In the fight to save planet Earth from the plastic waste crisis, we need to fundamentally shift our thinking towards a long-term solution if we are to close the tap on plastic pollution.
According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, plastic packaging production is predicted to quadruple by 2050, and peak plastic will only hit by 2100. In the best-case recycling scenario, plastic packaging production and plastic leakage will still double by 2050. Recycling, upcycling, waste-to-energy and clean-ups will not be capable of dealing with the growing volumes of plastic waste. They are mopping technologies that do not reduce the inflow of plastic itself. This is why the Zero Waste Living Lab focuses on building reduce and reuse business models that tackle plastic pollution at its source.
The issue with the current global conversation around plastic management is that recycling is being promoted as a goal in and of itself. It is framed as a circular solution to the plastic crisis, obscuring the fact that recycling opportunities only take place at the end of the lifecycle of plastic waste, after is has been disposed. It does not slow down the production of plastic or plastic products, nor does it reduce the flow of plastic into the environment.
Currently, our global consumer economy is based upon a linear take-make-waste extractive industrial model, where resources are extracted from the earth, transformed into products, consumed and then disposed. Recycling is convenient within this model for producers as it successfully avoids extended responsibility for waste management of the products they create. It also allows producers to avoid changes to the current volume-based production model by placing the onus of environmental responsibility onto the consumer, who actually has little control over the situation.
The problem is that at best, recycling is a mopping solution. It manages the plastic waste already produced. It is an essential part of a circular plastics economy and recycling efforts should continue for as long as there is plastic waste, but it does not address the root cause of the issue: the insane amount of plastic produced. More concerning, as we are beginning to see, recycling is insufficient and too late to tackle the exponential growth of plastic packaging production that is occurring globally.
Recycling is not keeping up with global plastic production.
In 2018, the Royal Statistical Society announced around 6 300 million metric tonnes of plastic or 90.5% of all plastic ever produced, has never been recycled. The majority of which has now found its way into landfills and the ocean, where it is slowly breaking down into harmful microplastics that can never be fully recovered.
It is an enormous amount of waste to manage and unreasonable of us to imagine that a single waste management solution could handle alone.
In a study released by the Ellen McArthur Foundation in 2013, it was estimated that just about 14% of plastic packaging globally was collected for recycling, of which 4% was lost during the process, 8% was downcycled into lower-value material and just 2% was recycled in a closed loop. Leaving 86% of the plastic waste produced to enter landfills or be incinerated. The results of this study are even more concerning when plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050 if it continues at its current rate. Recycling is certainly not managing and cannot manage this level of plastic waste.
Recycling is not an option for 50% of plastic packaging
What’s more, research shows that at least 50% of plastic packaging items cannot be recycled, even with advances in material science and recycling technology.
Small format packaging such as sachets, snack packaging that has layers of plastic and aluminium, and food contaminated packaging such as coffee capsules, are too challenging to recycle. Of the remaining 50% of plastic packaging items, only the highest quality items are able to be recycled into new products, although these have a limited life span of two to three recycles before they become degraded and unrecyclable. As a result, all these items find their way to landfills, incinerators or eventually leak into the natural environment.
Upcycling, Waste-to-Energy and Clean-ups are still mopping technologies
Even endeavours such as upcycling, which has seen a huge movement within the fashion industry in particular, only serves to extend the life of plastic waste, not reduce it. Upcycling involves turning plastic waste into higher quality products such as shoes or swimming costumes, but these products still end up in landfills as their plastic components never break down. More concerning, these upcycled items have been shown to through washing leak microplastics into the environment, which eventually end up in our food systems.
Waste-to-energy solutions, involving the burning of plastic waste in incinerators to produce energy, are also a mop up technology that should only be used as a last resort. A number of studies have also found that aside from contributing to toxic ash emissions in the air, such methods discourage efforts to preserve resources and create incentives to generate more waste.
We need to move towards a long-term solution for the plastic waste crisis. We need to start talking about reduce and reuse.
Reduce, Reuse and then Recycle
In an alternative circular economy model, the waste or end-of-life-stage is replaced with a regenerative model, where materials are not used at all if they’re not necessary and if used, they are kept as long as possible in a short-cycle where reuse is prioritized. By doing so, reuse, repair and remanufacture become part of a product’s life cycle, essentially designing waste out of the system.
Such a system, for example, is already in place with our venture CupKita. A venture working to phase out single-use takeaway coffee cups by offering customers reusable cups that can be rented through a digital app. By prioritizing reuse and lengthening the life cycle of the takeaway cup, CupKita is able to remove plastic waste from the system and the industry. Thus far, after 7 months of operation, CupKita is saving around 171 plastic cups from entering the environment per day! With circularity at the core of an economy, we can close the tap on plastic pollution by buying less and reusing more, protecting and respecting the precious resources our planet provides.
Recycling is part of a circular system, but only one small part. If it is not paired together with reduce, reuse or remanufacture, we will find ourselves in a never-ending pursuit of continuously generated and unmanaged plastic waste. Instead, we have the possibility and the opportunity now to reimagine the value chain, improve cost efficiency, and most importantly minimise the environmental impact of our consumption habits so we can continue to live on a happy and healthy planet for generations to come!