Global effort needed to tackle plastic recycling waste issues

18 October 2017 5 min. read
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Plastic packaging, while versatile and seemingly cost effective, has widely known adverse damaging effects. Much of the material is currently not recycled, clogging landfills, causing air pollution and finding its way into waterways. Reducing, reusing and recycling plastic, has the potential to radically reduce the impact of the material on society and the environment. A new WEF report highlights that a combination of redesign and global protocols that emphasise harmonisation between use and available recycling methods, could radically reduce the impact of the material – estimated at $100 of value for society per ton recycled.

The use of plastic in a wide range of industries and sectors has seen the world flooded by the material. One of its uses is in packaging; for which the material is light, cheap and versatile. However, it also has drawbacks – it is often used in cradle to the grave applications, impregnated with toxins and leaked into the natural environment. The negative effects of plastics are, therefore, a major concern – even while the economics and consumer ignorance continues to create supply and demand for their use.

The ever increasing use of plastic packaging is increasingly resulting in damage to the world’s ecosystems. At current rates of growth, in the business-as-usual case, plastics will consume around 20% of all oil by 2050, emitting around 15% of the annual global carbon budget. Meanwhile, leakage into the oceans will mean that there is more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Plastic redevelopment

The research points out that there are considerable benefits to recycling, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions; reduced environmental impacts on land use, biodiversity and air quality; and job creation. The collection of one ton of plastic for recycling, for instance, is estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by the equivalent of a ton – while the total value for society for recycling a ton of plastic is estimated at $100.

Various large players, governments, NGOs and consulting firms have joined forces to align the plastics industry and packaged goods industries, using circular economic principles focused on reducing, reusing, and recycling,. A new report from the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, titled ‘The New Plastics Economy Catalysing action’, suggests moves that the industry will need to make to become sustainable. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is presently engaged in encouraging businesses to sign up to the principles of a circular economy, in order to combat the consequences of mass-produced waste.

Potential reuse

The new plastics economy will need three key features according to the research, excluding other aspects of the circular economy that reduce the amount of plastic use by substituting for other materials. These include: fundamental redesign & innovation, which would identify ways to deal with resilient plastics and change the kinds of plastic used to better suit the wider ecosystem; reuse, which involves reusing plastics where possible; and recycle, which involves recycling plastics throughout the value chain. In addition, key focus will need to be applied to setting up the infrastructure to deal with plastic waste, particularly in Asian countries where the highest ocean leakage occurs.

Recycling plastic

As it stands, around 14% of plastic is recycled, largely in Western societies – reflecting key economic challenges for the collection and processing of plastic waste. The low uptake of recycling has various causes, of which economics remains a driving concern. As it stands, the average net cost for the whole recycling process is in the negative, while companies creating materials are not paying for these negative externalities.

Plastic economics

Aside from determining who the cost of recycling falls upon, fragmentation in the wider industry is creating a disconnect between materials and the ability to recycle. One way forward, according to the paper, is the development of a Global Plastics Protocol. The aim of the move is to create certainties about the kind of plastic used, which are aligned with limiting the impact of plastic on the environment. Investment in infrastructure, particularly in Asian economies, and packaging design is bringing about a net positive per ton of plastic collected.

By creating innovation in the wider industry to eliminate inherently wasteful packaging, setting up standards for plastic types that harmonize with collection infrastructure, and improving consumer mindsets, the economics of the recycling process can be significantly improved. The practice of improved design and harmonisation could lead to a net positive value for mixed plastic per ton in the OECD.

The authors of the paper note, “Next to creating a demand-pull for recycled plastics, regulatory frameworks can provide other enabling conditions for enhancing the uptake, economics and quality of plastic packaging recycling. Such policy measures could include: recycling targets; levies and/or bans on landfilling and incineration; carbon or resource taxes; extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes supporting after-use systems; deposit for-recycling systems; and others. Within this context, it should be noted that, as part of the redesigned and reused packaging will lead also to recycling, the 50% mentioned in this chapter should not be considered as an upper limit for a recycling target. In addition, regulatory policies could specifically support the adoption of good design practices through, for example, eco-design rules or more granular (adaptive) EPR schemes with contributions differentiated per packaging design criteria.”