Plastic recycling – where are we now and where are we heading?
There’s never been a greater focus on recycling than in the last 12 months – especially where plastic is concerned. But, with regards to this widely used material, what challenges are the industry currently facing and what is the future looking like?
Our director of recycling, Paul Rendle-Barnes, recently shared his thoughts with Sustainable Plastics…
Plastic waste is one of the world’s most widely debated and reported on topics. Over the past year, the spotlight has truly been shone upon this global commodity, with documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet highlighting the impact plastic pollution is having on our oceans and marine life. Yet, while waste plastics have been around years before TV programmes such as this one aired, it’s arguably one of the key catalysts for having elevated public awareness around the subjects.
Many companies are signing plastic-waste-reducing pacts and evaluating the cradle-to-grave supply chain as a result, but this alone is not enough.
An interesting point is that in just a few weeks – since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak – plastic has gone from being regarded the ‘enemy of the planet’ to the ‘saviour of the people’, not least because it is being used within the personal protective equipment keeping the world’s frontline workers safe.
So, what’s the real truth here?
The role of human intervention
In many respects, both statements are correct because there is one common denominator – us humans. And, this should be the key focus when we’re evaluating, and criticising, the plastic waste crisis we often read about in the headlines.
In reality, the plastics themselves can’t be blamed for polluting our oceans and ending up in landfill. Plastic has served the purpose for which it was manufactured – whether to extend the shelf-life of food, make liquids easier to transport or, in the case of healthcare, protect staff and improve hygiene. But all too often, its consumption – and disposal – is abused. And this is where the finger of blame must be pointed – at least in part – to humans, and the habits that significantly reduce the potential lifespan of this cost-effective material.
So, if we as people are partly at fault, can we be wholly trusted to intervene and improve the situation?
Regarding the future of plastic, we can and must do much more. The demand for this commodity is increasing, with experts estimating that if this continues, the worldwide plastic waste volume would grow from 260 million tons per year in 2016 to 460 million tons per year by 2030. As a result, this would take what is already a serious environmental problem to a completely unrecoverable position for the planet.
Is harnessing innovation the key?
Awareness was the first step in making this a globally considered issue, but taking real action is a start on the road to recovery. Plus, a multi-faceted approach needs to be taken.
Firstly, plastics need to be designed with recyclability and disassembly in mind – as well as the phasing out of polymers that aren’t recoverable. In addition, implementing deposit returns schemes on packaging and ensuring businesses bear the end-to-end costs involved in recovery, are both measures which have a pivotal part to play. However, the swift adoption of advanced technology to manufacture fuel from polymers or recreate virgin polymers from waste plastics, presents a logical way forward in helping us to achieve our less ‘throwaway’ and more resourceful aims.
Yet, there’s still another piece of the puzzle missing – intervention from the Government. We need to stick to recovery targets, integrate recycling into the law, offer tax breaks for companies taking action, plus provide financial support for the development and adoption of innovative technologies in this field.
Reshaping the future
If we’re able to take appropriate action at the right time, plastic becomes regarded less of a ‘nuisance’ and we harness the potential resource value of this commodity.
In the past, the UK has exported far too much if its used plastics overseas, but with China’s waste import ban shaking up the landscape in 2018, this caused the waste management industry to have a much-needed rethink.
However, in some instances, we as a country are still shipping our waste abroad and the saddening fact still remains – by exporting plastics, we’re losing two thirds of the resource opportunity they would otherwise generate. But as the world’s natural resources deplete, the desire to recover more of our ‘lost’ plastics will undoubtedly become more financially attractive to investors and entrepreneurs.
A time for change
The plastic recycling industry is one which is embracing change and the adoption of new technologies, to reach the end-goal of more material being reused and recovered, instead of ending up in landfill. From a utopian view of the sector, hopefully we’ll see a future where all polymers enter the market as products designed with ease-of-reuse or recycling in mind.
In short, there’s no doubting that when we turn the mirror towards us, that’s when we’ll truly see how our actions have been impacting – and contributing to – the plastic waste dilemma, and when we can start implementing effective change for the long-term good for the planet.