The problem with recycling? One word: Plastics
Turns out it’s not that easy, especially when it comes to plastic.
Most experts agree that recycling is an important way to reduce waste and to recover valuable materials, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving significant amounts of energy and water. And yet, of the 2.3 billion tons of waste generated in the EU each year, only 37 percent gets recycled.
Some materials, such as aluminum cans, glass and paper, are relatively easy to repurpose (Nearly three-quarters of this type of waste sees a new life as a consumer product.)
THE RECYCLING MYTH
Recycling aims to put people’s consciences at ease, but it’s not that easy. Less than half the EU’s household waste is recycled.
But plastic poses a particular problem. Of the 29 million tons of plastic waste collected in the EU in 2018, less than a third was recycled. About a quarter went into landfills, and about 43 percent was burned in incineration plants.
"Plastic recycling is largely a fraud," said Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, an NGO in the U.S. that works to end illegal waste trade. "It’s been sold to us as being the answer to all the plastic waste and consumption, but in fact it really has some fundamental aspects of non-circularity that are going to plague that myth and dream forever."
That’s not what the plastics industry wants to hear. With growing public concern about plastics — fueled by stories about garbage patches in the middle of oceans, bottle-strewn beaches and animals choking on plastic pellets — the industry is worried their product could end up as a taboo, like tobacco.
The idea that plastic waste can be reused puts people’s consciences at ease: Buy all you want, just make sure to toss it into that nice blue bag and it will be remade into another useful product. No muss, no fuss.
"The reason the public thinks recycling is the answer is that the plastic industry has spent 30 years on multimillion-dollar campaigns saying that," Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, an NGO, told Consumer Reports. "We can’t recycle our way out of the problem. The message should have been: Don’t use so much plastic."
The industry disagrees.
The sector does "acknowledge that there’s a plastic waste issue and that in the past, the industry may have been slow in responding effectively to the issue of waste," said Virginia Janssens, managing director of PlasticsEurope, the industry lobby. Now the sector, as well as many brands, are very keen to "solve the problem by coming up with solutions," she added.
Of the seven main types of plastics, five hardly ever get recycled because the process is too expensive and complicated, and the resulting product is of lower quality than cheaper virgin plastics made out of oil and other hydrocarbons.
"Recycling these types of plastic is not recycling — its downcycling," said Puckett. The plastic is reused for lower-quality products, such as park benches, flower pots or trash bags, or has to be mixed with virgin plastics in order to have equivalent value.
The bigger problem is that the other five types of plastics — polyvinyl chloride, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polycarbonates — often contain toxins, carcinogens and other pollutants and can’t easily be remade into anything useful.
The two types of plastics that make sense to recycle are polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used for things like single-use water bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is used to make some types of plastic bags and detergent bottles.
However, even these recycled plastics can’t be used in the same way as virgin plastics, because the polymers in plastics degrade each time they are reused. PET can be recycled to make new bottles or textiles like fleece garments, while HDPE is recycled into garden furniture and plastic lumber.
Many products on the market are "never made with their end-of-life in mind," said Ton Emans, president of Plastics Recyclers Europe. "We need to design smarter," he said, which involves moving away from hard-to-recycle plastics, including multilayered and multimaterial products, and toward higher-value plastics such as PET.
Even then, most consumers aren’t always aware of the fine distinctions among the various types of plastics — gaily throwing them into a single curbside receptacle for recycling. That messy mix has to be sorted, as different plastics can’t be melted down together.
In Germany, between 40 percent and 60 percent of plastic waste gets thrown into the wrong bin, according to the Federal Association of Secondary Raw Materials. In Ireland, almost 50 percent of the organic household waste is put into the wrong bin.
Then, once something like an old water bottle has been properly sorted, shredded, washed and melted into small pellets — the next battle is to actually sell it.
Recycled plastics account for only around 6 percent of demand in Europe. The key problem, according to the recyclers, is competition from virgin plastic. In recent years, the price of oil has fallen rapidly, making it much cheaper to produce than to mess around with the recycled stuff.
Future of recycling
Politically, governments and companies are under immense pressure to show that they’re doing something about plastic waste.
In order to make sure plastics are properly sorted, the Danish government is planning to introduce 10 different waste streams, which it believes will "eventually create a higher value for the waste," said Danish Environment Minister Lea Wermelin.
In the Netherlands, some local authorities have less trust in people’s ability to figure out what to do with dozens of types of plastics. Earlier this year, Amsterdam scrapped the separate collection of plastics. Instead, a robot does the grubby work of sorting through the residual waste to separate the different types of plastic in a waste plant.
"Throwing away plastics in the bin for residual waste is not only easier, it’s also more climate-friendly and cheaper," said Raymond Gradus, professor of economics at VU University in Amsterdam. Gradus estimated that municipalities opting for this method, called post-sorting, succeeded in separating 6.2 kilograms of plastic waste per inhabitant. Forcing people to separate their own waste resulted in only 5.6 kilograms per inhabitant.
Plastics have become a much more visible problem over the last two years thanks to China’s 2018 ban on 24 kinds of waste. The Chinese measure forced the bulk of global recyclables to be landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled on docks or sent to other countries (Turkey is now the leading recipient of EU waste).
Driven by the Chinese ban, as well as rising public disquiet, Brussels has gone to war against plastic trash.
Two years ago, the European Union banned the most littered single-use plastics, and more recently it launched a new Circular Economy Action Plan with the aim of replacing the linear pattern of take-make-use-dispose with the circular principles of reduce, reuse and recycle.
There’s also an EU proposal to set up a plastics tax that will charge national governments 80 cents on each kilogram of non-recycled plastic packaging.
Meanwhile, the plastics industry isn’t sitting still. Lately, it has been touting the benefits of chemical recycling — a process that treats difficult-to-recycle plastic waste by stripping it back to its chemical building blocks.
"It’s a very promising technology that can be used complementary to mechanical recycling for non-recyclable waste," said Emans of Plastics Recyclers Europe.
It’s an approach that hasn’t satisfied plastic skeptics. Janssens, the PlasticsEurope chief, complained that new technologies "are often criticized without giving sufficient time to prove themselves."
Puckett from the Basel Action Network is one of those casting a critical eye on the new technology. He said that chemical recycling, which is currently still in the development stage, appears to "either be incredibly energy-intensive at the front end, or will result in material to be burned as fuel at the back end. Either way, you will be putting a dagger through the heart of the climate issue."
He questioned whether plastics can ever be recycled in a way that makes economic and environmental sense.
"The industry is on the defensive now and rightly so — they are being called out over the plastic waste crisis and so they are resorting to the old playbook — trying to find another way to sell the myth of recycling, and they are doing it by promoting chemical recycling," he said.