planet wrapped in plastic to show plastic pollution problem

Planet Plastic: The Shocking Recycling Scandal

8 mins

As Plastic Free July begins, we look at why only a tiny percentage of the world’s plastic is recycled and what we can all do to solve one of the world’s most rubbish problems

Several times a week I trudge up the garden path of my home in the UK with two bin liners. In one are the recyclables: the bottles, tins, newspapers and various bits of plastic that I assume will be reused, but for all I know will be parcelled up and sent off to another country to deal with. In the other is everything else which will most likely be incinerated, or buried in a vast hole somewhere by the side of the motorway where it will gently rot away for the next 500 years. 

I empty the recycle detritus into the ‘good’ green wheelie bin and the general waste into the ‘bad’ black bin and walk away with a smug eco-halo over my head, safe in the knowledge that I’ve done my bit for the planet and that my local council will do the rest by collecting it all and sorting it accordingly.

In truth, I am blissfully unaware of the fate of my own waste and ignorant of what can and cannot be recycled in my bit of the world. I am not alone. Only eight per cent of British people believe recycling labelling on products is clear with the most dubious and confusing labelling reserved for plastics, classified by an internationally recognised code that tells the consumer whether it can be recycled or not. 

Despite a global movement to tackle the scourge of plastics, it found that globally only nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled, while 22 per cent is mismanaged

This all makes perfect sense if the consumer understands the code, which is represented by a triangular arrow symbol surrounding a number between 1 and 7. Numbers 1,2 and 5 can be widely recycled. Numbers 3 , 4 and 7 can be recycled at specialist points, while number 6 is not easily recyclable.

Plastic bottles are widely recycled. These include clear and coloured plastic drinks bottles, detergent bottles, milk bottles, shower and shampoo bottles and other kinds of household bottles. Most plastic trays, tubs and jars can be recycled, including takeaway food trays, yoghurt pots, biscuit tubs and plant pots. Black plastic is problematic as it can’t be identified by the automatic sorting machines used at many recycling plants. 

So far, so simple, except that recycling plastics is only possible if you live in a region where there are recycling collections or facilities where you can take your recyclables. And this varies considerably across the world, which is why there are massive international discrepancies in rates of plastic recycling. 

Mismanaged Recycling

landfill filled with plastic pollution that should be recycled

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) first Plastic Outlook report published last year makes shocking reading. Despite a global movement to tackle the scourge of plastics, it found that globally only 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled, while 22 per cent is mismanaged.

A well-publicised global movement is underway to ban single-use plastics but production of it is still projected to triple by 2060 

Canada sent 82 per cent of its plastic to landfill. In the Middle East and North Africa 40 per cent of plastic waste was mismanaged or uncollected, rising to 64 per cent in the rest of Africa. In OECD Asia, 72 per cent of plastic waste was incinerated, and in the US, only four per cent was recycled. The top recyclers were the combined EU nations, but even there only 14 per cent of plastic waste was recycled.

And the situation is forecast to get worse. Population growth and higher incomes have driven up global plastics production, which soared to 460 million tonnes (Mt) in 2019. Annual plastics production has more than doubled in the last two decades when plastics production outpaced economic growth by almost 40 per cent. A well-publicised global movement is underway to ban single-use plastics but production of it is still projected to triple by 2060. 

Reducing pollution from plastics requires action and international cooperation. Bans and taxes on single-use plastics exist in more than 120 countries but are widely seen as not doing enough to reduce overall pollution. Most regulations are limited to items like plastic bags, which make up a tiny share of plastic waste, and are more effective at reducing littering than curbing plastics consumption.

Landfill and incineration taxes that incentivise recycling only exist in a minority of countries. And although global production of plastics from recycled plastics has more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2019, it is still only six per cent of the size of total plastics production. 

The UAE Ban On Plastics

But nations are doing what they can. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will ban most single‑use plastics starting 2024, according to Ministerial Resolution No. 380 of 2022 issued on 10 January this year. The resolution states that the import, production or circulation of single‑use plastic shopping bags, regardless of the material used, will be prohibited from 1 January 2024. Biodegradable plastic bags will also be banned. 

From 1 January 2026, the import, production or circulation of other single‑use plastic products will be also prohibited including cups, cutlery, straws, stirrers, and food containers and boxes made of Styrofoam. The resolution also urges businesses and consumers to adopt practices that lower the production and consumption of single‑use plastics such as plastic packaging. 

plastic recycling factory

The UAE government has been supportive in nurturing the launch of the first Plastic Recycling Exchange and Abu Dhabi has established the Centre for Waste Management to control and coordinate all activities related to sustainable waste management. 

Hope is also offered by emerging technology and new materials which can make previously unrecyclable products recyclable. For example, a new water-based, plastic-free coating that is naturally resistant to liquids can be used in disposable cups and food packaging, which can then be recycled along with other paper waste. 

Meanwhile toothpaste giant Colgate has developed the world’s first recyclable toothpaste tube and made the technology freely available to its competitors. In 2018, toy company LEGO introduced bricks made from bio-polyethylene (bio-PE), a soft, durable and flexible plastic derived from Brazilian sugarcane. Although this plant-based plastic is not biodegradable, it is more environmentally friendly than traditional plastic. The company now makes around 150 elements from bio-PE. And genetic modification can now be used to alter the properties of natural fibres such as flax, increasingly enabling them to be used in place of petroleum-based plastics. 

Plastic Free July

fish made out of plastic to show plastic pollution of ocean concept

Presently, however, all these efforts are a drop in the plastic-filled ocean. The fear is that the pace of change is too slow to keep up with the projections of increased production. And for this reason it is incumbent on consumers to take a stand and say no to plastics. Which is where Plastic Free July comes in. 

This year the message of the global campaign is that everyone has a role to play. ‘Although the size of the plastic waste problem is frightening, the numbers tell us that small steps can make a big difference,’ says Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, founder and Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation which organises the annual event and was started with a small team in local government in Western Australia. It is now one of the most influential environmental campaigns in the world. Millions of people across the globe take part every year, with many committing to reducing plastic pollution far beyond the month of July.

‘When 140 million people take a small step, it is noticed. Choosing to refuse a single-use plastic item this July means joining a big movement of people taking steps to end plastic pollution. Importantly, it also means showing businesses and governments they need to step up too,’ continues Rebecca. 

‘The evidence shows that we are not able to simply recycle the growing amount of plastic waste, it is clear that producing and using less plastic must be the first steps to end the pollution problem’

Typically people who commit to take part in the campaign reduce household waste and recycle 18kg each year. But the real change comes when people stop buying products that use plastic or are packaged in plastic.

family recycling plastic at home

Rebecca explains: ‘The significance of preventing waste before it enters our ecosystem cannot be stressed enough. We know that the every-day items that pollute our oceans have often only been used once or twice before being thrown in the bin. By taking steps to reduce, reuse and refill, we are being part of the solution to eliminate waste.

‘The evidence shows that we are not able to simply recycle the growing amount of plastic waste, it is clear that producing and using less plastic must be the first steps to end the pollution problem. Addressing our plastic habits through reducing and reusing has huge advantages by avoiding some of the every-day items that are used only once or twice before being thrown in the bin.’

The campaign’s website is full of tips and advice on what people can do to reduce their plastic footprints.

Plastic is ubiquitous and convenient. The world produces 141 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year, around a third of which leaks from collection and finds its way into the environment. That which is collected is rarely recycled. It would be ideal if businesses and governments solved the problem. But so far they have failed miserably. If we don’t want to live in a world where the oceans are choked with plastic, and where microparticles leach into food and water, it’s up to us to do something too. 

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