Why can’t most plastic be recycled?
With only 9% of annual plastic waste recycled, the myth that we can recycle to get out of the mounting plastic pollution crisis doesn’t add up.
About 85% of plastic packaging worldwide ends up in landfills.
In the United States, by far the world’s largest polluter of plastic, only about 5% of the more than 50 million tons of plastic waste generated by households in 2021 was recycled, according to Greenpeace.
With plastic production set to triple globally by 2060, plastics made primarily from oil or gas are a growing source of carbon pollution fueling climate change. Much also ends up in the oceans and severely affects marine life.
Promises made by major plastics producers such as Nestlé and Danone to encourage recycling and include more recycled plastic in their containers have mostly been broken.
The plastics lobby, along with supermarkets in countries from Austria to Spain, sometimes avoid this liability by lobbying against deposit-return schemes involving plastic bottles.
But there is hope. New global plastics regulations are currently being negotiated as part of a global plastics treaty aimed at streamlining the production, use and reuse of plastics using the circular economy model.
However, circular product design also relies on the recycling myth, which in its current form does little to alleviate the mounting plastic crisis.
Separating seven types of plastics doesn’t add up
Most plastic packaging is produced from seven grades of plastic that are largely incompatible with one another, and the sorting process is costly to recycle.
Aside from PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, the world’s most common plastic labeled #1, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which has the code #2, five other types of plastic can be collected but rarely recycled, says the organization. green peace.
Polyethylene terephthalate is the most recyclable plastic, and there is a strong market for its by-products used to make beverage bottles, food containers, or clothing fibers.
But the harder plastics numbered 3 to 7 have a very small market because the raw material value is less than the recycling cost.
“It’s difficult to reprocess and sort through all the plastic,” said Lisa Ramsden, Senior Plastics Campaigner for Greenpeace USA. She added that mixed container recycling bins contain so many contaminants that the plastic is not recyclable.
“Recycling is not the problem, it’s the plastic,” Ramsden explained. She said that because new plastic is often cheaper than recycled materials, recycling plastic is not economical.
Virgin plastic is very cheap
Post-consumer plastic resin generated from recycled materials is being undermined by cheaper raw materials, which is limiting the market for recycled plastics.
A report by New York-based market analysts S&P Global showed that demand for raw recycled plastic is slowing due to other factors, among them rising transportation costs for recyclers in Asia and a slowdown in the construction sector that produces plastic building materials.
Ironically, plastic bag bans in Africa and Asia have limited the amount of feed materials, which, in addition to lower recycling rates globally, also raises the prices of recycled materials.
While the price of virgin plastic is based on fluctuating oil and gas prices, these fossil fuels are often subsidized. According to Sander Devroet, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the US-based nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation, recycled plastic would be more competitive if fossil fuel subsidies were eliminated.
DeVroet said companies that produce waste can help drive down low virgin plastic costs by subsidizing plastic recycling plans under the extended producer responsibility (EPR) principle. He added that such subsidies for companies have been key to the success of waste recycling programs in European Union countries such as Germany and France.
Lightweight “flexible” packaging is thriving but not recyclable
The lightweight packaging that keeps food and snacks like potato chips or chocolate bars fresh makes up about 40% of the world’s plastic packaging, according to Defruyt.
Known as flexible packaging, lightweight, multi-layer, single-use packaging is used to package around 215 billion products in the UK alone.
DeFruyt noted that only about five European countries are currently trying to recycle these packages. In the United States, flexible packaging accounted for only 2% of residential recycling in 2020.
When it doesn’t end up in a landfill or incineration, the packaging is easily lost or disposed of in the environment.
Part of the problem is their multi-layered construction which is sometimes lined with foil, which makes it very expensive to separate them into recyclable parts. DeFroet noted that flexible packaging is often “heavily contaminated” with food waste, which also makes it impossible to recycle.
The packaging industry claims that flexible packaging has environmental benefits because it is lighter than more rigid plastics and causes fewer emissions during transportation while keeping food fresher for longer.
The flexible packaging industry’s efforts to make packaging part of a circular economy do little to raise recycling rates.
Part of the solution?
In a 2022 survey of more than 23,000 people in 34 countries, nearly 80% would support banning types of plastic that are not easily recyclable.
This would include a global ban on products and materials made from hard-to-recycle plastics. The authors of the survey, which was conducted by Conservation International WWF and the Australia-based Plastic Free Foundation, said that “any meaningful progress in reducing global plastic waste” must include bans on “the most harmful and problematic types of single-use plastics, fishing gear and particulate matter.” Microplastics.
The European Union has taken some steps in this direction, banning 10 single-use plastic products that not only damage Europe’s beaches but go against the circular economy model by which all disposable plastics in the EU can be reused or recycled by 2030.
Meanwhile, more than 30 African countries have banned the use of lightweight plastic bags in whole or in part. One of the goals of the Global Plastics Treaty is to harmonize these partial bans into a coherent global regulation.
Edited by: Tamsin Walker
Author: Stuart Brown