A more sustainable approach to address the plastic waste issue would involve prioritizing actions at earlier stages of a plastic product's lifecycle. This includes reducing the overall production of plastic as a whole, reusing existing plastic materials, and replacing plastic with alternative materials when appropriate. To start, manufacturers play a crucial role in reducing plastic waste by refraining from producing excessive amounts of unnecessary plastic. It is essential to avoid manufacturing plastics that are difficult or impossible to collect, reuse, recycle, or that are toxic.

Unfortunately, such plastics are still prevalent, such as multilayered sachets, thin films, and wrappers. These types of plastics should be phased out as a priority. Implementing global caps on plastic production would be a valuable measure to limit its usage to reusable products and packaging, alleviating the strain on recycling systems.

As individuals, we can contribute by refusing single-use products and packaging whenever alternatives are available and affordable. Opting for loose vegetables or products that come in packaging that can be refilled are great personal choices. Another is choosing remanufactured products over new made single-use items. By actively making these decisions when shopping, we can reduce the demand for single-use plastics and encourage the use of more sustainable packaging options.

Taking proactive steps at the source of plastic production and consumption can significantly mitigate plastic waste and promote a more sustainable future. In addition to reducing plastic waste, reusing the plastic you already have can significantly contribute to minimizing the need for new products and packaging and reduce the overall volume of waste sent for recycling.

For example, governments could play a role in reducing single-use coffee cup consumption, which amounts to approximately 250 billion cups worldwide annually. Setting national mandates for reusable cups and bottles could drastically decrease this number. Shops, cafes, and other venues could adapt to provide reusable packaging options for their products, ensuring that each one is carefully tracked, washed, and replenished for the next consumer cycle. When it comes to finding alternatives to plastic, materials such as metals, glass, or paper can be viable options. However, there is no universally applicable sustainable alternative.

The most suitable material depends on the specific use of the item in question. It is crucial to rigorously assess the environmental consequences of any material throughout its entire lifecycle, considering aspects from production to use and disposal. This assessment should aim to ensure that the chosen material does more good than harm. It is essential to consider all social, environmental, and economic costs associated with the material in order to make informed and sustainable choices.

By emphasizing reuse and carefully evaluating alternative materials, we can make substantial progress towards a more sustainable and responsible approach to addressing the plastic waste problem. The true cost associated with the production, distribution, and disposal of plastic is estimated to be more than ten times greater than what customers pay for the products. This calculation takes into account the hidden costs of environmental damage and human suffering caused by pollution. Including these costs in the price of virgin plastic, such as through taxing manufacturers or retailers, could strengthen the economic case for alternative materials.

Although not all plastics can be reused, especially medical devices, recycling still plays a valuable role by keeping materials within the economy and temporarily postponing the need for new virgin plastic and reducing the rate in which plastics flow into landfills. However, it is important to emphasize that the existence of recycling should not serve as justification for increasing plastic production. Recycling processes must prioritize preventing pollution.

Manufacturers should only produce plastics that can be recycled using proven safe and clean methods, while also banning the use of toxic additives. Implementing simple labeling systems can empower consumers to make informed decisions about reusing or recycling plastics, helping to prevent contamination of recycling loads with non-recyclable waste and toxins. Plastics designated for recycling should be treated in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

High-income countries that export waste to poorer nations for inexpensive recycling often do so without ensuring that adequate infrastructure is in place to manage the waste at its destination. This leads to waste leakage into the environment, with toxic plastics obstructing drainage channels and causing floods. Some of this waste is even burned outdoors, posing further health risks and harm to the environment. Banning or restricting such exports would be beneficial in mitigating these issues.

High-income countries can adapt to handling their own recycling and not dumping the issue into someone else’s hands. By addressing the true costs of plastic, promoting responsible recycling practices, and restricting the export of waste, we can encourage a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to plastic production and disposal.


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