Published 9 months ago.
About a 8 minute read.
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This is the first in a three-part series in which we break down key barriers and opportunities to turn ‘the plastic recycling problem’ into a circular plastics economy.
Plastic is a modern marvel that transformed the world in the 20th century — a
cheap, durable, lightweight and versatile material that has made its way into
nearly all aspects of daily life. Plastic is found in cars, clothing, household
products, cellphones, single-use packaging, airplanes and much, much more. To
date, humans have produced more than 10 billion tonnes of
For all the seemingly amazing benefits to plastic, its durability and
convenience is proving to be a double-edged sword. It’s estimated that seven
billion tonnes of plastic ended up dumped or in
landfills between 1950 and 2017.
Products that we may use for just a few minutes — such as disposable razors or
take-out food containers — can end up in the environment for centuries.
Most of the plastic trash found in the ocean
has flowed there from land. Each year, 9 million tonnes of plastic
trash enters the ocean.
Once in the ocean, plastic begins to break down into
and becoming exceedingly more difficult to remove over time. In the environment,
plastic and microplastics are a threat to biodiversity and
killing fragile species and insidiously entering all food
Plastic pollution also creates massive economic burdens. Each year, the
environmental and social impact of plastic
costs us an estimated $2.2 trillion. In the US, that burden often falls to
who fund state programs that aim to remove plastic waste from the environment.
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To prevent plastic from polluting the environment, the best bet is to recycle
reducing the need for newly produced, “virgin” plastic and keeping existing
plastic in use through a circular cycle of reuse.
Now, nearly a century after the plastic boom began, evidence-based plastic
regulation, industry incentives and collaborations, new technologies and other
can help us boost plastic-recycling rates, lower the cost of incorporating
recycled material into manufacturing, and restore consumer confidence that a
circular plastic economy is legitimate and viable. Yet, we have a long way to go
to bring plastic circularity to scale.
Currently, in the United States, there’s no definitive
on how much plastic recycling is actually occurring. In 2018, the
Environmental Protection Agency estimated only 8 percent of plastics end up
In 2019, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory
reported that only 5 percent of plastic was
— while 86 percent ended up in
and the rest was burned for electricity (otherwise known as
this can be necessary for low-value plastic but should be viewed only as a last
resort). Then in 2021, an independent
by Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup found that as little as 5
to 6 percent of plastic waste in the US is recycled.
Although there’s no single, one-size-fits-all solution to boost
plastic-recycling rates, there are several key areas of problem-solving that
could greatly improve the viability of recycling at scale. In this article, the
first of a three-part series covering realistic opportunities to create a
plastic solution, we discuss one of these key solutions.
Image credit: Veolia Picture Library/Alexis Duclos
Why is the plastic-recycling system so broken? “Garbage in, garbage out” — a
saying that means the quality of output is determined by the quality of
— is sadly an adage that applies to the current state of plastic recycling.
Single-stream recycling was initially introduced (back in the 1990s) to make it
far simpler for consumers and businesses to divert recyclable
from landfills to the proper municipal recovery facilities (MRFs) for sorting.
But dealing with single-stream recycling requires extensive manual labor and
highly sophisticated machinery, such as infrared scanners that can quickly
determine the chemical makeup of
Even then, the expensive and time-consuming process of sorting single-stream
recyclables still can’t overcome the challenges that contamination, broken
glass, wet paper and other issues pose for these systems. As a result, almost a
quarter of material sent to
via single-stream recycling will end up in a landfill anyway.
Adding to the complexity for sorters and processors is the variety of
mixed-plastic products. For example, the plastic used to make a plastic bottle
(PET) is different from the plastic used to make that same bottle’s cap (often
HDPE or PP). While the technology exists to separate these different polymers at
scale, the question is whether your local recycler has the necessary equipment.
When this equipment doesn’t exist, putting HDPE or PP caps back onto a PET
bottle before placing them into a recycling bin is problematic. This issue isn’t
limited to plastic bottles and is magnified with more complicated products such
as clothing, electronics, or even children’s toys.
A patchwork of third-party waste-management firms and local government agencies
has further muddied the recycling picture, with recycling policies varying
wildly from state to state and town to town. That clamshell takeout container
might be OK to recycle in one town; but in the next city over, it might be
destined for landfill.
Despite this, the market for recycled plastics is on track to grow 25 percent
between 2021 and
expected to reach a valuation of more than $750 billion. To keep up with
increased consumer demand for recycled plastic products, we’ll need new
innovations in material composition and processing, and a shift in the domestic
that prioritizes proper sorting and the repurposing of recycled plastics. This
shift will also require new policies set by institutions and governments that
mandate that products be designed with recycling in mind and require a certain
percentage of recycled materials go into new products and construction,
incentivizing manufacturers and brands to adopt widespread use of recycled
plastic in goods.
In 2020, 37 states introduced 230 pieces of
targeting plastic pollution. According to the National Caucus of Environmental
include bans on single-use
laws to support the reuse of plastic bottles and food containers, laws requiring
manufacturers to use post-consumer recycled materials in new containers, the
development of state and local councils and task forces to develop recycling
recommendations and enforce solutions, and legislation that forces plastic
manufacturers and brands to be responsible for their own plastic waste.
As new policies take effect, consumers will also have to step up their recycling
savvy to help reduce the contamination that hinders today’s standards of
single-stream recycling. In San
the city mandates that residents and companies sort their refuse into three
streams: one for recyclables, another for compostables, and another destined for
landfills. Food vendors cannot use single-use plastics, all events must have
bins for recycling and composting, and stores and vendors must charge customers
for plastic bags. These policies help the city keep 80 percent of its waste from
going to landfills.
New recycling infrastructure is also needed, as the US is now grappling with
processing its own recycling rather than shipping it to
to which the US had shipped its thrown-out plastic for decades. Until recently,
almost half of the world’s used plastic historically ended up in
In 2018, China banned the import of plastics that don’t meet new, stricter
standards for quality. Since then, US MRFs, towns and cities have had to pay
to have recyclables removed or have chosen to send their local streams of
plastic to landfill instead.
Despite the bleak state of plastic recycling today, stronger commitments from
brands, consumer demand and a growing portfolio of successful products
manufactured with recycled plastic are setting the stage for a more promising
tomorrow. Technological recycling
can help scale and reduce the costs
be it through superior sorting technology or innovations in resin types and
post-consumer recycling quality improvements.
While many people’s idealistic vision of going “plastic free” is unlikely —
perhaps even impossible — to be achievable in the foreseeable future, shifting
to a more realistic goal of saying “no” to new plastic will set the stage for a
— utilizing existing plastic for a myriad of applications while preventing
plastic waste from polluting our world.
Parts two and three of this series will discuss how to increase the use of
recycled plastic materials in new products and how we can reduce confusion about
plastic recycling and boost consumer confidence.
Published Feb 27, 2023 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.