This week, the federal government joined an international agreement to recycle or reuse 100 percent of plastic waste by 2040, ending plastic pollution. But big obstacles stand in the way.
The most recent is the collapse of the largest soft plastic recycling program, REDcycle. The show was put on hold after soft plastic items collected at Woolworths and Coles were revealed. had been stored for months in warehouses and is not recycled.
The abrupt halt to the soft plastics recycling scheme has left many consumers sorely disappointed, and the sense of betrayal is understandable. Recycling, with its familiar “chasing arrows” symbol, has been portrayed by the plastic industry as a response to the problem of single-use plastics for years.
But recycling is not a panacea. Most single-use plastics produced worldwide since the 1970s They are over in landfills and in the natural environment. You can also find plastics. in the food we eatand in the bottom of the deepest oceans.
The recent collapse of the soft plastics recycling scheme is further proof that plastics recycling is a broken system. Australia cannot achieve its new target if the focus is solely on collection, recycling and disposal. Systemic change is urgently needed.
Recycling is a market.
Australia has joined the High ambition coalition to end plastic pollutiona group of more than 30 countries co-led by Norway and Rwanda, and also including the UK, Canada and France.
Its goal is to deliver a global treaty banning plastic pollution by setting global rules and obligations for the full life cycle of plastic. This includes setting standards to reduce plastic production, consumption and waste. It would also enable a circular economy, where plastic is reduced, reused or recycled.
The idea behind recycling is simple. By reprocessing items into new products, we can conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.
Unfortunately, the recycling process is much more complex and intertwined with the economic system. Recycling is a commodity market. Who buys what is usually determined by the quality of the plastic.
Sitting in the middle of the chasing arrow symbol is a number. If it is one or two, it is of high value and will most likely be sold on the commodity market and recycled. Numbers three through seven indicate mixed plastics, such as soft plastics, which are considered low value.
Unfortunately, it often costs more to recycle most plastics than to simply throw them away. Until 2018, low-value plastics were exported to China. Dependence on the global waste trade for decades prevented many countries, including Australia, from developing advanced domestic recycling infrastructure.
What are the biggest problems?
One of the biggest problems with recycling plastics is the enormous diversity of plastics that end up in the waste stream: sheets, foams, sachets, numerous varieties of flexible plastic, and different additives that further alter the properties of the plastic.
Most plastics can only be recycled in a pure and consistent form, and only a limited number of times. Furthermore, municipal plastic waste streams are very difficult to classify.
Achieving high levels of recycling in the current system requires the mixed plastic waste stream to be sorted into hundreds of different parts. This is unrealistic and particularly challenging for remote, low-income communities, which are typically far from a recycling facility.
For example, throughout the developing world, single-use “sachet” size the products are usually targeted at communities of low socioeconomic status and low-income families, who can buy most of their food in small daily portions.
Lack of corporate responsibility
Global production and consumption of plastic per capita continues to rise and is expected to triple by 2060. For many consumer packaged goods companies, recycling remains the dominant narrative in addressing the issue.
for example, a to study this year it examined how companies in the food and beverage sector are tackling plastic packaging as part of their broader and more proactive sustainability agenda. It found the industry’s transition to sustainable packaging to be “slow and inconsistent”, and in their corporate sustainability reports, most companies focus on recyclable content and post-consumer initiatives rather than source solutions.
Although producer responsibility is growing, most companies in the fast-moving consumer goods sector they are doing very little to reduce single-use plastic packaging. Special attention should be paid to products sold in regions that lack waste management infrastructure, such as in emerging economies.
Like a band-aid on a bullet wound
It’s encouraging to see the Australian government’s new target to end plastic pollution by 2040. But putting responsibility on recycling, consumer behavior and post-consumer “quick-fix” solutions will only perpetuate the problem.
In the context of the global plastic crisis, focusing on recycled content is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. We need better and more innovative solutions to turn off the plastic faucet. This includes stricter legislation to tackle plastic waste and promote sustainable packaging.
One such approach is to set “extended producer responsibility(EPR). These are laws and regulations that require plastic producers and manufacturers to pay for recycling and disposal of their products.
For example, in 2021, Maine became the first US state. adopt an EPR law for plastic containers. Maine’s EPR policy shifts recycling costs from taxpayers and local government to packaging producers and manufacturers. Businesses that want to sell products in plastic packaging must pay a fee based on their packaging options and offer easily recyclable product options.
Currently, the burden of managing the elimination of plastics usually falls on the town halls and municipalities. As a result, many municipalities around the world are advocating EPR schemes.
It is the responsibility of everyone in the value chain to limit the use of single-use plastic and provide sustainable packaging alternatives for consumers. We need better product design and prevention through legislation.
What’s exciting is that companies that are transitioning to a more sustainable way of producing, distributing and reusing goods are more like to improve their competitive position.
Anya Phelan is a professor at the University of Queensland. This piece first appeared in The conversation.