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Because most plastics cannot be recycled

Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, dispelling the myth that this could be the way out to avoid the accumulation of plastic pollution: around 85% of plastic packaging in the world ends up in landfill. In the United States, by far the world’s largest plastic polluter, only 5 percent of the 50 million tons of plastic waste discarded from homes has been recycled, says environmental NGO Greenpeace. A sad realization during Global Recycling Day, March 18th.

With their production projected to triple by 2060, plastics produced primarily from oil and gas are a growing source of the carbon pollution driving climate change. Much of the plastic waste ends up in the oceans, seriously impacting marine life.

Promises made by companies that consume the most plastics, such as Nestlé and Danone, to promote recycling and include more and more recycled materials in their packaging, have not been kept.

In Austria and Spain, the plastics lobby, along with supermarkets, sometimes try to avoid liability by opposing returnable container schemes that include plastic bottles.

but there is still hope. New universal plastics regulations are currently being negotiated as part of a global treaty to optimize the production, use and reuse of plastics in a circular economy model.

However, this circular manufacturing still relies on the myth of recycling, which, under current conditions, is doing little to appease the growing plastics crisis.

Separate seven kinds of plastic

Furthermore, it would be very expensive to separate the waste between the seven different types used.

The most common worldwide is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the second is high density polyethylene (HDPE). According to Greenpeace, five other types of plastic can be collected but are rarely recycled.

PET is the most recyclable and there is a strong market for using its by-products to make bottles, packaging and fibers for clothing. The other types, on the other hand, have a very limited market, since the cost of the raw material is lower than the cost of their recycling.

“It’s difficult to reprocess and separate all the plastic,” confirms Lisa Ramsden, director of Greenpeace’s campaign against plastics. And mixed collection containers can contain contaminants that make the plastic unrecyclable.

“The problem is not recycling, but plastic,” he continues. With virgin plastics often costing less than recycled ones, recycling proves to be uneconomical.

Virgin plastic is too expensive

Post-consumer plastic resin created from recycled materials ends up being sabotaged by cheap virgin plastic, limiting the market for recycled ones.

A report from market analyst firm S&P Global shows that demand for raw recycled plastics is slowing, among other factors due to an increase in the cost of transport to recycling centers in Asia and the sluggishness of the industry that uses plastics in building construction. .

While the price of virgin plastic is subject to the vagaries of fluctuating gasoline and gas prices, these fossil fuels are usually subsidized. According to Sander Defruyt, director of the New Plastics Economy initiative, a US non-profit organization, recycled plastics could be more competitive if subsidies to fossil fuels are phased out.

However, companies that produce waste could help keep costs below those of virgin plastic by subsidizing recycling efforts based on the principle of extended producer responsibility, says Defruyt. These company subsidies have been instrumental in recycling initiatives in countries such as Germany and France.

The problem of flexible packaging

Lightweight packages that hold foods like crisps or fresh candy bars account for 40 percent of plastic packaging worldwide, Defruyt says. So-called lightweight, single-use and multi-layer flexible packaging is used to package around 215 billion products in the UK alone.

Only about five European countries are promoting attempts to recycle such packaging, Defrayt said. In the United States, flexible packaging accounted for just 2 percent of household recycling in 2020. When it’s not incinerated or landfilled, this packaging is typically lost or dumped into the environment.

Part of the problem is multilayers which sometimes include a film, making it very expensive to separate materials into recyclable parts. These packets are normally “super contaminated” with wasted food remains, making them impossible to recycle, assesses Defrayt.

The packaging industry claims that flexible packaging has environmental benefits, as it is lighter than stiffer plastics and causes fewer emissions during transport, as well as keeping food fresher for longer. However, the flexible packaging industry’s efforts to integrate them into the circular economy do little to increase recycling rates.

Ban the solution?

A 2022 survey of more than 23,000 respondents in 34 countries revealed that 80% support a ban on certain types of plastics that can’t be easily recycled.

The authors of the research, conducted by international conservation body WWF and the Plastic Free Foundation in Australia, say that “any meaningful progress in global plastic waste reduction” must include banning “the most problematic single-use plastic types and substances pollutants, fishing gear and microplastics”.

The European Union (EU) has taken some steps in this direction by banning ten types of single-use plastics that not only litter European beaches, but also go against the EU’s circular economy model, according to which all plastic is used and disposables must be reusable by 2030.

Meanwhile, more than 30 African countries have partially or completely banned lightweight plastic bags. A global plastics treaty could align these bans around the world, allowing for consistent global regulation.

Source: Terra

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