The myth of plastic recycling
Tomorrow, March 18, is Global Recycling Day, a time supposedly to celebrate the role recycling plays in our greener future.
This is also the time to put cold water on the myth of disposable plastic recycling. Although some urban centers in Asia can afford waste management and recycling systems that tackle the onset of single use packaging, most of Asia’s island nations and rural communities don’t have that capability. This plastic waste deluge over the last few decades has put such countries in the global spotlight of blame for the eight million tons of plastic going into the ocean every year. And yet, is this ocean plastic crisis really their fault?
With global plastic recycling rates hovering at less than 10 percent and many places challenged by the logistics of recycling, the claim that plastic recycling works needs to be debunked more forcefully. The truth is fewer than 1 out of every 10 products made with plastic packaging have been recycled since the advent of plastics production in the 1950s. In most places in Asia, the plastic has instead ended up in open dumpsites or incinerators and contaminated rivers and oceans. The 70-year track record of plastic recycling failure does not inspire confidence in the promises many companies continue to make to improve recycling.
It’s time to really look at who is responsible for producing, shipping, and dispensing disposable plastic to Asian countries where the waste collection infrastructure is not fit to manage this problem in an environmentally safe manner. Even the most industrialized countries with advanced waste management systems have failed to properly collect and recycle disposable plastics, which is why they ship their waste to Asia for the material to be sorted, cleaned, and then counted as “recycled waste.”
In Hong Kong in 2020, nine out of 10 plastic recyclers closed shop because so much of the collected disposable plastic waste was contaminated by food waste, and the recyclers couldn’t compete with virgin plastic prices. Still, despite the collapse of the recycling sector in many parts of the world due in part to plastics overproduction, the plastics industry is intent on expanding production while promoting the mantra of recycling as the solution to plastic pollution. According to Statista, the cumulative plastic production estimate in 2050 will be 34 billion metric tons, up from 8.3 billion in 2017.
The only plastic recycling that is happening in Asia at scale is PET/HDPE recycling in major urban areas—commonly referred to as “rPET.” That’s the plastic packaging used for most beverage bottles and consumer care products like hand soap. Many consumer brand companies have chosen PET as their packaging of choice because it is lightweight and with low transportation costs, can be easily modified for consumer marketing purposes, and is cheap as chips.
In the last three years, Break Free From Plastic has completed a brand audit of the top global plastic polluters. Seven of the audit’s top polluters—the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez International, Mars, Inc., and Colgate-Palmolive—have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, establishing the goal that all plastic packaging will contain 50 percent recycled content by 2030. But according to a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, the signatories to this commitment have reduced their use of virgin plastic by only 0.1 percent from 2018 to 2019.
These companies are making investments in the rPET infrastructure to make recycling happen. New PET/HDPE recycling plants are being built in Hong Kong by Swire Coca-Cola and in the Philippines by Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines Inc., and P&G recently signed long term off-take agreements with plastic recycling giant Indorama in Thailand.
But will all this be worth it? According to a new McKinsey & Company report (“Sustainability in Packaging in Asia”), more than 65 percent of surveyed consumers in Indonesia, India, and China are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. And in India, respondents indicated they perceive paper and glass packaging as more sustainable. Chinese consumers perceive either compostable or recyclable plastics as more sustainable, but here is the hitch: In China, rPET is not allowed to be used in food grade packaging. So if a water bottle is recycled, it must be “downcycled” into asphalt or other lower grade materials.
On Global Recycling Day, what’s really there to celebrate in plastic recycling?
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Von Hernandez is the global coordinator of Break Free From Plastic. Marcy Trent Long is the host and producer of Sustainable Asia Podcasts.