Less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled. Here’s how to fix it

Let’s start with a fact: globally we’ve generated 7 billion tonnes of plastic waste in under a century of trying.  Less than 10 percent of that has ever been recycled.

In Australia, the numbers aren’t much higher – only 13 percent of plastic is recycled each year, and hundreds of tonnes of the stuff leaks into the marine environment.

With the demise of soft plastic recycler REDcycle, more questions are being asked about the larger system of recycling. Is it working as intended?

“There’s just so many issues with the whole notion of recycling,” says Dr Anya Phelan, a researcher focusing on circular economies and business sustainability. “So much of this is for ‘peace of mind’, that kind of feel-good feeling when we were putting something in the yellow bin.

“In the reality the system is set up to manage a small percentage and only specific plastic types.”

You might remember back in 2018 when our recycling façade came tumbling down. China implemented a program called ‘Operation National Sword’ where it banned imports of foreign waste.

This was because about 80% of the plastic they were receiving had a ‘low residual value’.

Plastic isn’t inherently bad. It’s tough, durable, and can be incredibly useful in certain situations. But half of the plastic produced today is ‘single-use’ meaning it’s destined for landfill or, and only occasionally, recycling.

Much of it ends up in our oceans. 130,000 tonnes of plastic leaks into rivers and oceans every year in Australia. The often-touted line is that by 2050 plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish.

But even if we could clean all the oceans of plastic today, by 2040 the amount of plastic in the world will have doubled, and more plastic would be in the ocean that the whole time up until now.

“You could clean up the gyres today and in 11 years we will have chucked more plastic into the ocean than we have the whole time up to now,” Chris Wilcox, a marine plastics researcher at CSIRO, told Cosmos journalist Michael Lucy back in 2018.

Plastic is also made of petroleum, and a surprisingly large chunk. The world consumes 4,500 million tonnes of oil a year, and 350 million tones are used to make plastics.

So how do we fix this Great Pacific Garbage Patch-sized crisis we’ve found ourselves in?

“This is definitely a wicked problem,” says Phelan.

“Wicked” in this context isn’t evil, just difficult. “Wicked problems are things that are very complicated and require many different solutions from all different angles – things like climate change,” she told Cosmos.

Phelan has spent her career in the product and business sustainability space, first as an engineer and then as a researcher in sustainability economics.

For her, this solution needs to be holistic. She feels that large corporations are normally too big and beholden to shareholders to make major changes, but she says small business might be able to chart new territory. For example, initiatives might mean selling in bulk, refilling the same container multiple times, inventing more sustainable packaging, or committing to the collection and reuse, recycle or disposal of their own products. Big companies then take on the ideas that work.

Through new laws and incentives, governments can push the tide of these companies – large and small – in a more sustainable direction.

“This is where government does need to incentivise [for] greater and extended producer responsibility,” says Phelan.

One way of doing this is ‘extended producer responsibility laws’. This system puts the onus back onto companies for responsibility of the product and its packaging, at the end of its life. This can either be financial (aka a ‘tax’) or physical, meaning the company needs to oversee the recycling or disposing of the item.

This sort of system moves the onus of responsibility for waste from local governments to the producers of the product. It also provides significant incentive for companies to use less, reuse, or find new ways of recycling the product.

“In Europe, they’ve been doing this with all sorts of different waste streams,” says Phelan, “including, e waste, tires, batteries, appliances. And now I believe as of July this year, in Germany for example, plastic packaging is also included.”

The collapse of soft plastic recycler REDcycle – although a good idea in theory – might even have made companies less likely to invest in new possibilities or change their soft plastics use.

Phelan suggests that the more we take the easier options, the less time companies spend redesigning products, examining core business models or finding new ways of doing things better.

“The only way to truly address this issue is to reduce putting plastic into the economy in the first place.”

That’s not to say that big companies can’t take steps without government prodding. In November – possibly prompted by the REDcycle scandal — Mars Wrigley announced that its chocolate bars would be packaged in recyclable, reusable or compostable materials, by 2025. In April next year, some Mars Bars and Snickers will be wrapped in paper instead of plastic.

Read more: Ending the age of plastic

Changing from one single use item to another is not always the most environmental option. However, paper Mars Bars may prompt more companies to move away from multi-layered materials. Think for example of a Pringles container. One container is made up of foil lined cardboard, a metal cap at the bottom and a plastic lid on top. This mix of materials makes the tube un-recyclable.

Big companies have significant reasons for wanting to continue down the single use pathway. It’s cheaper, easier, and there’s no repercussions for continuing the create, use, dispose model. However, there are alternatives.  

Zero Co for example, is a start-up that sends customers cleaning products in reusable soft plastic pouches. Once these pouches are emptied they can be returned to Zero Co, which washes and reuses them.

With constituent support, the Australian government is starting to move the dial towards ending single use plastic, but the results so far have been mixed.

A study on the single use plastic bag ban in the ACT for instance, found that plastic consumption went down, but only in a relatively small way. Single use bags were drastically reduced, but other types of plastic bags – like thicker, ‘reusable’, bags – filled their place.

The European Union has standards and legislation for manufacturers to create simpler plastic that can be more easily recycled. This makes container deposit refund schemes even more effective.

Clear labelling on packaging (which is voluntarily used in Australia) also ensures that items end up in the right bin, and there’s less ‘low residual value’ recycling.

Recently, Australia joined more than 30 countries in the ‘High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution’. This group hopes to get a legally binding instrument in the UN Environment Assembly next year. “I think there’s huge ambitious commitments being made but the legal frameworks and the political will remains to be seen,” says Phelan.

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