The 3R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle has been drilled into our heads as the way forward towards a sustainable future. The plastic industry focused heavily on selling us that recycling was the perfect solution to the plastic waste problem. Yet, plastic recycling has turned out to be … trash. Literally. In fact, most of the plastic we’ve produced so far has ended up in landfills, or worse, in the food we eat every day. Does that mean recycling is a scam? Or is there a way forward that won’t waste our time when recycling waste? There’s some interesting innovations that may help solve some of the problem. Let’s see if we can come to a decision on this.
If you’re anything like me, it’s probably second nature to collect all of your plastic and paper waste each week for the recycling bin you put out on the curb. It’s the least we can do to help keep our neighborhoods, land, and oceans clean. Which is why my level of anger jumped up a step as I learned the details of why and how plastic recycling isn’t actually working. In 2017, researchers conducted an analysis on all plastic ever made worldwide. Based on their results, as of 2015, only 9% of it had been recycled.1 To understand why and how we were sold this bad bill of goods, let’s take a step back in time to see where it all started.
In 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day,2 marking the onset of the environmental movement in the US. People protested against the legacy left by a century of polluting development. The plastic industry was one of the emerging evil villains targeted by the environmental movement. Feeling the pressure, Big Plastic came up with a solution. That same year, the Container Corporation of America sponsored a US-wide contest to design a symbol to represent and encourage people to recycle. The contest was open to high school and college students, and the winner designed what we all know as the recycling symbol.3 As soon as the plastic giants realized the power of that symbol, they recycled it as part of a greenwashing strategy. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry introduced 7 Resin Identification Codes (RICs).4,5 You can find one of these 7 marks at the bottom of a water plastic bottle or yogurt container which identifies the resin used in its construction.
So, what’s wrong with that? While only 2 of those resins are recyclable6, the RICs design was incredibly similar to the recycling logo. Not exactly an accident. It was a dirty trick to muddy the water and fill it with plastic. When ASTM International slightly changed the RICs design, it was too late. After 25 years, the visual link between RICs and the recycling symbol had already been cemented into our minds. And that link seems to be as durable as the plastic is. In 2019 the Consumer Brands Association interviewed 2,000 Americans and two third of them thought they could recycle any product bearing an RIC on it.7 Ironically, this misinterpretation caused the spread of a wasteful practice known as wish-cycling,8 which means you recycle something even though you’re not sure whether it’s recyclable. However, your recycling wish may not come true … instead some of these materials contaminate the plastic recycling stream, which means you’ll cause problems at materials recovery facilities (MRFs).9 It’s there that operators must spend time sorting waste from the recycling stream, and they may need to shut down the plants in some cases. Basically, this makes the process slower and more expensive. That means, to save time and money, more plastic will find its way to landfills or incinerators.
Aside from the RIC image association trick, oil & gas companies spent millions to promote recycling, even though they doubted the practical application and economic viability, according to an NPR investigation.10 That’s because recycled plastic has a lower quality yet a higher cost compared to its virgin alternative.11 In fact, besides being difficult to implement, the recycling process downgrades plastic quality. A plastic product can be recycled up to a maximum of 3 times, and you’ll still have to sneak virgin plastic into the mix at every cycle to compensate for quality degradation.12 According to 3 former top executives interviewed by NPR, recycling was just a clever move to postpone plastic bans and keep selling their fossil fuels.
Dropping the plastic bombshell
Despite their pseudo-green marketing efforts, the plastic industry can no longer hide recycling’s failure. And I’m not only talking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), where plastic has been collecting in an area twice as big as Texas.13
Recycling issues were thrust into the limelight when China’s National Sword policy sharply cut the import of the world’s recycled plastic in 2018, which decreased by 99% compared to 2017.14 15 This cut threw a huge monkey wrench into the world’s “recycling” system because the US and other high-income countries had been exporting 70% of our recycled plastic to China. We’re still paying the price for this reduction from China, since average household recycling fees are now 11% higher than they were in 2018.16
I can hear you already … how on Earth were we sending our recycled plastic all the way to China? The short answer is it was a cheap way to get it out of sight and feel less guilty about it. Let’s dig into the plastic pile a little bit. Before China turned off the plastic recycling tap, we were shipping loads of MRF residual bales over there.17 Unlike high-value waste such as water bottles, these bundles of plastic pieces aren’t worth sorting and recycling in the US. Instead of being dumped into a landfill or incinerated, residual plastic bales were loaded on a truck en route to the nearest port on the US West Coast where a cargo ship shuttled them across the Pacific.
How did the Chinese make a profit out of our low-value plastic? Well, first, China’s exports to the US trumps their imports, which means Chinese cargo ships normally leave America with a lot of unused space. In other words, carrying those bales to China was dirt cheap. It was better to ship nearly worthless plastic onboard vs. leaving the cargo ship empty. On top of that, the Chinese experienced massive economic growth over recent years, which drove the demand for pretty much any raw material, including recycled plastic. Finally, they could rely on plenty of low-paid workers to do the sorting. So why did China shut their borders to our waste? On paper, China said that the incoming plastic was often contaminated with hazardous waste, harming their workers and environment. Chances are that, after factoring in healthcare and environmental remediation costs, the Chinese government realized that our waste was no longer worthwhile. Imagine that.
Now that China is rejecting our plastic, what happens next? While other developing countries in Asia, like Malaysia, took over, the final result is always the same. As reported by over 60 different sources18, most of our plastic ended up going to a landfill or burned because of recipients’ poor waste management standards. The problem is that, having relied on China for so many years, we haven’t developed a domestic recycling infrastructure. As a result, many of our collection and sorting operations are just shutting down. Municipalities like Philadelphia19 turned to waste-to-energy plants, a.k.a. incinerators, as the only alternative to landfilling. Yet, even when using the best technology, burning plastic may release dioxins and other harmful pollutants into the air.20
However, regulators are trying to rethink our recycling system. Last July, Maine was the first US state to adopt an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law for plastic packaging.21 22 Based on the “Polluter Pays Principle”, the EPR policy shifts recycling costs from taxpayers and local governments to packaging brands. Besides paying a fee, companies that want to sell plastic packaging will have to develop reuse schemes and easily recyclable products. As reported by the Extended Producer Responsibility Alliance, EPR programs helped its state members reach plastic recycling rates of up to 68%.23 Other states have bills on the table to follow Maine’s lead.
However, sorting recycling operations is only one part of the job, as we’ll need to create a China-independent market for recycled plastic. That’s just what Oceanworks marketplace is trying to do. Last year, the Amazon of recycled plastic was the first company to receive the ocean-bound plastic (OBP) certification in the Americas.24 As the name hints, OBP is plastic that was on its way to the ocean, but hasn’t gotten there yet. To be more specific, OBP is all the plastic you find on land or waterways within 50 km (ca. 30 miles) of the shoreline.25 Oceanworks focuses on OBP because it’s cheaper to collect, more widely available and has a better quality than the plastic which has been rotting in the water. By putting together a supply chain for OBP, Oceanworks is giving discarded plastic a new life. Their collectors, located mostly in Southeast Asia, intercept plastic before it enters the ocean and provide manufacturers with the raw material. Then, the finished goods are sold on Oceanworks market to brands worldwide. As a result, the company is not only reducing ocean pollution but they’re also promoting valuable products made out of plastic waste. Clothes accessories, bags, dog toys and even a card reader have been made from this plastic waste. But Oceanworks isn’t the only one reducing the demand for virgin plastic. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, several brands, including giants like Nestle and Coca Cola, contributed to increase the amount of post-consumer recycled plastic in packaging by 60% between 2018 and 2020.26 And its uptake is expected to grow even more as companies have committed to squeeze even more recycled content inside their products by 2025.
Can we ditch plastic recycling?
Clearly, plastic recycling is a complex system. At the end of the day, it works when you can make money out of it. As I mentioned earlier, this depends on the type of plastic. For instance, unlike residual bales, there seems to be a market for high-value PET bottles or even OBP. So, how about recycling materials other than plastic? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), when combining recycling and food waste composting, we divert 32% of our total municipal solid waste (MSW) from landfills.27 When looking at different types of waste, paper and cardboard account for two thirds of our overall recycling capacity. In comparison, the plastic share is under 5%.
Yet, there are some alternative solutions to plastic recycling. Remember the 3Rs, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, earworm that was drilled into our heads? We should shift the focus toward the first R, which means reducing the amount of plastic waste we create. Over the last few years, plastic-free materials have been mushrooming … literally. I’ve talked about this in a previous video. For instance, using mushroom roots, a.k.a. mycelium, you can create foams that are more sustainable and cheaper than polystyrene-based ones.28 Ecovative was the first company spreading the mushroom packaging spores around the world.29 Making foams out of fungi consumes 12% less energy and releases 90% fewer CO2 emissions than plastic production. You could also dispose of it in your backyard composter where it will turn into soil nutrients within 45 days.
Moving from the woods to the sea, we can harvest another plastic-free material that has been blooming lately. Believe it or not, you may wear algae-based flip flops.30 A start-up has been developing a solid bio-foam by baking algae oil. The foam can then be used to make flip flops components such as footbed and outsole. Once the algae footwear has walked to the end of its lifecycle, you just chuck them onto a compost pile. After 6 months you won’t see any footprint left. While they won’t disappear as quickly as mushroom packaging, they’ll still walk away from the environment much faster than traditional flip flops made of non-recyclable plastic. I’ve also got a video on algae-based plastics if you’re interested. Speaking of making things vanish, Notpla made invisible packaging out of seaweed.31 Not only can you eat their transparent pouches but they will biodegrade in a matter of weeks.
Besides plastic-free materials, there are biological ways to get rid of plastic. Ironically, plastic dumping has caused a positive side-effect. I guess Darwin had never thought about plastic-eating microorganisms as a consequence of his evolution theory, but that’s basically what happened. Many scientists around the world have realized that32 certain microorganisms can digest polymers, like PET, into its basic units. These can then be upcycled into new higher-quality polymers or reused as is. For instance, UK and US researchers teamed up to engineer bacterial enzymes that eat up plastic.33 Back in 2018, scientists had already broken down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into its two building blocks, terephthalate (TPA) and ethylene glycol (EG). While EG has multiple applications, like car antifreeze, TPA is pretty much useless. Yet, last March the same group cooked up a new enzyme that loves munching on TPA. That’s a plastic-breaking advancement when you think about PET as ubiquitous in food packaging and taking 400 years to decompose. A Korean research team made a similar achievement in 2020. However, in this case they combined a PET-hungry enzyme with microalgae to design a phytoplankton that broke down a commercial PET water bottle. The only trouble with enzymes is that they seem to work only within a narrow temperature range and their scale-up may be still a long way off. Yet, the French company Carbios launched a pilot plant last September to demonstrate the upcycling of PET waste into new PET bottles.34
The truth is that plastic recycling has never worked. It was built on a lie. And the reason being that, except for a few valuable items like plastic bottles, it’s never been profitable enough. While regulators and private companies are trying to improve the economics of recycled plastic, the future belongs to upcycling methods and plastic-free materials such as mushroom and algae. Disposing of plastic pollution will take time. Meanwhile, we could change our shopping habits by buying more plastic-free goods whenever possible. In addition, we should demand more transparency and accountability from the plastic industry and politicians.
- “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made – Science.”↩
- “The History of Earth Day.”↩
- “The Origin of the Recycling Symbol – Middle Tennessee State ….”↩
- “The history of plastic resin identification codes in recycling | Greenbiz.” 28 May. 2021↩
- “Modernizing the Resin Identification Code – Standardization News.”↩
- “Recycling is literally a scam – YouTube.” 30 Oct. 2021↩
- “Reduce. Reuse. Confuse. – Consumer Brands Association.”↩
- “What is wishcycling? Two waste experts explain | Greenbiz.” 21 Jan. 2022↩
- “Pandemic pause on plastic bag regulations a concern for recyclers.” 9 Jun. 2020↩
- “Plastic Wars: Industry Spent Millions Selling Recycling – NPR.” 31 Mar. 2020↩
- “How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would … – NPR.” 11 Sept. 2020↩
- “The Plastic Pollution Crisis – Dr. Shultz’s Premium Hand Sanitizer.” 20 Mar. 2021↩
- “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch • The Ocean Cleanup.”↩
- “How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling.” 7 Mar. 2019↩
- “How China Broke the World’s Recycling – YouTube.” 16 Dec. 2020↩
- “The State of Recycling Today 2022 – Recycle Track Systems | RTS.”↩
- “How China Broke the World’s Recycling – YouTube.” 16 Dec. 2020↩
- “Plastic Waste Exports: Summary of Reports Proving Harms.”↩
- “‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans ….” 21 Feb. 2019↩
- “Hidden emissions: A story from the Netherlands – Zero Waste Europe.”↩
- “Maine Becomes First State to Sign Extended Producer ….” 11 Aug. 2021↩
- “After China’s Recyclable Ban, Municipalities Shift Gears – Governing ….” 27 Aug. 2021↩
- “INSPIRING PACKAGING RECYCLING – EXPRA.”↩
- “Oceanworks becomes the first company to be OBP certified in the ….”↩
- “What Is Ocean Bound Plastic (OBP)?.”↩
- “Signatory reports 2021 Global Commitment report on plastic ….”↩
- “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and ….” 14 Jul. 2021↩
- “Is Fungus the Plastic of the Future? – Undecided with Matt Ferrell.” 22 Jun. 2021↩
- “MycoComposite — Ecovative.”↩
- “Why Algae May Be the Plastic of the Future – Undecided with Matt ….” 21 Sept. 2021↩
- “Notpla: We make packaging disappear.”↩
- “Researchers around the world are using a plastic eating enzyme to ….” 24 Mar. 2022↩
- “New Enzyme Discovery Could Help Handle Plastic Pollution Crisis.” 22 Mar. 2022↩
- “Enzymatic recycling – Carbios.”↩