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The Great Recycling Myth – why most plastic can’t be recycled

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Picture: Marco de Benedictis/via Getty Images – Our planet is choking on plastic, and it is about time to change the way we produce, consume and dispose of the plastic we use.

It is understandable that while plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use plastic products which have had severe environmental, social, economic and health consequences.

By Dominic Naidoo

A staggering 85 percent of plastic packaging worldwide ends up in landfills.

In the United States, which is by far the world’s biggest plastics polluter, only around 5 percent of over 50 million tons of plastic waste produced by households in 2021 was recycled, according to Greenpeace.

According to statistics published by Plastics South Africa, locally recycled polymer made up 21.7 percent of virgin plastic consumption, an increase from 20.6 percent in 2020.

Our planet is choking on plastic, and it is about time to change the way we produce, consume and dispose of the plastic we use.

It is understandable that while plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use plastic products which have had severe environmental, social, economic and health consequences.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes.

Plastics including microplastics are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are becoming part of the Earth’s fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the “plastisphere”.

How did we get here?

From the 1950s to the 1970s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, and as a result, plastic waste was relatively manageable. However between the 1970s and the 1990s, plastic waste generation more than tripled, reflecting a similar rise in plastic production.

In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste we generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years. Today, we produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.

With plastic production set to triple globally by 2060, plastics made primarily from oil or gas are a growing source of the carbon pollution fuelling climate change. Much is also ending up in oceans and severely impacting marine life.

Promises by major plastics producers like Nestle and Danone to promote recycling and include more recycled plastic in their containers have been mostly broken.

But there is hope. New universal plastic regulations are currently being negotiated as part of a global plastics treaty aiming to streamline the production, use and reuse of plastic using a circular economy model.

Recycling and the “circular design” of plastics has largely been a myth. It is all very well to state that a product is recyclable but whether it is actually being recycled is another story all together.

From a composite level, most plastic packaging is produced from seven different grades of plastic that are largely incompatible with each other and are costly to sort for recycling.

Apart from PET, or Polyethylene terephthalate, the world’s most common plastic labelled with a #1, and high-density Polyethylene (HDPE), which carries the #2 symbols, five other plastic types might be collected but are rarely recycled, according to Greenpeace.

PET is the most recyclable plastic and there is a strong market for its by-product used to make drink bottles, food containers or fibres for clothes.

But the harder plastics numbered 3-7 have a very small market since the value of the raw material is lower than the cost of recycling meaning that it is cheaper for manufacturers to buy virgin plastic than to recycle existing plastic.

Taylen Reddy, global ambassador at Break Free From Plastic said that “it is difficult to reprocess and sort through all the different plastics, mixed container recycling bins contain contaminants that make plastic virtually impossible to recycle”.

“Recycling is not the problem, plastics are,” Reddy explained. “With new virgin plastic often cheaper than recycled material, plastic recycling is not economically viable,” he said.

The post-consumer plastic resin created from recycled material is being undercut by cheaper prime material, limiting the market for recycled plastics.

Reporting by New York-based market analysts S&P Global, shows demand for raw recycled plastic slowing due, among other factors, to rising transport costs for recycling businesses in Asia and a slowdown in the construction sector that creates plastic building materials.

Ironically, plastic bag bans in Africa and Asia have limited the amount of feed material, which, in addition to low recycling rates globally, is also raising the price of recycled material.

While the price of virgin plastic is at the whim of fluctuating oil and gas prices, these fossil fuels are often subsidised. According to Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the US-based non-profit, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, recycled plastic would be more competitive if fossil fuel subsidies were phased out.

But companies that produce waste could help undercut low virgin plastic costs by subsidising plastic recycling schemes under the principle of extended producer responsibility (EPR), DeFruyt said.

Such corporate subsidies have been key to the success of waste recycling schemes in EU countries like Germany and France, he added.

Are bans a part of the solution?

In a 2022 survey of over 23,000 people across 34 countries, nearly 80 percent would support banning types of plastic that cannot be easily recycled.

This would include a global ban on products and materials made from hard-to-recycle plastics. Authors of the survey, conducted by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and Australian-based campaigners Plastic Free Foundation, said “any meaningful progress in reducing global plastic waste” needs to include bans of “the most harmful and problematic types of single-use plastics, fishing gear, and microplastics”.

The EU has made some steps in this direction, having banned 10 single-use plastics products that not only blight Europe’s beaches but contravene a circular economy model via which all disposable plastics in the EU will be reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Meanwhile, more than 30 African countries have either completely or partially banned lightweight plastic bags. One goal of a global plastics treaty will be to harmonise these piecemeal bans into a coherent worldwide regulation.

In South Africa, a few grocery stores such as Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Food Lovers market are piloting plastic bag-free stores but very few other initiatives to reduce single use plastics and encourage viable recycling.

Let’s not even start with the laughable “Extended Producer Responsibility” policy, I can easily write up another thousand words on how that’s going, maybe I will.

Dominic Naidoo is an environmental activist and writer

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.