SB'24 San Diego is open for registration. Register early and save!

Waste Not
The Problem with Recycling, Part 1:
How Can We Fix the Broken Plastic-Recycling System?

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 plastic.

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 today 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 microplastics and becoming exceedingly more difficult to remove over time. In the environment, plastic and microplastics are a threat to biodiversity and health, killing fragile species and insidiously entering all food chains.

Plastic pollution also creates massive economic burdens. Each year, the environmental and social impact of plastic waste costs us an estimated $2.2 trillion. In the US, that burden often falls to taxpayers, who fund state programs that aim to remove plastic waste from the environment.

To prevent plastic from polluting the environment, the best bet is to recycle and reuse it — 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 innovations 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 consensus on how much plastic recycling is actually occurring. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated only 8 percent of plastics end up recycled. In 2019, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported that only 5 percent of plastic was recycled — while 86 percent ended up in landfills and the rest was burned for electricity (otherwise known as waste-to-energy, this can be necessary for low-value plastic but should be viewed only as a last resort). Then in 2021, an independent study 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.

Tackling the complexity of plastic recycling

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 input — 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 waste 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 materials. 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 MRFs 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 2028, 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 market 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 legislation targeting plastic pollution. According to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, effective measures include bans on single-use plastics, 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 Francisco, 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 China, 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 China: 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 more money 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 advances can help scale and reduce the costs involved, 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 circular plastics economy — 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.