Why Most Plastics Cannot Be Recycled

Plastic pollution is a crisis that cannot be solved with just 9% of annual plastic waste recycled, according to recent data. In fact, around 85% of plastic packaging worldwide ends up in landfills. Even worse, the US, which is the world’s largest plastic polluter, only recycled about 5% of the more than 50 million tons of plastic waste produced in households in 2021. The production of plastics from oil or gas is a growing source of pollution that will triple worldwide by 2060, causing much of it to end up in the world’s oceans and seriously affect marine life.

Despite pledges by major plastics producers like Nestle and Danone to promote recycling and include more recycled plastic in their bins, these promises have mostly gone unfulfilled. The plastics lobby, along with supermarkets in countries from Austria to Spain, even lobby against deposit-return schemes, which include plastic bottles.

However, there is a ray of hope, as new universal regulations for plastics are being negotiated to optimize production, use and reuse, using a circular economy model.

The majority of plastic packaging is made from seven grades of plastic, mostly incompatible with each other and expensive to sort for recycling. Aside from PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, which is the world’s most common plastic labeled 1, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which carries the symbol 2, five other types of plastic can also be collected, but they are rarely recycled, according to Greenpeace.

PET is the most recyclable plastic while the harder plastics, from 3 to 7, do not have a very wide market due to their low value. “It’s hard to reprocess and sort all the plastic,” said Lisa Ramsden, senior plastics activist at Greenpeace USA. Mixed recycling bins also contain a large number of contaminants that make the plastic non-recyclable. “Recycling isn’t the problem, it’s the plastics,” she explained.

While recycled plastic would be more competitive if fossil fuel subsidies were phased out, post-consumer plastic resin created from recycled material is being undermined by cheaper raw materials, limiting the market for recycled plastics. Virgin plastic is often cheaper than recycled material, making plastic recycling uneconomical.

Flexible packaging, which keeps foods like snacks, chips and chocolate bars fresh, makes up approximately 40% of the world’s plastic packaging, according to Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the US NGO Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Known as flexible packaging, they are single-use, lightweight, and multi-layered. They are used to wrap around 215 billion products in the UK alone.

Only about five European countries are trying to recycle these packages because of their multi-layer composition that is sometimes coated with aluminum foil, making it very expensive to separate into recyclable parts. Flexible packaging is also often “super contaminated” with food waste, which also makes it impossible to recycle. Although the packaging industry claims that flexible packaging has environmental benefits, as it is lighter than plastics and causes fewer emissions during transport, it keeps food fresh for longer, and nearly 80% of more than 23,000 people in 34 countries surveyed in 2022 would support banning types of plastic that cannot be easily recycled.

In conclusion, new regulations and solutions are needed to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, including phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, separating types of plastics more efficiently, and implementing more sustainable alternatives to flexible packaging.

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