Many of us see recycling as the easiest means of combating plastic waste and ensuring that it does not end up in the environment.
However, the situation is a lot more complicated than we think.
Recently, Greenpeace is admitting that plastic recycling is not as effective as people think it is.
Say It Ain’t So!
As shocking as it is to hear this from one of the leading environmentalist organisations, a new Greenpeace report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” concludes that in the United States, at least – most plastics cannot be recycled. In 2021, only 2.4 million out of 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by American households were recycled.
By the standards of the Ellen-MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy (EMF NPE) Initiative, an item must have a 30% recycling rate to receive the “recyclable” classification. Alarmingly, the report found that most types of plastic packaging in the US fail to meet that classification.
Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. – Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner
According to the report, the mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste fails because plastic waste is extremely difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess, often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and not economical to recycle.
Single-use plastics are like trillions of pieces of confetti spewed from retail and fast food stores to over 330 million U.S. residents across more than 3 million square miles each year. It’s simply not possible to collect the vast quantity of these small pieces of plastic sold to U.S. consumers annually. More plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled. The crisis just gets worse and worse, and, without drastic change, will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050. – Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner
Greenwashing And Other Trends Working Against Recycling
So why would Greenpeace state that recycling doesn’t work as effectively as we think?
Perhaps we should look at the current trends in the plastic industry to find out.
The biggest global trend in plastic manufacturing is “lightweighting” packages, making them cheaper to produce. This process, however, makes the packages less profitable to recycle, due to them having less physical material and more complexity as a result of their design.
What makes something be recycled in a country doesn’t have to do with what we normally think: Can it be recycled? Most of the things we put in blue bins that are not recycled are put in the garbage because they are things waste companies can’t make money off, and that is the true bottleneck.
Can a garbage company, the actual company in charge of the recycling in the geography, recycle it at a profit? – Tom Szaky, CEO of recycling company TerraCycle and reuse platform Loop
According to Szaky, what’s happened is a profitability model that is decreasing as oil prices have gone down, a trend that started in 2015, and continued into recent times even after a commodities market recovery post-Covid.
The petrochemical companies that make plastics rely less on recyclables when the price of their core commodity, oil, is lower. Second, China stopped importing recyclable waste, a move followed by other countries in 2018.
And it all hurts the business construct for recycling companies and that means our recycling capabilities are deteriorating. Recycling is not out there trying to do the best it can but maximizing profit and we need to think about that as we aim for a more circular economy. – Tom Szaky, CEO of recycling company TerraCycle and reuse platform Loop
Not helping matters is how expensive plastic recycling is. The costs of recycled plastic have increased compared with virgin plastics due to several factors, from the expense of the whole recycling process (from collecting to reprocessing) to virgin plastics becoming cheaper thanks to a rapidly expanding petrochemical industry.
Another issue is the problem of “greenwashing” – where corporations adopt the image of being environmentally friendly whilst the reality is they continue performing activities harmful to the environment.
The bottom line is that home compostable plastics don’t work. – Prof Mark Miodownik, UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, University College London, London, United Kingdom
Unfortunately, people are still confused by labels and as much as 85% remain enthusiastic about compostable plastics.
People want them to work. People are really trying to do the right thing, mostly, so I feel bad for them that it’s turned out this way. But actually, home composting just doesn’t work. – Prof Mark Miodownik, UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, University College London, London, United Kingdom
There is also the fact that there is no single type of plastic; there are different types of plastics, each with its composition and characteristics. They include different chemical additives and colourants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing.
Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert; they can contain toxic additives and absorb harmful chemicals, which can become problematic if they are stored in bins containing hazardous materials such as plastic pesticide containers. These toxicity risks prohibit recycled plastics from being recycled into food-grade packaging.
“Greenpeace lays out five key reasons why plastic recycling has failed now and in the past and shows how the world has reached a decision point on single-use plastics and packaging,” EcoKnights’ Nur Shahirah Anuar notes as she lists these following reasons:
- Plastic waste is extremely difficult to collect
- Mixed plastic waste can not be recycled together
- Plastic recycling is wasteful, polluting and a fire hazard
- Recycled plastic often has huge toxicity risks
- Plastic recycling is not economical
Where Does Malaysia Stand?
The Malaysian government hopes to achieve a 40% recycling rate by 2025. But even after campaigns to raise awareness of this practice, many people remain ignorant, reflected by the nation’s recycling rate, which stood at around 31.52% in 2021.
Data from the National Solid Waste Management Department estimates that plastic makes up 9% of landfill waste, equivalent to a value of RM163 million in the recycling industry.
If we were to look at the recycling trend in our society, we can see that its development has been rather slow. For example, it took the nation 21 years to achieve the 31.52% recycling rate in 2021. I believe that the recycling rate went up during the MCO (Movement Control Order) because people had time to recycle their waste. – Associate Prof Dr Haliza Abdul Rahman, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) environmental governance expert
The problem was further exacerbated by Malaysia accepting huge amounts of plastic waste imports from the USA and the European Union following China’s import ban; in 2018, the country took in 870,000 metric tonnes of plastic imports, three times the level it received in 2016.
A recent statistic from a WWF-Malaysia report highlighted that the generation of post-consumer plastic waste in Malaysia is estimated to be more than 1 million tonnes. From here, we can imagine how important plastic — which is versatile and functional — is in our daily lives and how it has been integrated to be a primary problem solver in our daily lifestyle. – EcoKnights
So the idea that plastic recycling is not as effective would be a huge blow to the government’s plans.
We spoke to members of the environmental NGO EcoKnights for their thoughts on the plastic recycling problem in Malaysia. They noted that the effectiveness of plastic recycling is not dependent on a single solid mechanism but rather, many factors must be considered in order for the process of reducing plastic waste to be successful.
Another lens through which we could look is the effectiveness of communicating science about plastic recycling among Malaysians and how well it is communicated to the local community — judging the way we can convey the information. – EcoKnights
Solution-Oriented Alternatives And Collective Action
Although the Greenpeace report seemingly demonstrates a hopeless situation, EcoKnights notes that its findings actually demonstrate some solution-oriented alternatives to plastic recycling; the report shows that beverage refilling and reuse, as well as a slow transition to a plastic circular economy, are feasible and will benefit communities and individuals far more than the existing order.
These solution-oriented alternatives, according to the report, should be able to minimize individual dependency towards plastic usage which also helps society’s ability to deal with the amount of plastic waste generated. In addition, Greenpeace highlights that every action is required not only to reduce but also to eliminate plastic usage issues such as single-use plastics and packaging.
EcoKnights also notes that the findings highlight the importance of collective action while also putting pressure on companies and stakeholders to take accountability and drive for better policy. The report, the onus is on consumer industry players to take more definitive approaches to reduce their contribution to global plastic pollution — and start to turn the tide of public opinion.
We must also invest more in effective education — both formal and informal — and awareness to motivate people to change their behaviour and accept personal responsibility. Instead of debating the issue of plastic waste, conscious efforts must be translated into actionable initiatives that seek out innovative opportunities for stakeholders who want to be a part of making changes. – EcoKnights
EcoKnights’ Own Alternatives?
We at EcoKnights firmly believe that in order to mobilise and empower sustainable actions, a solid strategy must be developed in order for us to have a significant impact. Greenpeace’s findings have set the bar for local NGOs to strive for and support the phase-out of single-use plastics, which we believe is all starting at the grassroots level — and actionable effort where everyone could be part of it. Although this report is heavily focused on key industry player groups, we must also consider from the different windows of what community could play their role as consumers. – EcoKnights
Although plastic recycling can still continue to serve as a turning point for someone who wants to become part of the solution, especially in plastic waste management and smart consumption, Greenpeace’s report makes it clear that recycling alone will not stop the ongoing problem of plastic waste. While people should continue recycling, they must also be realistic about its limitations, especially with the reality of our plastic-dependent lifestyles.
This report should not be used to discredit previous efforts to initiate a recycling initiative for plastic waste. It’s difficult to say no all the time and avoid using plastic — especially when one can be a responsible consumer. – EcoKnights
EcoKnights said that green practices can begin at home and that one way we can help reduce plastic usage is to not use it at all. Here are some simple acts we can practice to avoid increasing our plastic usage:
- When you go out to eat on occasion, bring extra food containers or reusable cups with you.
- Keep some tote bags in your car or bring them with you when you go grocery shopping.
- Equip yourself with recycling knowledge so that you can distinguish the characteristics of plastics. The power of knowledge and being self-aware has the potential to change your life.
By adopting these simple practices, we will be able to slowly build a low-impact, zero-waste lifestyle. And through it, we will be able to influence our communities to do the same, eventually building a much better system than the one we currently have.
Explore our sources:
- New Greenpeace Report: Plastic Recycling Is A Dead-End Street—Year After Year, Plastic Recycling Declines Even as Plastic Waste Increases (2022) Greenpeace. Link.
- E. Rosenbaum (2021) Is recycling a waste? Here’s the answer from a plastics expert before you ditch the effort. CNBC. Link.
- J. Enck & J. Dell (2022) Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work. The Atlantic. Link.
- P. Weston (2022) ‘It’s greenwash’: most home compostable plastics don’t work, says study. The Guardian. Link.
- Bernama (2022) Can Malaysia achieve 40 per cent recycling rate by 2025? New Straits Times. Link.
- B. Wiggins (2020) Malaysia Just Sent Tons of Plastic Waste Back to Rich Countries. Global Citizen. Link.