This week, the federal government signed on to an international agreement to recycle or reuse 100% of plastic waste by 2040, ending plastic pollution. But major obstacles stand in the way.
The most recent is the collapse of Australia’s largest soft plastic recycling scheme, REDcycle. The program was suspended after it was revealed that soft plastic items collected from Woolworths and Coles had been stored for months in warehouses and not recycled.
The abrupt termination of the soft plastics recycling program has left many consumers deeply disappointed, and the feeling of betrayal is understandable. Recycling, with its familiar “hunting the arrows” symbol, has been touted by the plastics industry as the answer to the problem of single-use plastics for years.
But recycling is not a silver bullet. Most single-use plastics produced globally since the 1970s have ended up in landfills and the natural environment. Plastics can also be found in the foods we eat and at the bottom of the deepest oceans.
The recent collapse of the flexible plastics recycling system is further proof that plastic recycling is a broken system. Australia cannot meet its new target if the focus is solely on collection, recycling and disposal. Systemic change is urgently needed.
Recycling is a market
Australia has joined the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of more than 30 countries co-led by Norway and Rwanda, and also including the UK, Canada and France.
It aims to provide a global treaty banning plastic pollution by establishing global rules and obligations for the full life cycle of plastic. This includes setting standards to reduce plastic production, consumption and waste. It would also enable a circular economy, where plastic is reduced, reused or recycled.
The idea behind recycling is simple. By transforming items into new products, we can conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.
Unfortunately, the recycling process is much more complex and embedded in the economic system. Recycling is a commodity market. Who buys what is usually determined by the quality of the plastic.
Sitting in the middle of the chase arrow symbol is a number. If it’s a one or two, it’s high value and will most likely be sold on the commodity market and recycled. Numbers three through seven indicate mixed plastics, such as soft plastics, which are considered low value.
Unfortunately, it often costs more to recycle most plastics than to simply throw them away. Until 2018, low value plastics were exported to China. Dependence on the global waste trade for decades has prevented many countries, including Australia, from developing advanced national recycling infrastructures.
What are the biggest problems?
One of the biggest problems with recycling plastics is the wide variety of plastics that end up in the waste stream – sheets, foams, bags, many varieties of soft plastics, and different additives that further alter the properties of the plastic.
Most plastics can only be recycled in a pure, consistent form, and only a limited number of times. In addition, municipal plastic waste streams are very difficult to sort.
To achieve high levels of recycling in the current system, the mixed plastic waste stream must be sorted into hundreds of different parts. This is unrealistic and particularly difficult for remote low-income communities, which are typically far from a recycling facility.
For example, throughout the developing world, single-use “sachet”-sized products are often targeted at lower socio-economic communities and low-income families, who can purchase most of their food in small daily portions.
Waste from small, single-use packaging is notoriously difficult to recycle and is especially prevalent in remote and rural communities that have less sophisticated waste management infrastructure.
Additionally, the high transport costs associated with shipping plastic waste to a reprocessing facility make recycling a difficult issue for remote communities around the world, including the Australian Outback.
Failure of corporate responsibility
Global per capita plastic production and consumption continues to rise and is expected to triple by 2060. For many consumer packaged goods companies, recycling remains the dominant narrative to solving the problem.
For example, a study this year looked at how food and beverage companies deal with plastic packaging as part of their broader, proactive sustainability agenda. He found that the industry’s transition to sustainable packaging is “slow and inconsistent”, and in their sustainability reports, most companies focus on recyclable content and post-consumer initiatives rather than solutions to waste. source.
Although producer responsibility is increasing, most companies in the fast-moving consumer goods sector are doing very little to reduce single-use plastic packaging. Special consideration should be given to products sold in regions lacking waste management infrastructure, such as in emerging economies.
Like a bandage on a bullet wound
The Australian government’s new target to end plastic pollution by 2040 is heartening to see. But focusing on recycling, consumer behavior and post-consumer “quick fix” solutions will only perpetuate the problem.
In the context of the global plastics crisis, focusing on recycled content is like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. We need better and more innovative solutions to turn off the plastic tap. This includes tougher legislation to tackle plastic waste and promote sustainable packaging.
One such approach is to establish “extended producer responsibility” (EPR). This involves laws and regulations requiring plastics producers and manufacturers to pay for the recycling and disposal of their products.
For example, in 2021, Maine became the first US state to pass EPR legislation for plastic packaging. Maine’s EPR policy shifts recycling costs from ratepayers and local government to packaging producers and manufacturers. Companies that want to sell products in plastic packaging must pay fees based on their packaging choices and offer easily recyclable product options.
Currently, the burden of managing plastic disposal generally falls to local councils and municipalities. As a result, many municipalities around the world champion EPR programs.
It is the responsibility of everyone in the value chain to limit the use of single-use plastic and provide sustainable packaging alternatives to consumers. We need better product design and better prevention through legislation.
What’s exciting is that companies transitioning to a more sustainable way of producing, distributing and reusing goods are more likely to improve their competitive position.
Anya Phelan is a lecturer at the University of Queensland. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.
#REDcycles #collapse #problem #recycling #plastic #putting #bandaid #gunshot #wound