Why Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work
Around the world, while plastic recycling has continued to fail, we are very comfortable throwing plastics into a recycle bin. We think that if we throw it in a trash bin it will be recycled. Unfortunately, that’s not true. We produce 400 million tons of single-use plastic a year, and we throw away 40% of that within 20 minutes. Only less than 9% of plastics ever made have been recycled. Until it’s really recycled, it’s still trash.
Plastic pollution starts from the beginning of its life
Plastic pollution is not about recycling, but about plastic material itself. As you know plastics are made of fossil oils. The operation to extract oil already produces 15% of total energy sector greenhouse gas emissions even before it becomes plastic. Usually, fossil oil is processed in petroleum chemical manufacturing plants owned by oil corporations, then the raw plastic material is distributed to plastic manufacturers.
The raw material is called nurdles and is in the size of a tiny bead. Because they are so tiny, they leak into the environment very easily during transportation and every stage of the process. It is estimated that about 53 billion pellets could enter the ocean every year. Nurdles are by definition microplastic. Animals and fish mistakenly eat nurdles and end up in our food.
Plastic pellets inside a dead fish washed ashore on a beach near Wellawatta, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Saman Abesiriwardana
Why plastic recycling is a myth
If you had a system, plastics are recyclable. We all want to support recycling because we don’t need to worry so much about reducing plastics that require some changes. The problem is that the industry keeps saying plastics are recyclable without a proven scalable system.
There is such a huge demand for recycling globally. The industry is investing so much money in recycling because they really want to convince us that they can continue to churn out ever large quantities of plastic and solve the problem downstream. As the result, how much we recycled has decreased from 9% to 6% in 2021 while the consumption is still increasing,
Why plastic recycling is difficult
There are thousands of different types. To make different colors, flexibility, hardness, resistance to heat or chemicals, the nurdles (pre-production resin) need to be mixed with additional chemicals. Different plastics have different additives and cannot be recycled together. For example, PET #1 water bottles cannot be recycled with PET #1 clamshell food containers. It is impossible to sort thousands of different types of plastics when they all come in the same recycle bin.
Can you guess how many different plastics are used to make a shampoo pump bottle? About 6 different plastics. The bottle part can be recycled, but the pump or cap is not recyclable. A cap is too small to be picked up during the sorting process. Pumps have too many different types.
Many of these additional chemicals used to make products are toxic. During the recycling process, cleaning, shredding, and melting, the toxic materials leak and can create pollution. The toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit the vast majority of plastic products from being used in food-grade packaging.
Plastic recycling is not economically viable. The price of virgin plastic is so low and recycled plastic cost much more. Who wants to buy lower-quality recycled plastic for a higher price?
Will new recycling technologies help?
Plastic pollution was already discovered in the 1960s, and many recycling technologies have been tried. Chemical recycling is a broad term to describe a range of emerging technologies in the waste management industry. The idea is to recycle different types of plastics altogether and turn them into base chemicals, polymers, oil, and gas.
However, in the GAIA report, it says “out of the 37 facilities proposed in the U.S since 2000, only 3 are currently operational and none have been proven to successfully recover plastic to make new plastics on a commercial scale.” In 2018, Dow Chemical opened a chemical recycling plant but ended up burning its mixed plastic waste in cement kilns instead of recycling. They couldn’t process mixed plastics.
Then, there is FAST-PETase, a new plastic eating enzyme. There are many advantages of enzymes compared to chemical recycling such as non-toxic and lower energy requirements. However, this enzyme works only for 50 types of PET. This can help reduce PET plastic waste, especially food contaminated items. But it is not for all plastic waste, and it certainly will not solve the problems with oil production, plastic manufacturing, and waste collection.
In a 2021 investigation from Reuters, it says “Most advanced recycling projects are agreements between small firms and big oil/chemical/consumer goods companies. All two-dozen projects are still operating on a modest scale after years or have closed down. Three companies that have gone public in the last year have seen their stock prices decline since their market debuts.”
Advanced recycling projects have been fueled by investors looking for the next hot green-tech industry. However, none of them is a silver bullet to solve problems in all stages of the plastic life cycle.
Will plastic pollution ever stop
As demand for transport fuel is under pressure from the rise of electric cars and renewable energy is on a rise, the oil industry is doubling down on plastics. Their forecast is to grow plastic production by 2040 so that they can keep making profits from oil. This will be the biggest growth market for oil demand over the next decade. While plastic can be claimed as “recyclable”, oil companies can convince policymakers to delay implementing rules to reduce plastic production.
What should we do?
Build more recycling plants? – We may need more during the transition period, but this is not where we should invest a lot. When you hear recycling plants, you may think of something clean and inoffensive, a part of a wonderful circular economy. But the reality is quite different. Recycling plants can be dirty, smelly, and dangerous places. They can throw off serious pollution including dioxin which is associated with cancer in the community. Building advanced recycling plants is very expensive too.
Export to other countries who want plastics? – No one wants plastic waste. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia became dumping site, and these places are where the “recycling circle” end. Unfortunately, there is no system to monitor the level of pollution on the health of the residents in these countries. Microplastics travel from these areas all over the world. No matter where we send the waste, it will come back eventually.
Banning single-use plastic – Some say alternative materials such as glass, aluminum, and paper are more resource intensive and produce more carbon emissions. This calculation isn’t correct. It doesn’t include the carbon emissions from oil production and the impact of plastic waste on natural ecosystems to absorb greenhouse gases. When these are considered, plastics have the highest emission. Oil extraction especially flacking uses a huge amount of water and contaminates water sources as well. Therefore, we should reduce single-use plastics as much as we can.
Make all plastic items reusable – If we can commit to reusing them, many of them don’t need to be plastic. Therefore, we should avoid plastics in the first place. Also, when making reusable items from plastics, the fundamental question is how long the item needs to be used to prove its benefit.
Invest in alternative materials – We should support alternative products rather than invest in plastic recycling. There are many, Mushroom leather, Corn packaging foam, Silicone food storage, Cellophane made of wood pulp, Seaweed packaging, Organic textiles, Edible coffee cup, Potato cling wrap and more.
Always start with the easiest, most obvious solution which is using fewer plastics. This is far better than coming up with a handful of amazing technologies to fix the problem.
The plastic pollution bomb is ticking, and the oil and plastic industries want to increase virgin plastic production. No one may ever admit to the failure of plastic recycling. Therefore, no one may ever set hard rules to totally eliminate single-use plastics. Advanced technologies, the idea “we can engineer anything”, are overrated. Because it gives us the illusion “we can carry on business as usual.” However, these sorts of responses aren’t actually getting to the key reason that we’re facing the challenges today.
You are already paying taxes on plastic disposal, cleanup, and pollution. It is not fine to keep thinking plastic recycling will solve the problems and paying more for endless cleanups. Remember the most effective and cheapest solution is to reduce consumption.
The Great Nurdle Hunt - https://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/the-problem.html