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Why recycling isn’t solving plastic pollution

BY Ashley Balzer

11th Jan 2023 Environment

Why recycling isn’t solving plastic pollution

Plastic pollution is catastrophic for the environment and our health, yet only a tiny amount of it is getting recycled. Here's why plastic recycling is failing

Plastic waste is choking our planet, and the issue is growing worse as industries ramp up plastic production. Millions of people are trying to help fix it by recycling, but their efforts aren’t going far enough.

Even when plastic producers are held responsible and attempt to help rectify the problem, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Such has been the case for the company Torus Pak.

Struggles in defining recyclable

Fish in black plastic vacuum packed food packagingBlack plastic gets its colouring from carbon, which is not recyclable

Torus Pak mass produces novel packaging for frozen meals. The concept is essentially the same as other microwaveable dinners, except the containers open from the bottom instead of the top.

Places like hospitals and schools can easily serve plated meals to hundreds of hungry people. But each package is made of plastic.

Last year, a Torus Pak customer in Sweden contacted the company about ensuring the packages are recyclable. So began a labyrinthine process that began by defining “recyclable” and ended on uncertain ground.

Like many other black plastic products, the Torus Pak packages were technically recyclable to begin with, but they used a carbon-based pigment.

This pigment interferes with the near-infrared sorting technology that’s used by many recycling facilities, so black plastic usually ends up being thrown away because the machines can’t identify it.

Now Torus Pak is midway through the process of phasing out that pigment and switching to one that doesn’t use carbon. But that doesn’t mean the problem is solved.

Recycling problems

When Rickard Gillblad, Torus Pak’s founder and CEO, reached out to this customer’s recycling facility to ensure the packaging would be recycled, he was in for a surprise.

“I learned that not only would they not accept any of the Torus Pak packaging––they don’t take any material classified as business or operational packaging, regardless of what it’s made of.” Gillblad said.

"After investigating more, Gillblad found that this facility recycles no more than about eight per cent of the plastic they accept"

Instead, they pass it along to a secondary facility. After investigating more, Gillblad found that this facility recycles no more than about eight per cent of the plastic they accept (regardless of its technical specification).

Your discarded plastic may end up in a landfill even if you send it to be recycled.

Turning off the plastics tap

Truck dropping plastic into landfill The amount of plastic that gets recycled has actually gone down in the US, with the rest going to landfill

Many companies struggle to get customers to recycle in the first place. “That’s less of a problem with Torus Pak because the packaging is set aside before it ever reaches the final customer,” Gillblad said. “Yet the recycling rate at the waste facility itself is not encouraging.”

And the same can be said if we zoom out to consider the whole globe. A 2017 paper published in the peer-reviewed Science Advances journal found that only about nine per cent of all the plastic waste humans have ever created has actually been recycled.

That amounts to less than 600 million metric tons out of over six billion.

While one might assume the proportion of plastic being recycled is now on the rise due to enhanced tech and increased public awareness about the damage plastic pollution can do, it’s actually become even lower in many places in recent years.

"We know how to live without plastic. We’ve just got used to a convenience culture"

For example, in October, the environmental activist group Greenpeace reported that plastic recycling is down to just five per cent in the United States.

The solution is obvious––stop using so much plastic, starting with many of the items we use just once for a few minutes.

“The world wasn’t always inundated with single-use plastic products,” said Lisa Ramsden, senior plastic campaigner for Greenpeace USA. “We know how to live without them. We’ve just got used to a convenience culture that leans so heavily on them.”

To get out of this rut, companies need to shift toward using more refillable and reusable containers, and packaging made from materials that are less harmful to the environment.

Governments must mandate such changes––a goal we’re now finally inching closer to every day.

Plastics treaty

In March of this year, representatives from 193 nations around the world came together at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly and agreed to work toward a global plastics treaty. This treaty will legally bind the countries that sign to help alleviate plastic pollution.

How exactly they’ll do this is still under discussion. The first round of negotiations ended earlier this month with little decided. But the stakes are high, since inaction will continue to cost our planet.

A race against time

Plastic bottles and plastic bags floating underwater in oceanPlastic that ends up in the ocean eventually enters the food chain, which is impacting people's health

"Some studies estimate that by 2050, the plastic polluting the ocean will outweigh the fish if we don’t make some changes,” Ramsden said.

This would obviously be bad for fish, but also for anyone who eats seafood. If you eat something that eats plastic, it will end up in your own system.

"Producing plastic releases emissions that contribute to climate change"

“That’s bad enough, but producing plastic also releases emissions that contribute to climate change, and harmful chemicals that can sicken communities near petrochemical facilities.”

The benefits of using plastic on such an unnecessarily large scale don’t outweigh these costs. Reducing our dependence on plastic will help to keep our planet clean and healthy.

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