Despite the messages in classroom for the past 20 years, recycling everything is an illusion. In fact, the existing recycling enterprise is arguably failing the planet. A lot of different plastics cannot be recycled, and the industry has to push for far better outcomes. This is why it is important that industries which do not traditional use plastics do not choose this moment to move into what is a very crowded arena.
An imperfect system
In spite of the diligent efforts of citizens to separate out household waste, the recycling project is not achieving the results that governments have been promising. This is a serious issue, as plastics are harmful enough to the planet just by creating them.
“Traditional plastics production involves the transformation of petroleum or natural gas into their constituent monomers. This process is highly energy-intensive, and was estimated to account for 400 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions (around 1% of the global total) in 2012,” according to an environmental policy paper from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
On top of this, plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose. Given the few years it has taken for us to amass some 8.3 billion tons — numbers which date back to 2017 — we clearly have a problem.
As a lot of plastic cannot be recycled, this is even more serious than many realise.
Worse still, once recyclable plastic leaves for example Europe, from which it is often shipped overseas for processing, the data gets extremely murky. While European nations routinely write these shipments off as “recycled”, the true story is a lot less cut and dry.
“It’s really a complete myth when people say that we’re recycling our plastics,” says Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network, which campaigns against the illegal waste trade. “It all sounded good. ‘It’s going to be recycled in China!’ I hate to break it to everyone, but these places are routinely dumping massive amounts of [that] plastic and burning it on open fires,” he explains.
The chances that “recycled plastic” ends up burning and producing further emissions, or even worse, that it is simply jettisoned into the ocean to devastate wildlife, are worryingly high.
“Inevitably, large quantities of plastic waste end up in the oceans, a phenomenon emerging as a major threat to ocean ecosystems and food chains. Plastic pollution is widespread, being found in even the most remote marine environments,” write authors Bishops, Styles, and Lens.
In 2018, China, which was the single largest market for recycled waste processing, introduced bans on numerous kinds of materials, drastically reducing its role in the global recycling industry. Smaller, less dependable nations moved in to plug the hole, intensifying concerns that plastic waste is being mismanaged on a huge scale.
Our recycling industry has to do better
There are a number of ways in which the system can be improved. Fundamental changes need to be made to the product design process. Light weighting items is one method in which intelligent design allows for reductions in the weight of input materials.
Another way is simply to make use of materials other than plastics where at all possible. Plant-based alternatives are increasing in popularity. Biodegradable materials can significantly reduce the adverse environmental impact of consumable products.
Another area which has room for improvement is waste management systems themselves. Currently, only a small proportion of recyclable plastics actually get recycled. Optimising our existing procedures is essential if we are to make any progress.
Finally, far more needs to be done to facilitate clean up and remediation activities, such as beach clean-ups and the development of technology that can collect plastics from the oceans. Scientists expect there to be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 if nothing is done to alter course.
Ending new avenues for plastic
It might be counterintuitive, but there are industries, even now, which are trying to pivot towards greater use of plastics. A particularly striking example is the security printing industry which is responsible for the production of national currencies.
There are plenty of examples of the misguided move towards plastic polymer banknotes in place of cotton-paper ones. This is usually put down to cost saving reasons, security feature improvements, or alleged benefits to the environmental footprint of the banknotes. This last point is evidently not well-founded.
Cost savings have also been called into question, as many plastic banknotes have been wearing out a lot more quickly that their proponents originally suggested they would. The case in Nigeria outlines this point. Heat caused the nation’s plastic banknotes to fade becoming illegible in some instances, after it began using plastic in 2007. This led to banknotes being rejected and rendered them useless.
Voices in the industry have also disputed the notion that there are any security advantages to plastic banknotes in the first place.
A recent story from June this year in Romania highlighted this contradiction when a counterfeiting crime group was caught by local prosecutors. It was later discovered that the leader of the criminals was the world’s biggest counterfeiter of plastic banknotes. From 2014 to 2020, the group produced some 17,000 Romanian Leu polymer banknotes with most of the security features specific to plastic banknotes having been mimicked successfully. They had a combined face value of roughly €354,000.
“In a relatively short time, the group’s leader managed to produce the best counterfeits in Romania’s history and become the biggest forger of plastic banknotes in the world,” Romania’s Directorate for Combatting Organised Crime and Terrorism said in a press release.
Even if there were credible security or cost reduction reasons for making the change to plastics, the environmental dimensions of the issue need to be treated as paramount. The situation with plastic pollution is in danger of running away from us if we do not immediately and drastically address our shortcomings. Pressure should be put on other industries considering implementing similar changes to their processes.