How To Make Recycling Really Work
It is no secret that recycling practices are not improving, or at least are not improving fast enough to keep up with the growing population and demand for plastic. There are many reasons why this is happening, but it is clear that action needs to be taken on all fronts. Recycling infrastructure needs to improve. Recycling design needs to improve. And there also needs to be research into the best practices of recycling. Both the issue of plastic pollution as well as the challenges faced in seeking a solution to it are well known. While consumers are becoming more aware of the power they have to influence the sustainability measures taken by companies they buy from, and governments are also implementing more policies and laws that incentivize opting for recycled materials, recycling is still not having as big of an impact as necessary. One of the reasons why is a lack of infrastructure, but also a lack of recyclability during design and manufacturing stages.
A recent study in the UK involving 100,000 households found that on average, 66 pieces of plastic are thrown out a week per household. This amounts to an estimated 100 billion pieces a year. Of this waste, 83% was from food and drink packaging waste, particularly food and vegetable packaging. While there are efforts taking place to address the issue, such as the plastic tax that went into effect earlier in April, and efforts to cut down on plastic packaging in supermarket, a lot of this waste is still not being recycled. In 2021, the UK produced 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging, 44.2% of it was recycled in the UK but 55% was exported to processes elsewhere, mainly Turkey. These findings show that we cannot rely on recycling from households to keep plastic out of the environment, we have to start at the source. Individuals can’t take action and recycle, if they don’t have the option to purchase and use products that can be recycled. The retail industry must reduce single-use plastic packaging and plastics that are difficult to recycle. This requires partnerships and collaboration with producers. Additionally, despite the China import ban which forced western nations to face their plastic waste problem and brought it light, a lot of this of this waste is still being sent elsewhere due to a lack of local infrastructure that can process it.
Demand for plastics is only going to continue increasing, and while the demand for recycled plastics is also increasing, many recycled materials are more expensive than their virgin counterparts because of the added collection, sorting, and processing costs. For many decades now, products were not designed to be recycled. So many different types of plastics were created for different products that it made it incredibly challenging to find a one-size-fits-all process to recycled them. Different types of plastic require sorting, new plastics have strict recycling requirements, and current infrastructure is simply not designed for circularity. Today, 61% of plastic bottles, 36% of plastic tubs, and 8% of plastic films are recycled but more than half of the plastics that are thrown out are the harder to recycled soft plastics. If we want to reduce the amount of plastic thrown away, we have to reduce the amount that is produced.
Along with reduction efforts such as removing plastic, when possible, especially single-use plastics, option for recycled plastic, and designing products to be recyclable, efforts to improve collection and processing infrastructure was take place simultaneously. Around 60% of plastic waste that goes into recycling bins is contaminated by leftover food or plastic bags, which then results in entire loads of collected items being landfilled. Better guidance needs to be provided so that proper sorting takes place prior to collection. Similarly, processing techniques need to be improved so that incorrect sorting doesn’t cancel out entire loads of collected material and pose such a threat to recycling machinery.
Despite these challenges and disappointing statistics, it is important to note that there is progress and effort being made but it needs more support and incentive. Plastic has become so prevalent in our ecosystem that nature has evolved around it. Bacteria has evolved to digest it. This is good news because one of the key challenges to cost-effective recycling is finding chemical enzymes that can break plastic down to recover the molecules originally used to create it. Traditional recycling uses heat to melt plastic down, but this leads to degraded and less useful plastic. A company in France, Carbios, is harnessing this power and expects to be recycling 50,000 tons/year. And research is still finding more potential. More than 30,000 candidate molecules have been discovered that have powerful plastic-digestive properties for at least 10 different types of plastic. There is no single solution to all the challenges we face in tackling plastic pollution, but this also means there are many ways for all the different players involved to take action and work together. While governments work to improve infrastructure and incentivize businesses, and manufacturers improve the recyclability of products, MikaCycle aims to create a closed loop market that increases sustainability and transparency for plastic recyclers and buyers that are already making the choice to opt for recycled materials. Our digital marketplace aims to make the trading experience easier, while maintaining quality and trust as our first priorities.
As we can see, there is no perfect solution to the waste crisis. No perfect system that can be implemented that will fix all of our waste problems in a single swoop. This is, a multi-faceted problem that requires attention from individuals and institutions everywhere. But it's still something we can tackle in our own ways, starting with the knowledge of how to better design and dispose of our material wastes, and putting into place policies that address the shortcomings across all three areas of infrastructure, design and research mentioned above.