The problem with plastic
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Despite our best efforts, plastic is still a blight in our world. What are we doing wrong?
Last year, 2.26 million tonnes of plastic packaging was ‘placed on the market’, according to The UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2018 commissioned by RECycling of Used Plastics Limited (RECOUP). Around half of that (1.12 tonnes) was used by households and almost half of that (537,000 tonnes) was collected for recycling. Sixty-six per cent was exported, while the rest was recycled in the UK.
The remaining 1,215,637 tonnes was not collected for recycling, instead ending up in landfill or energy recovery end destinations. What makes plastics such a problem?
To put it into perspective: of all the plastics found in a typical kitchen, two-thirds can’t be recycled. The Society of Plastic Industries has created seven codes to differentiate between types of plastic. However, only two types can be recycled successfully: polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE), which is used to create water bottles and synthetic fibres, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used to create bottle caps and water pipes, among other things.
Even though there has been a 2.8 per cent increase in plastic collected for recycling in the UK, that doesn’t mean it’s getting any better. There is still an epic amount of unrecyclable plastic being produced.
Data from the Financial Times reveals that the US exported 30 per cent less plastic scrap in the first half of 2018 than the comparable period in 2017, with much of the material ending up in landfill instead. It can take anywhere between 30 days and 1,000 years for plastic waste to decompose, depending on the item. Most plastic leaks potential pollutants into the soil and water in the surrounding area when it rots, although the extent of this is dependent on how well the landfill site is engineered.
According to estimates from Our World in Data, 2015 saw around 55 per cent of global plastic waste discarded, 25 per cent incinerated, and 20 per cent recycled. Of the total plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9 per cent was recycled.
Unfortunately, in many countries, plastics intended for recycling end up being rejected at local or regional waste facilities. This is commonly down to ‘contamination’ – high levels of unrecyclable items or other matter like food waste ending up in recycling streams.
Once collected, human and machine error means a lot of material falls through the recycling net. Many items, for different reasons, are either difficult or impossible to sort or isolate.
Peter Jones, principal consultant at environmental consultancy Eunomia, says “sorting isn’t perfect and some material that could have been recycled will be rejected, some will end up in the wrong stream (e.g. mixed in with cartons or card), but the percentage is small – around 4 per cent of all UK household recycling that is collected is reported as having been rejected at the sorting plant”.
Ramon Arratia, sustainability director at Ball Beverage Packaging Europe and chairman of Every Can Counts, says that even if recycled material passes through the various sorting hoops, there can still be large-scale losses in the recycling process itself: “This unsatisfactory state of affairs can be compounded by downcycling [recycling of waste where recycled material is lower quality and functionality than the original] of the materials collected.”
It’s also down to cost. Even if plastic contamination could be sorted within the facilities, it can still be cheaper to divert tonnes of plastic to landfill. Our World in Data says that the processing cost for poorly sorted or contaminated plastic is higher and can sometimes outweigh any potential profit from recycled materials.
Right now, plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times; it is difficult to recycle; each variety of plastic requires a different recycling process, and plastics are made in thousands of different formulations. There’s also the matter of what the ‘recyclable’ material is turned into. ‘Real’ recycling is maintaining the exact properties of the same material repeatedly.
While recycling is seen as the better management option when compared to landfill or incineration, it only delays disposal using the latter two methods.
Our World in Data points out that while recycling has clear environmental benefits, it’s not always the most economically favourable choice. The relative profitability between recycling and production of new plastic is strongly determined by oil prices. When oil prices are low, it can be cheaper to make raw plastics than to recycle. For example, when crude oil prices were low in 2015-16, the recycling industry struggled to compete with raw material production.
Jones says: “The economics of plastic reprocessing have been quite volatile, and several plastic sorters and reprocessors have closed when oil prices have dipped. In the absence of a guaranteed market for recycled plastic, if virgin material gets too cheap, recyclers can’t compete.
“In its new Resources & Waste Strategy, the [UK] government is proposing to help by taxing all new plastic packaging that contains less than 30 per cent recycled material, which would improve the resilience of demand.”
Current thinking favours moving to a circular economy, which Wrap UK defines as an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.
Arratia says: “Recycling will play a key part in any circular economy, and these days there’s lots of focus on recycling’s role in the move towards circularity. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of nonsense talked about recycling and this is getting in the way of attempts to move further down the road.”
The main problem, he explains, is that the circularity debate is framed around the twin concepts of “recyclability” and “recycled content”. “Both are attractive ideas for brands because they can form the basis of positive-looking claims. For example, many companies boast ‘our product is 100 per cent recyclable’, while many others will make statements such as ‘our product is made from 50 per cent recycled content’. While these claims sound very wholesome, in fact they have less relevance to the circular economy than at first might appear.”
If a business’s products are advertised as ‘recyclable’, it might not actually mean that the materials are recyclable everywhere. They could just be recyclable at one place, or that only a part of the product is recyclable, or it can only be recycled once, rather than many times over.
Judith Blake, the Local Government Association’s environment spokeswoman, said last year: “It’s time for manufacturers to stop letting a smorgasbord of unrecyclable and damaging plastic flow into our environment. That needs to happen urgently, but the government should now consider banning low-grade plastics, particularly those for single use, to increase recycling.
“If manufacturers don’t want to get serious about producing material which can be recycled, and protecting our environment, then they should at least contribute towards the cost that local taxpayers have to pay to clear it up,” she added.
Arratia reckons that “having a product that is recyclable sounds great to the consumer, but it’s no use if no one does recycle it. Many products are so tricky to recycle that they are either not recycled at all or only a small fraction of the material in the products is recovered.”
The issues are collection and processing. “Where can a ‘100 per cent recyclable’ product be sent first for collection and then for recycling?” Arratia asks. “If there is no feasible collection system or, worse still, no demand for the product as a secondary material, then the idea that the product is recyclable quickly falls apart. Even if the product is collectable, does processing take place only in a few highly specialised plants with very limited capacity?”
Arratia believes the term ‘recyclable’ is probably the most abused phrase in the circular economy, with no guidelines on how it should be used. “It’s such a tempting claim for marketing teams because it implies such great possibilities, but realities, not possibilities, are what’s important.”
Arratia argues that a consequence of the current obsession with recyclability and recycled content is that we’ve developed a fixation on collection at the expense of trying to foster a true circular economy, and many consumers think of recycling as just placing their rubbish into separate bins and then forgetting about it.
“Communications from governments and companies tend to reinforce that convenient concept, but collection doesn’t guarantee real recycling,” Arratia notes.
For example, the Green Dot logo on packaging, which seems to indicate the product will be recycled, just means that fees are paid. When consumers separate the material and believe it’s going to be recycled, it is often incinerated or exported to Asia.
The top 10 exporters, seen as high-income countries, collectively account for 78 per cent of global plastic exports. Much of this used to go to China and Hong Kong, which went from buying 60 per cent of plastic waste exported by G7 countries during the first half of 2017, to taking less than 10 per cent a year later.
Following China’s ban on imported plastic in 2017, previous large exporters such as the United States, Canada, Australia and UK failed to handle the increase in domestic recycling demand. As a result, some materials intended for recycling have subsequently been diverted to landfill.
Nine countries including Germany, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, have banned disposal of untreated waste in landfills and obtained a total recovery rate (recycling plus energy recovery) above 90 per cent.
A landfill, though, is not a dump, says Chris Cheeseman, professor of materials resources engineering at Imperial College London. “You hear the two terms used interchangeably, as if a properly engineered landfill site is a waste dump,” he says. “It is not. They are poles apart.
“A waste dump is a total environmental disaster. A properly engineered landfill site is not a bad way of dealing with residual waste. For one thing, you can extract the methane which is given off, whereas in a waste dump the methane is a major global warming gas.”
However, not every country has effective facilities. Cheeseman says: “Two billion people out of the 7.5 billion on the planet do not have an adequate waste management system, but they use plastics, which are part of their daily life. Two billion people produce a lot of waste material with no way to go other than into the environment.”
In low-to-middle-income countries, levels of poorly disposed waste can be high. Our World in Data found that across many countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa between 80 and 90 per cent of plastic waste is inadequately disposed of, risking pollution of rivers and oceans.
How best to incentivise people to recycle? Cheeseman says that WasteAid UK, a waste management charity, could help in the plastic plight. “Waste Aid UK gives plastics value in developing countries by developing local technology so people will collect plastic, rather than dispose of it into the environment, because they see value in it. Using relatively low tech, it can produce new materials they can beneficially use and sell.” One example of this is turning plastic bags into paving tiles.
Jones concurs: “A small financial incentive has been demonstrated to make a big impact – in Norway, the deposit system means that 97 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled, while in the UK it’s only 59 per cent.
“Plastics are amazing and incredibly useful materials and it’s tragic that we use and dispose of them with so little thought. Most councils already provide services that allow a really wide range of household plastics to be recycled, and it’s up to all of us to make full use of them.”
Which plastics are recyclable?
Recyclability is based on common recycling schemes, but can vary between country and region.Polymer: Polyethylene terephthalate
Common uses: Plastic bottles (water, soft drinks, cooking oil)
Properties: Clear, strong and lightweight
Recyclable: Yes; widely
Polymer: High-density polyethylene
Common uses: Milk containers, cleaning agents, shampoo and bleach bottles
Properties: Stiff and hardwearing; hard to break down in sunlight
Recyclable: Yes; widely
Polymer: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Common uses: Plastic piping, vinyl flooring, cabling insulation, roof sheeting
Properties: Can be rigid or soft via plasticisers; used in construction, healthcare, electronics
Recyclable: Often not recyclable due to chemical properties
Polymer: Low-density polyethylene
Common uses: Plastic bags, food wrapping (e.g. bread, fruit, vegetables)
Properties: Lightweight, low cost, versatile; fails under mechanical and thermal stress
Recyclable: No, failure under stress makes hard to recycle
Common uses: Bottle lids, food tubs, furniture, houseware, medical, rope, vehicle parts
Properties: Tough and resistant; effective barrier against water and chemicals
Recyclable: Often not recyclable, available in some locations
Common uses: Food takeaway containers, plastic cutlery, egg trays
Properties: Lightweight; structurally weak; easily dispersed
Recyclable: No; rarely recycled
Polymer: Other plastics (e.g. acrylic, polycarbonate, polylactic fibres)
Common uses: Water cooler bottles, baby cups, lenses and glass substitutes
Properties: Diverse in nature with various properties
Recyclable: No, diversity of materials risks contamination of recycling
Source: based on general US and UK guidelines. OurWorldinData.org