Versatile and durable, plastic has revolutionised modern life. But 63% of products sold in the food and beverage, beauty, home care and pet food sectors are now packaged in plastic. More than 8bn tons of this near-indestructible material has been produced since 1960. Global efforts to recover and recycle it barely dent the problem. Before 2018, only 9% of plastic waste globally was being recycled, with 12% burned. Now the situation is worse.
China was handling nearly half the world’s recyclable waste when its government called a halt in January 2018. For decades, 95% of EU plastic collected for recycling was sold to China for processing, usually shipped in cargo vessels that had brought Chinese consumer goods and would otherwise have returned empty. Cheap transport and labour and a demand for the recycled materials made recycling profitable. But contamination rates rose after many councils stopped requiring householders to separate their paper, plastics, cans and bottles. Chinese processing facilities were overwhelmed by unusable soiled materials, creating local environmental problems. China now accepts only 99.5% pure, high-grade plastic; around 1% of what it previously imported, leaving a projected 111 million tons of lower grade plastic with nowhere to go.
Some countries tried to step in, but lacked the infrastructure. Much European plastic went to Indonesia, Turkey, India, Malaysia or Vietnam, which were quickly overwhelmed and have now also cut back. Rising haulage costs have made it expensive to move. Meanwhile, the market for on-the-go food and beverages is growing, and plastic packaging increasingly complex, with colours, additives, and multilayer, mixed compositions making it more difficult to recycle.
Australia’s recycling industry now has a 1.3 million-ton stockpile. Many U S schemes have halted collection or limit what they accept, California halted collections of some specific plastics for several months in 2018, advising householders to bin them instead. “That was a real eye opener for a lot of folks who love to feel good about putting their recycling in their blue bin and then it magically turns into something else,” says Erin Treadwell of Sacramento Public Works. “We wish it was that easy.”
Some larger US cities have developed their operations to produce higher-quality and more marketable recycled materials. Companies are stepping up by expanding operations, upgrading equipment and adding workers to improve sorting and reduce contamination. This usually involves rejecting harder-to-recycle plastics. More and more goes to landfill or simply litters the environment. England burned nearly 11m tons as waste-to-energy last year, 665,000 tons more than in 2017. While the practice has strong proponents, Zero Waste Europe found that even a state-of-the-art facility can emit dioxins and other pollutants.
China’s policy change is drawing overdue attention to our attitudes to plastic waste. Some displaced Chinese companies have announced plans to open US processing plants. Norway’s new regulations require single-use plastic bottles to be designed for easy recycling, so only clear or blue, with no toxic additives, and with water-soluble labels, while an “environmental levy” on producers is reduced as they increase their returns rate.
“Reducing the amount of waste we generate in the first place is the most important thing we can do,” admits Lance Klug of California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Many countries now restrict plastic carrier bags. The EU has banned plastic cutlery, straws and drink-stirrers, with several US cities, and some global companies, doing the same. Britain has plans to tax manufacturers using less than 30% recycled material in their plastic packaging.
Euromonitor reports more and more consumers applying purchase-power to protest against irresponsible brands and retailers. More than 50% of the 3,833 consumers surveyed by GlobalWebIndex for a study into sustainable packaging in the UK and US said they had reduced the amount of disposable plastic they used last year. 42% said sustainable materials are important when it comes to their day-to-day purchases, and this is more of a consideration for younger consumers. 1 in 4 internet users said brand messaging had had the biggest impact on these views.
Brands, recognising their pivotal role, are responding. Swedish global furniture giant IKEA is phasing out all oil-based plastics, establishing its own plastic recycling plant in the Netherlands, and plans to make all its products from recycled materials by August 2020. UK frozen-food supermarket Iceland plans to eliminate the 16,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste it would otherwise have produced by 2023, and is trialling 27 own-brand lines in new, plastic-free packaging. It no longer sells its lemons or bananas in plastic bags, while Aldi has removed the plastic from five of its fresh vegetable lines. Iceland, Tesco and M&S are all piloting loose, greengrocer-style fruit and vegetable sections. Euromonitor predicts this wave of corporate pledges is likely to gain momentum, incentivising inventors to develop both better recycling solutions and more alternatives to plastic.