Recycling has long been touted as the solution to the global problem of plastic pollution. It sounds good in theory: the large amounts of plastic waste generated by households and industries can be used to make new products – preventing it from accumulating in landfills, where it would otherwise be incinerated or remain on the ground for thousands of years pollute with toxic chemicals and pose a significant environmental and health risk. In addition, it could mean leaving fossil fuels in the ground. However, a new one report claims plastic recycling is a “failed concept” as “most plastics just can’t be recycled.”
Greenpeace USA, in their report, showed that plastic recycling rates continue to fall even as production increases. In 2021, US households generated 51 million tons of plastic waste. According to the study, only 2.4 million tons – just 5% – were recycled. It added that in the US, which was the focus of the study, no type of plastic packaging meets the standards to be classified as “recyclable”.
Over time, the narrative surrounding plastics recycling has centralized individual responsibility for industrial change. “The plastics and product industries have been promoting plastics recycling as a solution to plastic waste since the early 1990s,” the report said. As the industry continues to peddle dreams of a circular economy through recycling, the impacts of toxic plastic pollution and recycling are being borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable communities. The new report dashed hopes for the project’s “imagined benefits” and highlighted the industry’s “decades-long misinformation campaign” that has perpetuated the “myth” that plastic can be recycled.
“More plastic is being produced and an even lower percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis is getting worse and will only deepen without drastic changes as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.” said Lisa Ramsden, Senior Plastics Campaigner at Greenpeace USA. The potential increase in plastics production contributes to the burgeoning problem of waste generation. After all, new plastic is cheaper to produce and better quality than recycled plastic, the report says. The petrochemical industry is also expanding rapidly, reducing the cost of virgin plastic.
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According to the report, there are five main problems related to plastic recycling. Plastic waste is extremely difficult to collect and almost impossible to separate and sort before recycling, which is a crucial step as mixed plastic cannot be recycled together. Additionally, the recycling process itself is harmful to the environment, exposing workers to toxic chemicals and generating microplastics. The process is expensive and renders the entire project unfeasible. The toxicity of plastic as a material is another major obstacle, as recycled plastic runs the risk of being contaminated with other plastic in bulk containers, rendering it unusable as a food-grade material.
In 2014, plastic recycling in the USA reached approx 10% and has been on a downward trend ever since. The report highlighted how recycling rates have fallen since China stopped accepting US plastic waste in 2018. Previously, the US exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled, although most of this waste was incinerated or sent to landfill. the report noted. A report in The conversation explained that after China announced its plastic waste import ban, exports shifted to African countries, with most of this hard-to-recycle plastic ending up in oceans and rivers as they lacked the infrastructure to effectively process the waste.
This highlights another systemic problem with plastic waste – while high-income countries have historically generated more plastic waste per capita, most of that waste has been shifted to developing countries over the years. This “plastic waste trade” is designed to create economic opportunities for the poor, but these benefits are offset directly by the environmental and health risks associated with dealing with toxic chemicals can cause Cancer, respiratory diseases and damage the reproductive system.
The report advocated a move towards phasing out single-use plastics, standardizing reusable packaging, adopting a global agreement, and prioritizing reuse and refill strategies over recycling. Reporting the results of the latest survey, AFP further highlighted how several countries are leading the way in tackling plastic waste, including India forbidden 19 single-use plastic items earlier this year.
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However, India’s plastic pollution tryst is riddled with hurdles of its own. Three months after the ban, on IndiaSpend The report found that most of these single-use plastic items are still in circulation. If the ban had worked, it would have accounted for only 2-3% of the plastic waste generated in India. In addition, experts pointed out that the ban fails to hold big players accountable. Instead, it targets the most vulnerable — the street vendors and vendors who make up the smallest segment of the plastics industry and “require maximum handholding to transition away from single-use plastic.”
The fossil fuel industry and the plastic problem are closely intertwined as over 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels. A Investigation 2020 NPR found that industry officials had misled the public into believing that plastic was recyclable despite knowing that the material had not been economically recycled since the 1970s. Despite this knowledge, the “industry has spent millions telling people to recycle.”
Alice Mah, Professor of Sociology at the The University of Warwick got in touch The conversation, “She has denied the toxic dangers of countless petrochemicals and plastic products, funded climate misinformation campaigns, misled the public about the effectiveness of recycling, and worked to thwart and delay environmental regulations. During the pandemic, she also campaigned to promote single-use plastic bags as a “hygiene choice.”
The plastics industry championing recycling has only served to turn the plastics crisis green and divert attention from the environmental justice issue it poses. The recycling narrative has also helped shift the responsibility for tackling the plastic problem onto the plastic problem individuals. “Industrial groups and large corporations have been pushing for recycling as a solution… They have absolved themselves of any responsibility,” says Ramsden said AFP. “We are at a decision point on plastic pollution. It’s time for companies to turn off the plastic tap,” she said.