91% of plastic isn’t recycled. How we’ve been misled into thinking plastic is sustainable.

Growing up I was taught the importance of recycling. It started with paper, aluminum cans and then expanded into plastics and other items. 

The local council advertised what could or could not be recycled, and we all thought we were doing good for the planet. It was ok to use plastic as long as we recycled it. 

But the truth is most plastic is not recycled, and we’re producing it at an alarming rate.

A study published in 2017 determined that of the 6300 million metric tons of virgin plastic waste that has been generated up until 2015, only 9% had been recycled, 12% was incinerated and 79% has accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.

Source: Science Advances

It is now incredibly cheap to produce plastic, and despite some efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastics, production is expected to almost quadruple by 2050 and will account for a fifth of global oil consumption. 

The problem with plastic

Modern plastics are made from a wide range of polymers including polyethylene, PVC, and nylon, created from crude oil, natural gas, salt, coal, and in more recent years from bio-matter.

Most plastics are chemically inert and will not react chemically with other substances, making it suitable for storing a wide variety of substances without it dissolving the container itself. But because plastic doesn’t react with most other substances, this means it can take 400-500 years for it to decay.

When plastics were first invented they were marketed as an alternative to ivory and horn, obtained through the slaughter of elephants and other animals. The discovery was considered revolutionary. For the first time, human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature. Humans could create new materials. It was also considered that this development helped not only people but also the environment.

Now plastic is used in nearly everything, with over 359 million tons of plastic being produced in 2018 and that number continues to rise every year.  It’s in your smartphone, your clothes, your furniture. And plastic on its own isn’t the problem here, it’s how we use and market it. 

It’s no longer just used for products that we want to last a really long time, more than 50% of plastic production is for single-use purposes, with the view that it’s ok because we can just recycle it and use it again.

But plastic is not recycled as much as you may think. 

When you place an item that is plastic into a recycling bin, it is sent off to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Here the items are sorted and then distributed, often overseas, for recycling.

In January 2018, China, the worlds largest market for recycled waste, banned the import of most plastics and other materials, leaving countries to try and find new ways to dispose of their waste. 

Initially countries like the US, UK and Australia looked to Southeast Asia, but they have also become overwhelmed with plastic and reduced how much they are importing. Other countries such as India, have also started to look at improving their waste management and stopped taking plastics.  

Even before China’s stopped taking everyones rubbish, only 9% of discarded plastic was being recycled, while 12% was burned and the rest ends up in landfill or littering the earth. 

China’s new policy has also had an impact on recyclers such as Green Recycling, which handles up to 12 tonnes of waste an hour.

“The price of plastics has plummeted to the extent that it isn’t worth recycling. If China doesn’t take plastic, we can’t sell it.”  

Jamie Smith, Green Recycling’s general manager.

Many recycling companies who used to get paid by selling off recyclable materials are now having to pay someone to take it away, with many of these trucks going straight to landfill

So why isn’t more plastic recycled? 

There are quite a lot of reasons why more plastic isn’t recycled.

Firstly, a lot of items are sent straight to landfill or ends up in waterways because people either didn’t put it in a recycling bin, don’t have access to a recycling program or it was contaminated (ie dirty or made from a mixed material). It varies from country to country, and even from city to city, as generally waste management is managed at a local government level. But even if it does make it to a recycling centre, about a quarter of things consumers place in recycling bins can’t be recycled by the programs that accept them.

The following chart shows the percentage of material that is recycled and what percentage is sent to landfill. The remaining percentage is incinerated. Source: Environment at a Glance 2015

Contamination is a major problem for sorting facilities and recycling centres. Plastic bags can jam the conveyer belts, while broken glass and PVC can contaminate other materials.

Secondly, not all types of plastic can be recycled. The table below details what can and can’t be recycled.

CodeDescriptionRecyclable?
1PETE Polyethylene Terephlthalate:
Soft drink bottles and some food packaging.
Yes
2HDPE High Density Polyethylene:
Hard plastic containers used for things like detergents, shampoo and milk containers.
Yes
3PVC Polyvinyl Chloride:
Plumbing pipes, toys, some packaging. Has been described as “one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created”
No
4LDPE Low-density Polyethylene:
Soft plastics such as cling film, sandwich bags, ice-cream lids, dry cleaning bags, plastic bags. Usually a soft flexible material.
Not accepted by most local councils, but can drop off at certain places
5PP Polypropylene:
Plastic furniture, car parts, bottle tops. Can be recycled into clothing and ropes when fibres are recycled properly.
Yes
6PS Polystyrene:
Disposable cups, meat trays, packaging for electronics.
No
7Misc: All the other things No

From this we can see that only half of the different types of plastic can be recycled.

Numbers 1 and 2 are relatively recyclable, according to Kara Pochiro, communications director for the Association of Plastic Recyclers. These materials get chopped up, melted into pellets and sold to manufacturers for reuse. There is also a growing markt for plastics labeled ‘5’, a flexible plastic often used for yoghurt containers.  But any with a higher number are mixed plastics and generally end up in landfill.

And then finally there is the economics of recycling.

While the benefits of recycling plastic have both economic and environmental benefits. It’s surprisingly difficult to get a clear picture of how much recycling programs cost compared to landfilling or incineration. This is in part due to the price varying from city to city, but also because the price can fluctuate significantly with supply and demand. But it’s fair to say that, at this point, it generally costs a more to recycle waste than it does to dump it.

Demand for recycled plastic products is increasing with many companies pledging to use more recycled packaging, as well as companies like Repreve that create recycled fibre from plastic bottles.

Historically it has actually been cheaper to produce plastic products using recycled plastic (58 to 68 cents a pound) then virgin plastic (83 to 85 cents a pound). For every tonne of plastic waste recycled it saves roughly 2,000 pounds of oil, reduces energy consumption by 66% and also uses less water. 

But many companies are only just starting to make the change to using recycled plastic now.

Coca-Cola, the worlds largest plastic polluter, have revealed they produce 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year – equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute. They believe that many consumers still prefer plastic bottles, and that using only aluminium and glass packaging could push up the firm’s carbon footprint. 

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Coca-Cola’s head of sustainability Bea Perez said the firm now recognised that it had to be “part of the solution”.  

They were one of more than 30 companies that have started to offer more transparency around plastics in an effort to stop plastic waste and pollution. They have pledged to use at least 50% recycled materials in their packaging by 2030 and have also partnered with NGOs around the world to improve collection. Which is a start, but much more needs to be done.

More than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. 

It’s hard to even visualise what that looks like, so let me share with you an example. 

World population = 7.8 billion people. 
World plastic = 8.3 billion tonnes 

Meaning for every person alive right now there is more than 1 tonne (1,000kg) of plastic.

Ok, so the situation is pretty bad. What can we do moving forward? 

The good news is the answer is fairly simple. Reduce, reuse, recycle. And in that order. 

We need to stop thinking about plastics as recyclable. We really need to reduce how much plastic we are using. There are simple changes we can make as consumers, but there are also bigger changes that businesses and governments need to make. 

As a consumer, it’s time to be really mindful about how much plastic you use. Don’t buy bottled water, use reusable coffee cups, make sustainable swaps. 

And for businesses, it’s time to think about how you can reduce single-use plastics. Packaging is the largest category of plastic use, with most of it also being single-use. Many countries have started banning plastic products, ranging from plastic bags, cups, cutlery and plates, straws, and bottles. 

What are the big businesses doing?

Companies are starting to get innovative and offer alternative packaging and products. Companies such as Starbucks, Nestlé, American Airlines, United Airlines, McDonalds and Disneyland have all announced plans to eliminate plastic straws and products. Ben & Jerry’s are testing new biodegradable coatings to replace plastic based coatings and make their paperboard pints recyclable and compostable. 

Terracycle’s Loop, is a service that picks up and refills your favourite household goods is expanding their pilot delivery service which is available in the United States, UK and France to Canada, Germany, Japan and Australia. They’ve partnered with a variety of brands including Nestle, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo to have their products delivered by the service, in zero-waste reusable packaging that is claned and refilled to be reused again and again. Even McDonalds are getting on board and will be offering a reusable cup for on-the-go hot drinks.

What about governments?

The UK is planning to tax companies which don’t use at least 30% recycled plastic in their products, but until then it may be cheaper for companies to demand more new plastic to make their packaging.

In Australia the government is spending $190m on new recycling infrastructure, to help divert 10,000 tonnes of plastic, paper and glass waste from landfill. 

Help make a change

Eight in 10 consumers are trying to reduce their plastic waste, and half would be willing to pay higher prices for eco-friendly packaging according to a survey highlighting the impacts of the Blue Planet documentary.  

Write to your favourite businesses, reach out to them on social, let them know that you want them to change their packaging / product, and if you would be willing to pay more. 

What are you doing to reduce plastic in your business? Drop us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you! 

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