Recycling Isn’t Enough to Tackle the World’s Worsening Plastic Pollution Crisis

Jerri-Lynn here. Maybe the message is finally getting through. Recycling alone isn’t going to solve the world’s plastic problem. We simply must stop making and using the stuff. Now. That’s the best solution we currently have. Magical thinking wont’t cut it.

By Stephanie B. Borrelle, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ecology and evolutionary biology, University of Toronto. Originally published at The Conversation.

Plastic production and consumption has snowballed since large-scale production began in the 1950s. In 2020, an estimated 24 million to 34 million tonnes of plastic waste will enter the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans. That is roughly the weight of 21,000 rail locomotives.

And if trends continue without improvements in the way we manage plastic waste, we could be spewing as much as 90 million tonnes of plastic waste into the world’s waters by 2030. Already, an estimated 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste enter the Great Lakes every year.

Back in 2015, the world agreed that eight million tonnes of plastic waste contaminating the ocean alone was unacceptable. Several international platforms emerged to address the crisis, including Our Ocean, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the G7 Ocean Plastic Charter, among others.

These are ambitious commitments, but will they meaningfully reduce plastic pollution?

New research published in Science shows that even if governments around the world adhere to their global commitments to address plastic pollution, and all others join in these efforts, in 2030 we will still emit between 20 million and 53 million tonnes of plastic waste into the world’s aquatic ecosystems. Global commitments do not match the scale of the problem — we need to rethink our strategy.

The Myth of Plastic Recycling

Plastics are commonly tossed into mixed-recycling bins to be conveniently collected and — we incorrectly assume — remade anew. The reality is that we’re “wishcycling.” In fact, less than 10 per cent of plastics are recycled.

Virgin plastics are cheaper to produce than recycled products, undermining the viability of the recycling sector. For example, in 2019, California’s largest recycling plant closed, laying off 750 employees, because of increased business costs and falling prices for recycled materials.

The abundance of disposable plastic has led to waste colonialism — the dumping of large quantities of mixed-plastic waste in developing countries, most commonly Southeast Asia.

These practices are fuelled by policies that harken back to European colonization of the Americas. They give companies access to the raw materials used to make plastics today — oil and ethane gas — often without approval, and that directly endanger the lives of Indigenous women.

Unequal Health Impacts

Across the globe, health problems associated with plastics production disproportionately affect lower-income Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) communities. That’s because the bulk of the petrochemical plants producing plastics are located in communities of colour.

Thousands of toxic chemicals are used in plastics production and most are unregulated. Bisphenol A (BPA), banned from many consumer plastics, has simply been replaced with other bisphenols such as BPS or BPF, even though they maybe as hazardous to human health. Subsequently, plastics workers suffer high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cancers.

It’s no coincidence that Louisiana, a hotbed for the petrochemical sector, is the epicentre of what is known as “Cancer Alley.” Perhaps a more appropriate name would be “Cardiovascular-respiratory-illness-reproductive-disorder-cancer Alley.” BIPOC communities have been overburdened with pollution for decades, and air pollution from petrochemical plants is a leading cause of chronic respiratory illnesses contributing to greater risks of morbidity from diseases like COVID-19.

Globally, plastic waste treatment facilities (collection, sorting, processing, recycling, incineration facilities and landfill sites) are frequently located in communities of colour, exacerbating negative health outcomes.

An estimated 15 million waste pickers worldwide pluck the most valuable pieces of plastic from mountains of imported waste to make their living. Often the remaining plastic is burned, belching carbon-rich smoke into the atmosphere. Everyone unfortunate enough to be in its plume inhales carcinogenic furans and dioxins. Plastics that aren’t burned or processed are piled high or buried, contaminating previously arable soils and waterways.

What Does Genuine Progress Look Like?

Progress requires us to address the structural inequality that encourages and normalizes the waste of resources, ecological destruction and the perpetuation of colonial systems.

Progress requires decolonial policies, where justice and equity are prioritized. That means the equitable investment in effective collection, sorting, cleaning, reuse, repair and recycling infrastructure, where BIPOC don’t carry the burden of pollution.

It requires policies that dissuade the unabated extraction of resources and ensure companies are responsible for the life cycle of their plastic products. This would include abolishing US$296 billion in subsidies provided annually by governments to petrochemical companies and introducing laws that require companies to pay for waste collection, recycling or disposal, rather than taxpayers.

Quantifying the scale and extent of plastic pollution helps us understand the kind of effort needed to make change, but just as vital is mapping the health, economic, cultural and human rights dimensions of this toxic industry.

By rallying for policies that tackle the underlying structures that perpetuate the plastic pollution crisis, we can reverse inequality, fulfil human rights obligations, improve the health of all communities and prevent and mitigate ecological damage. Policies like the Green New Deal are moving us in the right direction, but we need to do more.

If ever there was a time to redefine the business-as-usual plastics industry and transition to a healthy and more equitable global society, it is now.

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14 comments

  1. Kasia

    Across the globe, health problems associated with plastics production disproportionately affect lower-income Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) communities.

    Does the term BIPOC have any meaning when used on an international level? If we ignore the “Indigenous” portion of the term, what percentage of the globe is not “People of Color”? Probably around 10% since ambiguous cases like people from India, Arabs, and South Americans will all claim to be People of Color. But what about the “indigenous” label? Are Europeans not indigenous to Europe? Is Greta Thunberg not an indigenous Swede? It seems like perhaps 95% of the globe would fall under the BIPOC label if ethnic Europeans in Europe are allowed the indigenous appellation.

    And since BIPOCs will soon be a majority in the US (a majority of children born in the US are BIPOC) and the US is such a large portion of the problem; do American BIPOCs not share blame for the plastic crisis?

    Some on the right would label the international use of the US-centric term BIPOC as an example of “cultural Marxism”. I would instead label it as a form of cultural capitalism.

    That being said, there should be a total international ban on the “trade” in plastic waste. Beyond just being a relentless search for cheap labor, globalization is an environmental dumping racket, the pollution associated with the production of consumer commodities being dumped on the producer countries by the consumer countries.

    Reply
    1. Ignacio

      While Europe and the US are exporting their trash to other countries ‘indigenous’ people elsewhere, particularly in Africa and Asia are being affected. But yet, I agree with you that the term was not good choice. The points for such disproportion are twofold:

      1) richer countries/regions export their residues to poorer countries/regions
      2) poorer regions lack resources to invest heavily on water treatment, landfill and residue management, recycling etc.

      Now according to the amendment to the Basel Convention made in 2019, to be applied in 2021, the traffic of plastics will supposedly be regulated. Norway promoted the change after China’s refusal to accept imports. The interesting bit is that the convention regulates traffic of ‘dangerous material’ so it is some progress that residual plastics are included in that group.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        The regulation of ‘wastes’ is always more problematic than seems at first sight. First off, there is a difficulty in defining a waste if its likely to be processed or re-used to some degree. A lot of ‘wastes’ are simply redefined as ‘products’ if it suits producers, especially if (as is so often the case), there is a potential end use.

        Its also potentially problematic if there are genuine reasons for the export – many small countries just don’t have the economies of scale to recycle certain materials so it makes sense to export them to producer countries. Many products need multiple stages of processing before they can be re-used. An example is the manufacture of clothing from PET waste – from memory, there are at least 3 distinct stages of processing for PET – I recall once seeing a chart for the journey of a PET bottle from the town of Tullamore in Ireland, where there used to be garment factory making high quality outdoors kit from recycled bottles (this was back in the 1980’s). The bottle had to do a journey from Ireland to the UK to Belgium and back again before it became your nice warm jacket.

        There is also the issue of genuine uses for low grade plastics – in India, for example, its been found to be an excellent additive to road bitumen to extend the life of new roads and paving. It would be unfortunate if well-meaning regulation ended up depriving India of a cheap and very useful material for construction.

        Ultimately, this all comes back to strict life cycle regulation of all materials (as its often very difficult to distinguish ‘virgin’ from ‘recycled’ materials in real life), and in particular addressing chokepoints in allowing for re-use and recycling. In my experience, construction companies (to take one example) are very reluctant to take recycled materials over ‘virgin’ because of concerns over liability and existing standards, even when its cheaper and arguably better*.

        This is a long winded way of saying – regulating waste is far more complex than it seems at first sight and you have to be particularly careful that well-meaning regulation doesn’t actually make things worse – there are plenty of examples of this happening in the past. I’d be very concerned that blanket bans on waste shipments would do exactly this.

        *on this point, its worth emphasising that while we tend to think about domestic waste when we thing of ‘waste’, because thats what most of us are familiar with, in terms of volume and pollution domestic waste is dwarfed by the many types of construction, mining, agricultural and commercial wastes. Agriculture alone produces vast amounts of plastic waste.

        Reply
        1. Ignacio

          The Basel Convention amendment is not about banning traffic but regulating what is considered toxic (not all plastics but some resins and fluorinated plastics). The traffic of the main plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene and PET) is not forbidden but a rationale must be provided for the final use of these after transport.

          Reply
          1. PlutoniumKun

            Thanks, I confess to not being up on the latest regulations on plastics waste – a few years back I worked peripherally in the industry and we ended up getting tied up in knots over definitions of what constituted ‘waste’, or for that matter, what can be defined as ‘toxic’. Plastics are particularly difficult because the term ‘plastic’ covers so many materials.

            Reply
    2. Joao Bispo

      Why am I not surprised that the first comment is about the term BIPOC.

      Have you researched about the term before commenting?

      Reply
      1. apleb

        Asking as a ignorant middle european, indigenous, white male: what are the connotations of this term me or anyone else doesn’t know?
        I just googled it and read/skimmed half a dozen of the first google hits. Wikipedia, urban dictionary, etc.

        Reply
  2. cnchal

    > We simply must stop making and using the stuff. Now

    Magical thinking at it’s finest. Look around and tell us what material you would prefer to have the products that are made of plastic now, made of instead.

    How about that plastic water bucket made of steel or aluminum? The steel would rust fairly quickly unless it’s galvanized and since almost everyone needs a bucket the pollution from mining, refining and galvanizing all that steel would be astronomical, and since they would not last as long as a plastic bucket, be replaced moar often.

    Or the array of plastics that make up the dasboard in any vehicle, made of wood. Wood is softer than steel so in the inevitable event that collisions occur the damage would be marginally less severe. The forests however, are being cut down so fast that wood becomes moar expensive than gold.

    The point is, your lifestyle and everyone else’s lifestyle would not be possible without plastic, so what will you give up to eliminate some plastic from your life?

    How many thousands of tons of plastic does Coca Cola use to bottle their poison? There is something that from a personal health perspective everyone should give up, but along with that Coke comes a big dollop of Bernays sauce to convince you that you need that crap. It seems that stopping that at the source would require a massive tax on advertising and warning labels with a skull and crossbones prominently placed where the clownsumer puts their lips. Personally, all I drink is tap water, sometimes with a bit of coffee or tea in it and that’s it. I gave up drinking crap decades ago, so according to the system I’m a bad clownsumer by refusing to feed the corrupt system.

    I gotta ask though. Which country or region dumps the most plastic into the ocean?

    Reply
    1. lyman alpha blob

      Well the problem isn’t plastics per se, it’s the nearly 8 billion people on the planet all using them at the same time. So the best fix to the problem is a lot fewer people.

      But since that doesn’t seem likes it’s going to happen voluntarily (although Mother Nature will eventually fix the problem if we’re too stupid to), we need to do something.

      I have a metal trashcan in my basement that did rust out after 15 years or so. I will be replacing it with another metal trashcan – or better yet, no trashcan, and just bring any basement trash upstairs. I do try to minimize plastic use and buy products without plastic packaging as much as possible (try finding a glass ketchup bottle though), but individual boycotts just aren’t going to cut it.

      You do bring up a very good point – replacing the plastic in cars for example would likely lead to heavier materials being used, which would then lead to more gas being burned to power the car, obviously not a good result.

      I do think we could ban certain plastics outright though, particularly those used for packaging liquids. We managed just fine without them up until the last forty years or so and could easily do so again. And yes, there’s the argument that heavier packaging leads to higher transportation costs, but that could be reduced by making products locally when possible so there would be less need for shipping to begin with. Also, while I haven’t busted out a scale, I would imagine that aluminum cans weigh about the same if not less than a plastic bottle. I’d imagine they are easier to recycle too. And contrary to the claims of advertising, my laundry will get just as clean from powdered detergent from a box as it will from liquid from a plastic container, and again the packaging is of comparable weight.

      And my pet peeve – well more than just a peeve actually since it contributes to ruining the planet – packaging supposedly organic produce in plastic trays wrapped in more plastic. There is absolutely no reason produce needs to be sold with plastic anywhere near it. Just ban it already.

      Reply
    2. EMtz

      You are fortunate that your tap water is clean enough to drink! Not the case in many parts of the world. Where I live, the concentration of heavy metals in tap water requires buying 20L bottles of filtered water or shelling out for an expensive filtration system which most people can’t afford. These big bottles are plastic, of course, and the company collects and reuses them, but this does not address the microplastics inherent in the bottling process. Drinking tap water may be a matter of choice in the US, a wealthy and privileged country, but not so elsewhere. Count your blessings.

      Reply
    3. heresy101

      There are solutions out there to begin replacing plastics but the oil companies and their lackeys don’t help fund their growth (ie they don’t have Musk as their pitchman).

      There is one solution to styrofoam and other packing materials. There is a small company that uses fungi to make “styrofoam”. Check out the wine bottle packing.
      “Ecovative Design uses several species of fungi to manufacture environmentally-friendly products. The process starts with farming byproducts, like cotton gin waste; seed hulls from rice, buckwheat and oats; hemp or other plant materials. These are sterilized, mixed with nutrients and chilled. Then the mycelia spawn are added and are so good at proliferating that every cubic inch of material soon contains millions of tiny fungal fibers.”
      “The all-natural products, the creation of which can take less than 5 days, have no allergy concerns and are completely non-toxic. More impressive is the fact that they’re also impervious to fire (to a point), and just as water resistant as Styrofoam, but they won’t sit around taking up space in a landfill.”

      https://phys.org/news/2013-03-fungi-plastics.html

      Another company has a start on replacing plastic water bottles but it looks like it still needs quite a bit of work. https://atlasofthefuture.org/project/ooho/

      Monopoly capitalism won’t allow these processes to grow; so legislation is necessary to force their uptake. Also, spreading word about these solutions is much better than just taking a doom and gloom perspective!

      Reply
  3. jlowe

    “Which country or region dumps the most plastic into the ocean?” The ‘Our World in Data” site has a plastic FAQ that outlines the product end-of-life of plastics throughout the world. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution. As retooling the product lifecycles to use more suitable polymers will require a few decades even if we got a rolling start right now, what would we do with the waste streams in the meantime? They’re potentially chemical feedstocks. Do we landfill them for now with the idea of retrieving them once the chemical engineering profession discovers the circular economy?

    Reform and reauthorization of RCRA might provide some pathways for addressing this problem. Not going to hold my breath for it, though.

    Reply
  4. Rod

    Thanks and Keep it coming JLS. Everyday. This is an issue that we cannot look away from, as it is soooo embedded in the Climate Crises proper.

    imo, Solutions start right here with this:
    It requires policies that dissuade the unabated extraction of resources and ensure companies are responsible for the life cycle of their plastic products. This would include abolishing US$296 billion in subsidies provided annually by governments to petrochemical companies and introducing laws that require companies to pay for waste collection, recycling or disposal, rather than taxpayers.—-bold mine

    It chokes me to say this, but, Petroleum is truly a blessing for many reasons(as it has become a Plague for many others)

    It would truly help if we humans followed the adage–-All Things in Moderation
    but of course Capitalism, as a System, was not set up for just that.

    Reply
  5. Phil in KC

    Replacing plastics with other materials is not magical thinking.

    I bought rubber hoses when I bought my first house 35 years ago. Still using them. Plastic hoses usually don’t last more than 3-4 years.

    We are able to buy our milk in glass bottles instead of plastic, a choice available at our grocery store. There’s a deposit on the bottle, of course, but the bottle gets reused.

    My galvanized buckets and watering can have long outlived their plastic counterparts.

    If I could find them, I’d pay extra ketchup, mustard, and other condiments in glass bottles and jars instead of plastic. When I buy soda pop, I look for the bottle. Glass gets recycled around here.

    My metal Coleman cooler is still going strong. No need to replace.

    In short, I can think of very products that are better because they are plastic. There are some, sure, such as vinyl LPs and zip-lock baggies. But an awful lot of household plastics merely are low-cost replacements for recyclable metal, glass, and other materials

    Reply

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