Is the Current Plastics Recycling System Broken?

Two British environmental researchers think that the current plastics recycling system is broken. Are they right?

The current plastics recycling system is broken – here is why

According to Canadian Plastic Magazine digital edition of 18 October 2021, two British researchers think the current plastic recycling system in brocken. The researchers are Eleni Iacovidou, lecturer at Brunel University in London and Norman Ebner, post-doctoral researcher at University of Oxford. How do they propose to fix it? More regulations, of course!


The investor Warren Buffett once remarked that “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”. For the plastics recycling industry, the pandemic was a bit like the tide going out, exposing its deep-rooted structural problems.

Specifically, COVID-19 exposed the plastics recycling sector’s vulnerability to oil-price changes. Economic shutdown driven by the pandemic led to reduced global oil demand, which in turn caused oil prices to plunge. This shifted manufacturers’ preference towards making new plastic, increasing the cost of recycling plastics in the first place.

Changes like this are leading to increasing pollution from new plastic production, with negative consequences for the health of our planet. In the short term, it could also threaten the livelihoods of those working in plastic waste management across the world. And in the long term, it could result in lower investment in the recycling sector, as companies may be wary of risking financial loss.

Since before the pandemic, governments worldwide have shown a tendency to seek quick-fix solutions to plastic pollution in order to signal a decisive stance on sustainability. For example, a move that commonly receives high levels of political support is a ban on single-use plastic plates and cutlery.

But while this ban has its benefits, it only provides a partial solution to the much larger problem of excessive consumption, influenced by our modern culture of convenience.

Such actions seem to smooth over the problem of generating plastic waste, when in reality, the resulting proliferation of other single-use items can lead to even worse environmental consequences. A far better plan would be to first tackle the problems with plastic production at their source.


British Solution: More Regulations!

To begin with, it’s time to improve transparency in the plastic production system.

There is not enough data on which types and amounts of plastics are imported and exported between countries, as well as on how those plastics are used, meaning we don’t always know precisely where most waste is generated. A monitoring system that can properly track how plastics flow across different countries will help us to better understand where regulations may be needed.

For example, blind spots in plastic data collection can be illuminated using track-and-trace technology able to follow a piece of plastic from its origin, along many trade routes, to the end of its journey as refuse or recycling.

Analysing hundreds of thousands of these journeys will help us develop a deeper understanding of the complex political and economic power dynamics that influence plastic supply chains across the planet.

What’s more, we must promote sustainable plastic waste management within countries by making it economically achievable to recycle plastics, even in places with little recycling infrastructure.

To do this, there needs to be significant changes in regulations to ensure that companies make the effort to recycle where possible, as well as incentives to achieve recycling targets and establish plants.

In the UK, the plastic packaging tax, due to be introduced in April 2022, aims to increase demand for recycled plastic. By taxing plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled material at £0.20 per kilogram, the government is creating a clear incentive for businesses to take advantage of recycled plastic when planning their products’ packages.

Similarly, in the EU, the plastic packaging levy introduced in January 2021 mandates member states to pay a tax of £0.68 per kilogram on non-recycled plastic packaging.

Although it may be a few years before the effects of these taxes become clear, both are likely to spur improvements in plastic recycling rates while attracting investment into better recycling facilities. But if measures like these are to be successful, monitoring systems need to be put in place to make sure companies aren’t finding ways to dodge the laws.

Critique

From my perspective, I am not surprised at all. What can two British academics, who have never been in the plastics business, say about plastics recycling? More regulations, of course. Raising the cost of consumer goods in order to decrease demand, of course. So, who is paying for this mad race to “save the planet”? We, the consumers, of course.

But there is a better way: using the free market forces and societal demands to reduce plastic pollution. Just think about it: who wants polluted streets, rivers and oceans? Big bad corporations? Nonsense. Small manufacturers of plastic products? Of course not. Consumers? Nope. Governments? Nada. So there is a clear societal consensus of purpose. Now we have to find a consensus on how to do it.

What do you say?

As a professional in the plastics industry, what’s your opinion about this issue? Do you want more regulations on your company? Do you want government bureaucrats peeking over your shoulder and mandating how to run your business? As a consumer, do you want certain products to be more expensive because the government wants so? Do you want bureaucrats to infringe on your right to choose your lifestyle?


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