Why Recycling is a ‘Pseudo-Solution’ to Reducing Plastic Waste

Decades of consumerism, fueled by the concept of short-term convenience, has left our planet drowning in plastic waste.  Much of it is used just once and then thrown away, polluting oceans and contaminating our bodies.  At the center of this problem lies the effectiveness of eliminating plastic while its production remains high and there are fewer places that process it.  As a result, a few corporations and communities are being forced to deal with waste in other ways rather than recycling — the main form of plastic disposal many people have relied on over the years.

“The public opinion about [recycling] is very naive,” says Rowland Geyer, a Professor of Industrial Ecology at University of California Santa Barbara, who specializes in green supply chain management. Geyer wants to make one thing clear: recycling by itself is a ‘pseudo solution’ to eliminating plastic waste. “[People] recycle because they believe in it, but it is not a real part of the solution,” he adds.

In fact, eliminating plastic becomes almost a surreal idea when considering the staggering amount of plastic discarded each year.  In its June 2018 edition ‘Planet or Plastic’, National Geographic’s Laura Parker’s bombshell article uncovered that 44% of all plastic that has ever been manufactured globally has been made since 2000.  Additionally, 448 million tons of plastic was produced in 2015 alone, with 40 percent of that — some 161 million tons — for single-use packaging that never gets recycled or incinerated.  In fact, until 2018, less than a fifth of all plastics was ever recycled, and only 12% was incinerated globally.  As a result, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic bottles A 2016 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has projected that if considerable reduction in production is not implemented, oceans could have more plastic than fish by 2050.

Besides the ugly aesthetic of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, plastic pollution has other dire consequences.  Scientists at the Medical University of Vienna found the presence of microplastics in human excrement just last Summer.  The tiny fragments of plastic originated from waste accumulated in the sea was ingested by sea animals, and then integrated into the food chain.

While the health effects of microplastics on the human body are still being investigated, the impact of plastics on climate change are now better understood by scientists.  In addition to plastic being a direct product of the greenhouse-gas emitting fossil-fuel industry, researchers at the University of Hawaii found that when plastics degrade, they produce two greenhouse gases, methane and ethylene. When exposed to solar radiation these contribute to global warming. “[The] results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment,” wrote the study‘s authors.

Despite all the data,  the plastic industry is not slowing down production. In fact, the petrochemical-plastic sector is expected to expand in the next decades.  According to the World Economic Forum about 8 percent of world oil production is used to make plastic today.  By 2050, it is forecast to rise to 20 percent worldwide.  Meanwhile in the United States, with President Donald Trump having withdrawn from the 2015 Paris Agreement and the Environmental Protection Agency actively deregulating pollution controls, the petrochemical industry announced more than $200 billion in new investment last September. This astounding figure will contribute to the expansion of factories, pipelines and other infrastructure along the Gulf Coast’s corridor in order to establish a new plastics and petrochemical belt across Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York.  These projects are designed to cut costs of plastic and chemicals produced in the U.S. by using raw materials from the region’s fracked gas.

A plastic submarket also slated for expansion is synthetic-based products.  According to Grand View Research — a chemicals, materials, and energy research firm —  the global market for PVC (polyvinyl chloride, used to make credit cards, pipes and synthetic leather, for example) and PET (polyethylene terephthalate, used to make plastic bottles, food jars and clothing) was valued at $3.52 billion in 2016.  By 2025, it is estimated to grow by 4.3%.  And, a higher global demand for synthetic fibers — polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex —  used for clothing, home furnishing and automotive applications —  is expected to grow by 6.3% reaching $88.5 billion by 2025.  These market expansions in turn are likely to fuel even greater plastic pollution.

Recycling: a pseudo solution

In response to the myriad problems that plastic use has created over the years, we have repeatedly turned to and relied on recycling.  However, it is a not a solution because it is finite, it does not contribute to significantly reduce plastic waste, and recently, it has become more expensive. As a result, the recycling industry has been left with lower revenues and fewer options to rid of its recyclable materials.

Recycling has its limitations because plastic materials cannot be recycled forever.  Plastic consists of a long chain of polymers, and each time it is recycled the chain gets shorter, resulting in a lower quality plastic. Geyer explains that, “[in] each cycle you have some yield losses, [and] you have to deal with contamination, and reduction in quality of materials.” “Eventually you’ll have to dispose it again,” he adds.

This is the case of companies that  upcycle plastic into their production lines, for example.  The clothing industry has been proactively incorporating recycled synthetic fibers from plastic bottles into their puffer jackets, fleece pullovers, parkas and even swimwear over the years.  Everlane, for example, has used some 3 million bottles to make its first batch of clothing products in 2018, and Fair Harbor Clothing has repurposed recycled plastic bottles into its swimwear line.  The apparel, footwear, and home goods company Unifi has recycled more than 10 billion plastic bottles into fibers.  By 2020, it plans to use 20 billion more bottles, and by 2022, 30 billion.  At the end of their life cycle, these products will ultimately end up either in a landfill or an incineration center, both of which contribute to the warming of the planet.

Repurposing plastic into clothing or everyday items alone hasn’t been able to put a dent into the vast amounts of plastic waste created.  According to the Euromonitor International and Container Recycling Institute, “nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute around the world.  In 2015, Americans purchased about 346 bottles per person – totaling 111 billion plastic beverage bottles in all.” And, Nestlé recently admitted that recycling its water bottles is not enough to deal with the enormous plastic waste pollution.  It announced plans to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, and will incorporate single-use paper and other alternatives in its product line.

Recycling programs have also become more expensive.  That’s because since January 2018, China started implementing a broader anti-pollution campaign banning various types of plastic and tightening the standards for materials it accepts. With that, the U.S.’s recycling industry has suffered with higher costs.  According to the National Waste and Recycling Association China’s new policies have forced recyclers to slow down the lines and add more sorters, which has increased processing costs. Also, other markets are not “economically viable” to absorb the costs of recycling, so the materials are either stockpiling in recycling plants or have ended up at one of the 2,000 landfills across the U.S.

These regulations have also put more pressure in communities. Since 2018, hundreds of U.S. cities have discontinued or curtailed their curb-side recycling programs because the costs became higher than officials and residents were willing or able to pay.  New York, San Diego, Pittsburg, Seattle, Philadelphia and Deltona, in Florida are a few.  Deltona, for example, used to receive $39,000 in rebates for sale of its recyclables, but since China’s ‘green fence’ policy, the cost of recycling nearly doubled and the rebates disappeared.

As a result, the plastic recycling industry has experienced lower revenues “due to depressed commodity prices.”  Plastic waste used to be America’s sixth largest export to China.  In 2015, it was valued at more than $300 million, but in the first quarter of 2018, revenue dropped to $7.6 million. With China’s new restrictions, recyclers have to rid of some materials at much lower prices, forcing the industry to sell at a loss, and those changes have left the industry scrambling to find new markets to buy U.S.’s 1.42 million tons of scrap plastics.  The markets left to absorb part of this waste are Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In an attempt to mitigate global plastic pollution, a group of nearly 30 multi-national companies — all with ties to the plastics-industry chain — recently announced a $1.5 billion commitment over five years to promote recycling technologies, to train communities on waste prevention, and to invest in waste management infrastructure, specifically in Southeast Asia.  David Taylor, CEO of Procter & Gamble, and the chairman of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), said in a press release that the campaign is a “comprehensive effort to date to end plastic waste in the environment.”

However, environmental groups believe the effort is mere ‘greenwashing.’ Greenpeace’s Global Plastics Project Leader Graham Forbes believes AEPW’s campaign is a desperate move by the industry to maintain the status quo and continue production of plastics. “Make no mistake about it: plastics are a lifeline for the dying fossil fuel industry, and [this] announcement goes to show how far companies will go to preserve it,” Forbes said in a statement. He continued, “[t]he same companies that rely on cheap plastics to profit off of countries in the Global South are now looking to build up some infrastructure so they can claim they tried to tackle the plastics problem, while ensuring their profits keep rolling in. The truth is we will never escape this plastic pollution crisis through better recycling and waste management efforts.”

Alternatives to Recycling: Reduce and Reuse

So how does one solve the problem of plastic pollution? It is unlikely that real change will come from within the plastic industry any time soon.  But given its complexity and scope, some businesses, organizations, communities and even consumers are making more responsible decisions, and putting pressure on the industry to find alternatives to plastic — small steps towards mitigating this ever-growing problem.

Although recycling has taken a more prominent role than it deserves to reduce plastic waste, Geyer says “there’s not enough talk about reducing and reusing, which are more powerful solutions than recycling.” One simple concept, he points out, is the waste hierarchy, which is represented diagrammatically by a pyramid where reduction and reuse are higher than >recycling.

“I’m very much focusing on the source reduction and the reuse pieces,” Geyer says. “Source reduction typically means just using less.”  As examples of source reduction for consumers, he lists: buying unpackaged or less-packaged goods, rather than packed ones; buying reusable items and using them a lot; and simply buying longer-lasting and durable products.  At the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB where Geyer teaches, for example, every student, staff and faculty member gets a metal cup. “If you want a drink at our parties, you better bring your reusable cup, so everyone does,” he quips.

From a business perspective, however, what about making corporations responsible for the disposal of their products? — what’s known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).  Geyer says this concept is still challenging. “When you say, let’s recycle, you’re talking about creating a whole new industry,” he explains. “As soon as you say ‘less [production of something]’, you’re talking from an economic point of view, you make everyone unhappy, unless, you say, let’s figure out a business model [that] is most effective environmentally.”  In other words, if we truly want to tackle plastic pollution, you cannot link it to a growth-based economic model, he explains.

But, not all companies are running away from EPR.  One example is Patagonia, which has established the Worn Wear program a few years ago. The company is not only helping reduce the use of virgin materials but is also giving its customers the opportunity to repair, reuse, and recycle their gear. “I think the leadership in Patagonia knows at this point that selling more fleeces, recycled polyester, is not really the end goal,” Geyer says. “Ideally, you’d at some point make sure the product lasts as long as it can. [And] mending and repairing things can do that, [so] we’re back to doing things the way our grandparents did.”

In other countries, businesses are also embracing the reduce and reuse concept.  In Denmark and the UK, parents are leasing baby and children’s clothing, instead of buying them, in order to reduce their footprint. “The idea is, we know that we buy nice baby clothes, and at 9 months the baby has outgrown it,” he points out. “So, [leasing] it sort of has a limited life folded into it.”

Other industries are creating biopolymers, green chemistry and fiber engineering, as well as, chemical recycling of end-of-life plastic into virgin materialsBiome Bioplastics in the UK, for example, has developed from natural materials a “fully compostable and recyclable cup using potato starch, corn starch and cellulose.”  These, plus the adoption of novel materials, reusable and multi-use alternatives, are all positive steps towards the goal of zero plastic waste.

While these alternatives to recycling plastic waste have been getting more traction, a group of about 1,400 organizations from around the world launched the Break Free From Plastic campaign recently, which focuses on stopping plastic pollution by reducing single-use plastic and focusing on zero waste.

“[In] the end, it all comes down to implementing something that should truly reduce impact. And, it kind of bring us all back to reduction,” Geyer concludes.

Many communities in the U.S. are adopting such reduction campaign.  A growing number of cities and states started banning  single-use plastics, for example.  Some that have discontinued their recycling programs are using the money saved from the program to educate its residents about recyclable materials and reduction of plastic consumption. This is the case of Deltona in Florida.

In the end, what is needed is a comprehensive plan by governments, industry, businesses and scientists to reduce plastic production while curtailing all the plastic waste generated in the last 80 years. Without attacking this problem head-on, plastic waste will continue to exponentially grow, and contribute to global warming.  In the absence of such a proposal, consumers will have to start making better decisions about how much plastic they buy and dispose.

Anna Buss is a 2018-2019 fellow journalist with the New Economy Coalition’s Reporting Project, focusing on stories about climate change from a solutions perspective. She’s also the Assistant Producer of the daily news and political radio and TV show ‘Rising Up With Sonali,’ on the Pacifica Radio Network and Free Speech TV.