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30 Oct 2019

Why is plastic recycling so difficult?

And what’s next?

Martin Weper

Statistics vary on how much plastic is manufactured globally each year, from around 100 million tons to more than 300 million tons. Whatever the case, only 5% to 9% is being recycled effectively. In Indonesia alone, 1 million tons of plastics end up in the water every year. The problem worldwide is so bad that the Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that by 2050, if no action is taken, there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Why is so little plastic being recycled? We have to look at the manufacturing process to find some of the answers. Plastic resins are melted to make the products we’re used to, using different processes. For example, water bottles are made with one type of plastic by blow molding, while ready-made meal trays are made with another type of plastic by injection molding.

Different plastics have different melting points, depending on the manufacturing process. Chemical additives enter the picture in order to give the plastic specific characteristics. An additive can make a plastic more flexible, for example, or, it can make it more rigid. Dyes are also added for a desired effect.

Consequently, there are thousands of variations of plastics. Not all types can be recycled. When the plastic that can be recycled is recycled, the quality degrades every time it is reheated for melting to make a new product. Compare it to aluminium. Aluminium can be melted and reformed without ever losing its quality. In fact, recycling aluminium saves 95% of the energy needed to make it in the first place from raw material.

Plastics are not standard, however, and that’s a problem. Households lump all plastics together for recycling and it has to be carefully sorted by type, which is expensive for municipals and other organisations to do. For instance, a water bottle is usually recyclable, but a tray is not. Further exasperating the problem are products containing two types of plastic, rendering them either even more difficult to recycle or perhaps entirely useless for recycling.

Because plastic has limited value as a recycled material due to its loss in quality, it’s not long before it reaches its end of life and spends eternity as landfill or fish food.

Are we stuck with plastic?
Plastics aren’t always a bad thing, however. They play an important part in medicine, from the material that make prosthetics to unique antimicrobial touch surfaces that repel bacteria, protecting against diseases.

The problem is plastic waste. Because of its limited life as a recycled material – and we haven’t even discussed the toxins released as a result of producing plastic resins – all of us must reduce our use, both at home and in business.

The role of the business
The packaging industry has got to explore eco-friendly options to plastic. Some companies are responding with bio-based and renewable raw materials along with the adoption of compostable materials, and that’s good news, although as any initial baby steps, it’s far from perfect with much room for improvement. Thankfully, the demand for green packaging is there, and it’s expected to grow by USD $95.28 billion through 2022, registering a CAGR of over 8% during the forecast period.

If the businesses who use packaging want to stay relevant – more consumers than ever want plastic-free options – then they, too, have to respond. There are financial rewards for doing so. For instance, by auditing your use of packaging, you can eliminate materials waste – it’s a matter of evaluating what you’re using. Cutting waste saves money.

Companies taking action
Last year, the European Parliament set ambitious targets for single-use plastics. Elsewhere, governments are setting their own agendas towards the same goal. Companies have no choice but to follow new protocols. Fortunately, some are even leading the way, and they should be applauded.

This is about eradicating plastic waste and pollution at the source, which is the mission of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It should add some measure of reassurance that more than 350 companies have already signed on, representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.

The good guys: who’s making a difference?
These companies include large consumer brands, plastic packaging producers and resource management specialists.

One such company is Veolia. They are advising clients on limiting the production of all waste, but especially plastic waste. They’re supporting them in collecting and sorting that waste. They’re developing collection schemes that reward residents. Their efforts are aimed at turning plastic into a secondary raw material and developing circular economy loops with manufacturers.

Another signatory is LEGO, who have managed to balance 100% of the energy they used to make their toys with energy from renewable sources (three years ahead of schedule one might add), and they have also pledged a number of other environmental milestones, like wanting to achieve 100% sustainable packaging by 2025. As for the toys themselves, they’re looking for ways to make their traditional bricks from plant-based plastic sources from sugarcanes.

Unilever has pledged that 100% of their plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Since 2010, their total waste footprint per consumer use has reduced by 31%.

You can find out who the Global Commitment signatories are here. Choose the businesses you want to be in bed with based on their environmental efforts and policies. Doing so will show businesses that it is indeed environmentally (and economically) viable to take a stance and more importantly, effect change.