This week, the federal government joined an international agreement to recycle or reuse 100 percent of plastic waste by 2040, bringing an end to plastic pollution. But major obstacles stand in the way.
The most recent is the breakdown of Australia’s largest Soft plastics recycling programme, redcycle. The program has been suspended after it was revealed that soft plastics had been collected at Woolworths and Coles been stored For months in the warehouse and not recycled.
The sudden halt to the soft plastics recycling scheme left many consumers deeply disappointed, and the sense of betrayal is understandable. Recycling, with its familiar “chasing arrows” symbol, is photographed by plastic industry As an answer to the single-use plastic problem for years.
But recycling is not a panacea. Most single-use plastics have been produced worldwide since the 1970s is over in landfills and the natural environment. Plastic can also be found in the food we eatand in deep ocean floor.
The recent collapse of the soft plastic recycling scheme is further evidence that plastic recycling is a broken system. Australia cannot achieve its new target if the focus is on collection, recycling and disposal alone. Systemic change is urgently needed.
Australia joined Highly ambitious coalition to end plastic pollutiona group of more than 30 countries led by Norway and Rwanda, and also includes the United Kingdom, Canada and France.
It aims to deliver a global treaty banning plastic pollution by establishing global rules and commitments for the full life cycle of plastics. This includes setting standards to reduce plastic production, consumption and waste. It will also enable a circular economy, where plastic is reduced, reused or recycled.
The idea behind recycling is simple. By reprocessing items into new products, we can conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.
Unfortunately, the recycling process is much more complex and entwined in the economic system. Recycling is a commodity market. Who buys what is usually determined by the quality of the plastic.
There is a number in the middle of the chase arrow symbol. If it’s one or two, it’s highly valuable and likely to be sold on the commodities market and recycled. Numbers three through seven indicate mixed plastics, such as soft elastomers, which are considered to be of low value.
Unfortunately, it is often more expensive to recycle most plastics than to simply dispose of them. until 2018, Low value plastics have been exported to China. Dependence on the global waste trade for decades has prevented many countries, including Australia, from developing a sophisticated domestic recycling infrastructure.
What are the biggest problems?
One of the biggest problems with plastic recycling is the huge variety of plastics that end up in the waste stream – flakes, foam, bags, many types of flexible plastics, and various additives that further change the properties of the plastic.
Most plastics can only be recycled in a pure, consistent form, and only a limited number of times. Moreover, municipal plastic waste streams are difficult to sort out.
Achieving high levels of recycling in the current system requires sorting the mixed plastic waste stream into hundreds of different parts. This is unrealistic and particularly challenging for remote, low-income communities, who are usually far from a recycling facility.
For example, throughout the developing world, One-time use “bag” size The products are often geared toward low socioeconomic communities and low-income families, who may buy most of their food in small daily portions.
In addition to, High transportation costs Associated with shipping waste plastics to a reprocessing facility makes recycling a challenging issue for remote communities everywhere, including remote areas of Australia.
Corporate liability failure
Plastic production and consumption per capita globally continues to increase, and it does It is expected to triple by 2060. For many consumer packaged goods companies, Recycling is still the dominant narrative in handling the issue.
For example, a study This year I examined how companies in the food and beverage sector are addressing plastic packaging as part of a broader, proactive sustainability agenda. It found the sector’s transition to sustainable packaging to be “slow and inconsistent”, and in its corporate sustainability reports most companies focus on recyclable content and post-consumer initiatives rather than at-source solutions.
Although producer responsibility is on the rise, most companies are in the fast-moving FMCG sector They do very little To reduce single-use plastic packaging. Special consideration should be given to products sold in regions that lack waste management infrastructure, such as in emerging economies.
Like a bandage on a bullet wound
The Australian government’s new target of ending plastic pollution by 2040 is encouraging. But blaming recycling, consumer behavior, and post-consumer “quick fix” solutions will only perpetuate the problem.
In the context of the global plastics crisis, focusing on recycled content is like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. We need better and more innovative solutions to turn off the plastic faucet. This includes stronger legislation to tackle plastic waste and promoting sustainable packaging.
One such method is to createExtended product liability(EPR). This includes laws and regulations that require plastic producers and manufacturers to pay for the recycling and disposal of their products.
For example, in 2021, Maine became the first US state To adopt the EPR law for plastic packaging. Maine’s EPR policy shifts recycling costs from taxpayers and local government to packaging producers and manufacturers. Businesses that want to sell products in plastic packaging must pay a fee based on their packaging options and provide easily recyclable product options.
Currently, the onus of managing plastic disposal usually falls to local councils and municipalities. As a result, many municipalities around the world are advocating EPR charts.
It is the responsibility of everyone in the value chain to reduce the use of single-use plastic and provide sustainable packaging alternatives to consumers. We need better product design and prevention through legislation.
The exciting thing is that companies are moving towards a more sustainable way of producing, distributing and reusing goods more likeable to improve their competitive position.
Anya Phelan is a lecturer at the University of Queensland. This piece appeared for the first time Conversation.