Plastic: Moving Beyond Recycling as a Solution

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Our most familiar and long-established ways of dealing with plastic waste are being disrupted by a number of forces, such as China's decision to ban imports of certain recycled materials. Those changes highlight the need for  novel solutions.

For most of us, plastic recycling is out of sight, out of mind.

We dutifully clean and sort our used containers and bottles. We leave them curbside, or take them to our local recycling facility.

And then off they go. But to where?

Too often lately, the answer has been disturbing.

We’ve all seen the images—giant rafts of plastic debris, bobbing about like some alien, multicolored organism on vast stretches of ocean.

Less apparent—but far more ominous—is the recycling bottleneck that is rapidly forming after the bottles leave our hands.

Last year, China announced it was severely restricting the amount of recycled plastic it accepts, as well as some other commodities.

The reason? In its statement to the World Trade Organization, China said it was tired of getting post-consumer plastic and certain other raw materials that are contaminated with dirty waste.

A representative of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection summed it up this way: “The problem of foreign garbage is loathed by everyone in China.”

The comment is not surprising when you consider that 56 percent of all recycled plastic in the world was sent to China, according to a 2014 study by the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). And most of that was lower quality material that was of little use to Europe and the United States.

“China’s ban on recyclables,” the ISWA said, “is one of the most disruptive movements for the recycling industry and it is shifting the global landscape for resource recovery activities.”

How China's Ban Impacts Local Landfills

As a result of the ban, U.S. plastic scrap export sales to mainland China and Hong Kong dropped 32 percent and 38 percent in 2017, respectively, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

ISRI reported in January that “some U.S. communities have already stopped residential collection of certain scrap materials, and some recyclers have petitioned local governments to landfill recyclables for which they can no longer find markets.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of International Recycling reports that we use 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago and that some products contain as many as 20 different types of plastic material.

New Ban Means New Plastic

And in a troubling twist of irony, China’s ban will likely spur production of virgin plastic. That’s because China is expected to purchase new material to replace the recycled scrap it no longer takes in.

In November, Morgan Stanley forecast that 2 percent of the global polyethylene plastics supply will shift from recycled material to virgin because of the ban, according to Bloomberg.

Most of that will come from the U.S. Why? Because, according to the Bloomberg report, “the U.S. has become the cheapest place in the world to make plastic thanks to the fracking boom that’s created a glut of natural gas, the main feedstock in manufacturing.”

It’s no wonder the Earth Day Network sums up the plastic predicament this way: “From poisoning and injuring marine life to disrupting human hormones, from littering our beaches and landscapes to clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is now threatening the survival of our planet.”

Solutions Require Participation From All of Us

There is much to be done. And much that can be done.

Yes, recycling remains part of the solution—just not the only one.

Consumer behaviors are important as well. The Earth Day Network urges all of us to reduce, refuse, and reuse plastic whenever possible. You can download a Plastic Pollution Primer and Action Toolkit here.

But more comprehensive solutions need to come from all stakeholders—governments, producers, and waste management systems.

We must move beyond the linear economy, where products are created, used, and thrown away, to a circular one.

In the circular economy, waste is programmed out of the system; the lifecycle and reusability of products are extended; and natural systems are regenerated.

Imagine a bottle that is designed to hold a beverage and, after the drink is consumed, to serve as a commodity for other purposes.

The byproducts of the commodity are then used again, perhaps for energy creation. Only as a last resort are the bottle’s residual elements disposed of.

One thing is certain: Deregulation is not the way to go.

Yes, consumers and philanthropists can spur change with their wallets and endowments. But governments must come up with rules and incentives to encourage new steps.

There is hope. Some progress is being made.

Eleven brand-name companies— including Amcor, evian, L’Oréal, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, and Walmart—have pledged to work toward using 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025.

In January, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation named winners in a $2 million competition to imagine designs and materials for a new plastics economy.

Human beings are Mother Earth’s most resourceful creatures, particularly when motivated.

That motivation need not come from pain.

We hope and believe it will come from the best in the human spirit.