The pandemic exposed problems in plastics recycling that should have been more evident before. When the price of crude oil drops, manufacturers turn away from recycled plastic in favor of cheaper new plastic. As a result, the cost of recycling plastics actually increases.
Besides the pollution inherent in producing new plastic, turning away from recycling can threaten the viability of plastics recycling companies and the livelihoods of their employees. That, in turn, can discourage new investment in plastics recycling.
But there is a more long-standing problem that we have to address before we can think of how to fix plastics recycling. Our entire approach depends on the idea that wasteful consumers are responsible for recycling. The most altruistic and least wasteful consumers imaginable could not fix plastics recycling without major changes at the level of industry and government.
Greenwashing and plastics recycling problems
In the 1950s, a non-profit called Keep American Beautiful started a public service announcement (PSA) campaign that, among other things, introduced “litterbug” into the American vocabulary. Its later “Crying Indian” PSA showed an American Indian in a canoe see someone throw a bag of trash out of a car window. The camera pans to a tear rolling down his cheek. A still later PSA portrayed a plastic bottle that wanted to be recycled.
Those PSAs certainly increased public awareness of environmental issues. Not many people realize that Keep America Beautiful was sponsored by Coca-Cola and other big beverage companies. At the same time they advocated for public environmental stewardship, their lobbying efforts thwarted legislation to outlaw or regulate non-refillable containers.
Half a century of promoting responsible consumer behavior through Keep America Beautiful while refusing to stop production of single use plastic amounts to half a century of greenwashing.
Meanwhile, the campaign makes it look like recycling and fixing the problem of plastic is the consumer’s responsibility. Surely consumers ought to refrain from littering and fully participate in recycling efforts. But consumers have no way to halt the avalanche of products they use for a few minutes and then have to discard.
The role of industry in fixing plastics recycling problems
As things stand now, the plastics industry makes plastics. The waste management industry collects and sorts recyclables. The packaging industry, among others, buys the sorted waste plastic to make new products with it.
In principle, it should work. In practice it doesn’t.
The plastics industry makes more plastic than the planet can handle. Other industries use it to make what amounts to instant trash. Industry bears the primary responsibility for the avalanche of plastic in the environment. Therefore, it bears the primary responsibility to fix plastics recycling problems.
The problem of measuring the problem
Unfortunately, we lack data on how much plastic and what kinds of plastic countries export and import. We can’t manage what we haven’t measured.
Some experiments have sought to track a piece of plastic from its origin to its ultimate disposal. That is, plastic may become a bottle. The manufacturer ships it to a bottling facility. From there, it goes through various warehouses to a store. A consumer buys it.
We think we’re buying the drink, but we’re also buying the bottle, which becomes trash once we’re finished drinking. Then it ends up either at a recycling facility, a landfill, or as litter. What lands along the roadside eventually makes it to the ocean if nothing stops it.
Analyzing several hundred thousand such journeys would help develop a clearer picture of the plastic supply chains. It would also reveal the political and economic power structures that influence them. And since we have a world-wide plastics problem, we need worldwide measurements and analysis to fix it.
The problem of collecting and sorting plastics
More brand owners are committing to using post-consumer wastes in manufacturing their products. So demand for recycled material is growing. Yet the recycling rate for plastics remains at 9% in the US. We do better at two kinds of bottles (PET and HDPE, the kinds used for water bottles and milk jugs) than other plastics.
Every other recyclable plastic is known as challenging plastics. These include films, foams, various odd shapes, and such commonly used and little recycled plastics as polypropylene.
As far as films are concerned, multilayered packaging films present special plastics recycling problems. Few if any municipal recycling programs accept any plastic films. Films interfere with sorting equipment and can even inflict expensive damage on it.
Consumers can accumulate films and take them to a grocery store for recycling, but too many find it too inconvenient.
MRFs are supposed to separate plastics from other materials and at least separate PET and HDPE from other plastics. Unfortunately, too many of them produce bales of material with as high as 20% contamination rate, In other words, 20% of a bale of plastic includes some of the wrong kinds of plastic and/or materials other than plastic.
Two plastics recycling problems result from this contaminated output. Low quality bales end up in landfills. Manufacturers that want to use post-consumer waste cannot find sufficient good-quality feedstock.
It might be possible to have secondary sorting, where a feedstock preparation facility would further sort bales of mixed plastics from MRFs. Their output would provide the precise feedstock their particular customers need. No such program has lasted more than a few months. Making it work will require careful cooperation between the waste management industry and its corporate customers.
Advanced plastics recycling technologies
Most plastics recycling simply chops collected plastics into flake and melts it down for reuse. Unfortunately, the resulting product is too degraded to be put to its original use. Recycled bottles don’t become new bottles. They become polyester fabric, for example.
I have written several posts on more advanced chemical recycling techniques, using plastic-eating bacteria, etc. I have put links to them at the end of this post.
These techniques show promise, but clearly, they cannot fulfil that promise without solving the problems I have just described.
The role of government in fixing plastics recycling problems
A Pew Research poll in 2016 found that 74% of Americans think the government should do “whatever it takes to protect the environment.” That certainly means that federal, state, and local governments ought to pass laws that discourage single-use products. For example, they could require fast-food restaurants to give straws, napkins, drink lids, and forks only to consumers who request them. That alone would make a noticeable reduction in the waste stream.
Governments love to turn to quick-fix solutions. So they try to fix plastics recycling problems by banning single-use plastic items. Such bans provide only a partial solution. Single-use replacement items (paper shopping bags, wooden fast-food spoons, etc.) have their own environmental costs. Why address one problem by causing others?
More promising, some governments have turned to extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. That is, it takes the responsibility for collecting and sorting recyclables from municipal governments and turns it over to manufacturers. In other words, it makes producers responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products from manufacture to ultimate disposal.
EPR laws have attracted some support from some segments of industry. They need to be implemented nationally—and in many nations–to help fix plastics recycling.
In April 2022, the United Kingdom introduced a new tax on plastic packaging. Anything either manufactured there or imported with less than 30% recycled plastic must pay £200 per ton. It follows a similar tax imposed by the European Union.
These taxes complement EPR laws already in place. In principle, they should increase demand for used plastic. They will require a good monitoring system. Their effect will probably not be apparent for a few years.
Finally, developed nations must help developing nations devise waste management infrastructure suitable for their own social and cultural realities.
What consumers can do in the meantime
The cost of convenience
Years ago, President George W. Bush warned that we are addicted to oil. We still are. The addiction to oil is a root cause of our plastics recycling problems. But we are also addicted to convenience. Where is the voice of top leaders warning us about that addiction?
Single-serving coffee pods are more convenient than making a whole pot of coffee. Taking a box with a plastic tray from the freezer and nuking is more convenient than planning and cooking a meal. Think of all the single-use packaging!
When it comes to recycling, separating recyclables from our trash seems convenient enough for most of us. Accumulating plastic films and taking them to the grocery store does not seem convenient.
My city stopped accepting glass for curbside recycling. Instead, it set up half a dozen or so glass drop-off locations. One friend of mine refused to consider recycling glass anymore. And she passed within a quarter of a mile of one of the drop-off locations a couple of times a week.
Some difficult choices
I started this post saying that pointing the finger at wasteful consumers for the glut of plastics resulted from a greenwashing PSA campaign. Yet consumers addicted to convenience still have to help fix plastics recycling. They have to stop their wasteful ways. They have to decide that many conveniences cost them too much. Not just a few consumers, but many of us. That will send a signal to manufacturers to reduce or even stop production of products when demand drops.
But you’re not wasteful, are you? You use cloth shopping bags, take plastic film back to the store, and otherwise do what you can do to reduce or eliminate waste from your life. What can you do about all the plastic you accumulate that you can’t recycle?
There are some additional solutions, but they will cost you money. Read the article about TerraCycle from the links below, for example. You can buy a mailer from them, stuff it with plastic, and mail it back. Other companies offer some kind of take-back program. Earth911 will help you find them.
Or you could join the small minority of green-minded people who go to extraordinary lengths to live a zero-plastic lifestyle. Alas, that will not fix our plastics recycling problems unless that small minority grows much larger than anyone expects.
- Advanced plastic recycling technology
- Beyond water bottles and milk jugs: what other plastics get recycled?
- Can plastic-eating bacteria in cows’ stomachs help plastic recycling?
- Can plastic eating bacteria boost recycling?
- Dow’s new sustainability partnerships for plastic recycling
- EPR: is it a solution to our recycling crisis?
- Groceries are ditching plastic packaging
- Innovations in plastic recycling technology
- New EPR laws for packaging: should producers pay for recycling?
- The plastic recycling crisis and how cities are coping
- Plastic recycling: when did it start and why doesn’t it work?
- TerraCycle turns trash to treasure by recycling everything
- What happens to recycled plastic bags?
- Beyond the bottle: Solutions for recycling challenging plastics / Chris Musso et al., McKinsey & Company. November 14, 2022
- The plastic recycling system is broken – here’s how we can fix it / Eleni Iacovidou and Norman Ebner, The Conversation. October 14, 2021
- More recycling won’t solve plastic pollution / Matt Wilkins, Scientific American blog. July 6, 2018