Is recycling really the answer to the plastic deluge?

Plastic Atlas

While the call for consumers to recycle plastic waste is loudly and widely proclaimed by governments and producers, it is only part of the solution to a crisis caused by the proliferation of plastic materials and their ability to endure. What else needs to be done? 

Ahsim Kumar Mukhopadhyay - Preparing for Recycling

Plastics' once-lauded durability has turned into a disposal nightmare. Highly difficult to break down, such materials have polluted land and ocean, harming both humans and animals. Yet of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics produced since the 1950s, only nine percent have been recycled. The rest have ended up in incinerators, landfills, or contaminating nature.

If plastic production and consumption continues at the current rate, and the plastic waste issue is not tackled, there is estimated more plastic than fish by 2050. What’s worse is that it is still not the peak of plastic production – NGO Greenpeace estimated that plastic production will double by 2050 and will only peak in 2100.

In Asia-Pacific, the issue is particularly challenging. The region now produces nearly half of the world’s 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. It also Imports large quantities of additional plastic waste from around the globe. China was previously the largest single country importer of plastic waste worldwide. But even after China implemented its plastic import ban at the start of 2018, the problem has remained, with several Southeast Asian nations becoming key plastic waste importers instead. Malaysia, for example, has turned into one of the world’s primary destinations.


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Limitations of recycling

As Asia-Pacific as a whole scrambles to handle mountains of domestic and/or overseas plastic waste, can recycling come to the rescue? Sadly, not at the moment.

Before COVID-19, even the region's developed economies only achieved a recycling rate of about 20 percent. An even lower rate is now likely, given the slower or roll back in recycling being reported in several Asian countries Asia during the pandemic. The small percentage is partly attributed to the difficulty in recycling plastics. Some materials, including those used in mass items such as plastic bags, straws, and coffee cups cannot be recycled. For those that can, the quality diminishes each time they undergo the recycling process.

Satyarupa Shekhar, Asia-Pacific Coordinator from Break Free From Plastic, a green NGO founded in the Philippines, said that plastics are only supposed to be recycled two to three times. They also often need the assistance of “virgin plastics” to keep up the quality. Virgin plastics refer to new plastics and the resin from a petrochemical feedstock, such as oil, used to create them. “Plastics are not meant to be re-used multiple times without adding virgin plastics,” Shekhar said.

Plummeting oil prices in recent years have further complicated the recycling landscape. This has lowered the cost of using virgin plastics to less than recycled plastics, reducing companies’ incentive to use recycled materials to save money. 

Thermal and chemical methods

Many countries in Asia-Pacific have turned to burning refuse, including plastics, to try to cope with the enormous quantities of plastic waste. Japan, for example, incinerates 65 percent of its discarded plastics, using thermal recycling  to produce energy.  In 2017, about 34 percent of all waste incineration sites in the country were equipped with power-generating facilities, enough to cover the electricity consumption in 3.1 million local households.

Yet, to keep these incinerators going, even recoverable plastics are fed in to keep up the heat, according to Akira Sakano, a board member of the Zero Waste Japan Institute. “For most municipalities in Japan, the incinerator’s temperature goes down with organic waste. To maintain a high temperature, plastics need to be burnt together, so the incentives to segregate plastic waste are low.”

Meanwhile, a 2018 report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) pointed out that waste-to-energy incineration releases toxic ash, worsening air and water pollution; and consumes more energy than it produces.    

In a 2020 publication, GAIA also threw additional light on chemical recycling – during which used plastics are broken down with heat, pressure, or depleted oxygen into fuel or building blocks of new plastics. Pyrolysis and gasification of plastic waste can release toxic substances, according to the report. In addition, hey require substantial energy, resulting in a high carbon footprint.

Gaia has also projected that even if the world reached the theoretical best recycling rate possible for the current mix of plastics with the best available technology – 53 percent – by 2050, pollution from non-recycled plastics would still double, due to the overall increase in plastic production.

Producer responsibility

Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, said the only solution to the burgeoning plastic crisis is reduction in consumption and production of plastic. While consumer behaviour is partly to blame, the onus is on corporations and governments to halt single-use plastic production, he said.

“For the longest time, companies that produce plastic products have managed to get away from their responsibility for this problem through their narratives and campaigns,” he said. “They shifted the burden to local government, and to consumers, constantly urging the need to recycle.”

In 2018, companies representing one-fifth of the world’s plastic packaging, committed to increase the use of recycled plastics more than fivefold by 2025, with Coca-Cola agreeing to change half of its annual three million tonnes of plastic packaging to post-consumer plastics by 2030. Post-consumer plastics are the ones consumers use and throw away, and then reprocessed and remade into a new product, avoiding consumer plastics’ usual fate of heading to the landfills or incinerators. A 2019 progress report revealed that the company was using less than 10 per cent of recycled plastics in its product packaging. Unilever was using less than one percent of recycled plastics, with a target to replace 25 percent of plastic packaging by 2025. In the Philippines, 10 companies alone are responsible for 60 percent of all branded waste, over half of which are unrecyclable residual waste including tetrapack used for juices and polystyrene used for yogurt and egg containers. The Filipinos use almost 164 million pieces of unrecyclable sachets each day from producers like shampoo, conditioner, detergent, among others, but the government has not yet launched any regulation to mandate companies to redesign their products and packaging for reducing plastic use.

Some companies are also looking to replace fossil-produced plastics, with major corporations, such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Keurig Dr Pepper, have committed to switching from oil-produced plastics to bioplastics made from food waste.

However, not all bioplastics are equally green, Hernandez warned. He pointed out that if the bioplastics were made from pre-consumption maize or sugarcane, it could lead to large-scale industrial farms and mono cropping of the foodstuff used to create the plastics. “Aside from posing threats to food security, imagine swathes of agricultural land devoted to [supporting the] manufacturing of single-use plastics,” he said.

Hernandez also overturned the myth that biodegradable plastics can degrade on their own in any environment, explaining they actually require specialised industrial facilities to biodegrade safely.

“So these are not the solutions.  Industry has been promoting the switching of plastic waste into energy, or converting it into road construction materials. But all these are still only justifying our addiction to fossil fuel-based single-use plastics.”

Hernandez suggested calling brands out. “You have to challenge them to reveal how much disposable plastic ends up in the environment and challenge them to reduce deploying disposable plastic in the marketplace. If plastic packaging wasn’t there or being marketed as heavily as it is right now, would people use it, buy it, and eventually throw it away?”

Meanwhile, Break Free From Plastic’s Shekhar proposed taxes on the use of plastics as a potential way forward. “There should definitely be a tax that makes it more expensive to use plastics in production processes. Plastics may be cheap, but the real cost involved in extracting, producing, manufacturing, and damage to the environment is huge. If we want to address the plastic crisis, we really need to incorporate the real cost that goes into making and using these materials.”

Plastic Atlas Asia Edition explains why there is no single way of waste management that can cope with the ever-increasing piles of plastic waste. You can also find out more from the expert interviews in our upcoming podcasts. Stay tuned!

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