This week the federal government joined an international agreement to recycle or reuse 100% of plastic waste by 2040, ending plastic pollution. But great obstacles stand in the way.
The most recent is the collapse of Australia’s largest soft plastic recycling programme, REDcycle. The scheme was suspended after it was revealed that soft plastic items collected at Woolworths and Coles had been hoarding for months in warehouses and not recycled.
The abrupt termination of the soft plastic recycling program has left many consumers deeply disappointed, and the sense of betrayal is understandable. Recycling, with its familiar “chasing arrows” symbol, has been touted by the plastics industry for years as the answer to the problem of single-use plastics.
But recycling is not a silver bullet. Most single-use plastics produced worldwide since the 1970s have ended up in landfills and the natural environment. Plastic is also found in the food we eat and at the bottom of the deepest oceans.
The recent collapse of the soft plastic recycling system is further proof that plastic recycling is a broken system. Australia cannot meet its new target if the focus is only on collection, recycling and disposal. Systemic change is urgently needed.
Recycling is a market
Australia has joined the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of more than 30 countries co-led by Norway and Rwanda, which also includes the UK, Canada and France.
It aims to provide a global treaty that bans plastic pollution by establishing global rules and obligations for the entire life cycle of plastics. 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 reworking items into new products, we can conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.
Unfortunately, the recycling process is much more complex and intertwined in the economic system. Recycling is a commodity market. Who buys what is usually determined by the quality of the plastic.
In the center of the chasing arrow symbol is a number. If it is one or two, it has a 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 it does to throw them away. Until 2018, low-value plastics were exported to China. Decades of dependence on global waste trade has prevented many countries, including Australia, from developing advanced domestic recycling infrastructure.
What are the biggest problems?
One of the biggest problems with plastic recycling is the huge diversity of plastics that end up in the waste stream: films, foams, sachets, numerous varieties of flexible plastics, and various 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 separate.
Achieving high levels of recycling in the current system requires the mixed plastic waste stream to be split into hundreds of different parts. This is unrealistic and particularly challenging for low-income, remote communities, which are typically far from a recycling plant.
For example, throughout the developing world, single-use “sachet” format products are often targeted at low socio-economic communities and low-income households, who can purchase most of their food in small daily portions.
Single-use small packaging waste is notoriously difficult to recycle and is particularly prevalent in remote and rural communities that have less sophisticated waste management infrastructures.
Additionally, the high transportation costs associated with shipping plastic waste to a reprocessing facility make recycling a difficult problem for remote communities around the world, including Outback Australia.
Lack of corporate accountability
Global plastic production and consumption per capita continues to increase and is projected to triple by 2060. For many consumer packaged goods companies, recycling remains the dominant narrative in addressing the problem.
For example, a study this year looked at how food and beverage companies are addressing plastic packaging as part of their larger, more proactive sustainability agenda. He found that the industry’s transition to sustainable packaging is “slow and inconsistent” and in corporate sustainability reporting most companies focus on recyclable content and post-consumer initiatives rather than source solutions.
While producer responsibility is on the rise, most companies in the fast-moving consumer goods industry are doing little to reduce single-use plastic packaging. Particular attention should be paid to products sold in regions without waste management infrastructure, such as emerging economies.
Like a plaster on a bullet wound
The Australian government’s new target of ending plastic pollution by 2040 is encouraging to see. But putting the burden on recycling, consumer behavior, and post-consumer “quick” fixes will only perpetuate the problem.
In the context of the global plastics crisis, focusing on recycled content is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound. We need better and more innovative solutions to turn off the plastic faucet. This includes stronger legislation to tackle plastic waste and promote sustainable packaging.
One such approach is to establish ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR). This involves laws and regulations requiring plastics manufacturers and producers to pay for the recycling and disposal of their products.
For example, in 2021, Maine became the first US state to adopt an EPR law for plastic packaging. Maine’s EPR policy shifts recycling costs from taxpayers and local government to manufacturers and packaging manufacturers. Companies that want to sell products in plastic packaging have to pay a fee based on their packaging choices and provide easily recyclable product options.
Currently, the burden of managing plastic disposal typically falls on local councils and municipalities. As a result, many municipalities around the world are supporting EPR programs.
It is everyone’s responsibility in the value chain to limit the use of single-use plastics and provide sustainable packaging alternatives for consumers. We need better product design and prevention through legislation.
What’s exciting is that companies that are switching to a more sustainable way of producing, distributing and reusing goods are more likely to improve their competitive position.
Anya Phelan is a lecturer at the University of Queensland. This piece first appeared in The Conversation.