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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Is Plastics Recycling Still a Lie?

More and more plastic is finally being recovered and recycled by companies that share Oceanworks’ commitment to ensuring that this feedstock becomes — and remains — a first choice for the industry going forward.

Plastic has been a game-changer for society — facilitating the creation of new strong, low-cost products; preserving foods; and slashing shipping costs, thanks to its lightweight nature. It has gone from novelty to ubiquity within a single lifetime.

But plastic’s ubiquity is also its biggest problem. There is so much plastic being produced and quickly discarded, it’s now the single biggest issue in waste management. There’s a whole lot of it — hundreds of tonnes of used and discarded plastics generated annually, clogging the world’s landfills and degrading fragile ecosystems.

This raises an obvious question: How did this happen? Were we misled about plastic recycling? The answer is complicated. The petroleum companies supplying the plastics industry saw the writing on the wall early on. They realized plastic waste was hurting the image of this versatile product just as it was gaining steam, so they banded together to promote recycling as the answer. 

They spun a story that most plastic waste would be shipped off to recycling facilities to find a new life. Triangle symbols for recycling began appearing on plastic products; leading customers to believe that if they tossed their used plastic into the right bin it would be sorted, cleaned, processed, and used again and again. However, the promise of widespread plastic recycling was certainly overstated and premature. 

Even today, after decades of investment in technology and capacity for plastic recycling, only an estimated 20-30 percent of plastics are economically recyclable. And in reality, only a fraction of that is actually captured and sorted appropriately. The ugly truth is that only 29 million metric tons of plastic will actually be recycled in 2020 — less than 10 percent of the plastic waste generated annually. The rest is piled in warehouses, dumped into landfills, and littering our shorelines and oceans

Bridging to a sustainable economy 

Plastic isn’t going away — it is far too beneficial and inexpensive to be replaced wholesale; as it does provide real value in health, safety, food distribution and other essential domains.

But it is critical to rethink plastic and its role in a circular economy our planet so desperately needs. Consumers, businesses and governments are committing to reducing and reusing, while plastic recycling rates rapidly accelerate as a bridge to a more sustainable future. 

Across a wide spectrum of goods, consumers have embraced more environmentally sound alternatives — with brands such as Seventh Generation and Impossible Foods quickly gaining market share within their categories. Businesses and governments are jumping on board with bold commitments to cross-border initiatives such as the recent US Plastic Pact spearheaded by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Overcoming structural challenges

But structural challenges remain. Lack of investment across decades led to lagging build-outs of collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure globally. New virgin plastic is cheap (driven by low oil prices). But despite these headwinds, recycling is seeing an uptick as brands look to quickly find and secure sufficient recycled plastics supply to meet the demands of the blossoming sustainable economy. 

Just like renewable energy a decade ago, recycling is gaining a foothold and building momentum. In the early days, solar and wind power were viewed as niche solutions unlikely to ever reach the unit cost needed for scale. Yet over time, technologies evolved, prices dropped; and they’re now competitive with traditional, carbon-spewing incumbents. This didn’t happen in a vacuum, however; as government support and aggressive corporate commitments helped drive early adoption and level the playing field. 

Recycling is now on the cusp of a similar breakthrough. Governments are stepping up, companies are making commitments to both creating recyclable products and incorporating recycled content. The technology now exists to create high-quality, cost-competitive, consistent recycled plastic required to deliver at scale. Oceanworks has seen this firsthand, amassing a network of regional suppliers eager to access global markets with their collective hundreds of thousands of tons of material.

A new era in recycling 

Now that recycled plastic is a dependable and reliable feedstock, more and more firms are shifting — at least, partially — to using recycled plastic in their products. While recycled plastic was once only used when it was the cheaper alternative, it’s now becoming the plastic of choice. Consumers are demanding it, governments are regulating it, and the planet is crying out for it. 

Recycled content targets are expected to increase demand by 500 percent over the next five years, thanks to hundreds of brands making commitments and high-profile moves — including StarbucksCircular Cup, TerraCycle’s take-back programs, and IKEA’s pledge to only use renewable and recycled materials by 2030. 

Meanwhile, government initiatives — such as the European Union’s Single-Use Plastics directive — are creating incentives to radically transform how products are packaged, and how much of the waste ends up getting recycled and reused. These steps are all driving recyclers to invest in infrastructure and rapidly commercialize new technologies to grow supply. 

The ultimate double bottom line  

Plastic’s environmental footprint is significant; if the plastic industry were a country, it would be the world’s fourth-highest carbon emitter. Recycled plastic has one-third the carbon footprint of its virgin equivalent, not to mention the ancillary benefits of diverting plastic from landfills and shorelines. Plus, it’s a job creator — boosting local economies and transforming lives. 

The recycled plastic of today is de-risked, high-quality, cost-competitive and good for the world — leading us to a tipping point. There is no question the rosy picture painted of plastic recycling in the early days set inflated, unrealistic expectations. It got the world hooked on a cheap, versatile material that feeds our consumerist cravings. For decades, the waste was pushed aside, shipped offshore, dumped and forgotten. But it kept piling up and its impact can no longer be hidden. 

The tables are now turning. More and more plastic is being recovered, diverted and recycled by companies; like those in the Oceanworks marketplace, that share our commitment to ensuring that this feedstock becomes — and remains — a first choice for the brands leading this transition and those following in their footsteps. It is time to act and society is stepping up; let’s move beyond the symbolic gesture of tossing plastic into the recycling bin, and invest together in a truly circular economy. 


Interested in learning more about Oceanworks and ocean plastic? Join us on October 7 for our 30-minute, free, live online webinar that will cover what we've learned working with brands and their journeys to the incorporation of recycled ocean plastic into their supply chains. We'll also touch on best practices for working with recycled products & materials and a sneak peek at what's coming soon from Oceanworks. Register today at oceanworks.co/1year!

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