Dispelling the Recycling Illusion
In recent years, prominent multinational corporations have unveiled ambitious objectives for managing plastic waste stemming from single-use packaging. These objectives share a common thread – renowned entities such as McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Coca-Cola commit to achieving packaging comprised entirely of renewable, compostable, or recycled materials by 2025 or 2030.
However, what remains unspoken is that plastic production is poised to surge by 40% over the next decade, with these corporations poised to capitalise on this expansion. Consequently, the strategies presented by these firms inadvertently sanction unrestricted proliferation in plastic packaging production. The idea of significantly curbing plastic consumption is illusory, and the concept of effectively recycling plastic is a fallacy.
The Fallacy of Plastic Recycling
Plastic recycling faces a fundamental predicament – it scarcely materialises as envisioned. An illustrative case is evident in the Netherlands, where plastic waste is not effectively sorted during collection. Furthermore, recycled plastic cannot be reincorporated into identical products; for instance, repurposed food packaging cannot be redeployed for its original purpose. In the past, a portion of Western plastic waste found its way to China for recycling.
However, China's stance on this has changed, leading to a redirection of waste flow to other Asian nations. Regrettably, these countries are also starting to impose constraints or shutting their doors to foreign plastic waste. The onus to manage their plastic waste is now on individual nations. Although in theory, all plastic is recyclable, the notion that recycling is the panacea for plastic pollution is spurious. In reality, a mere 9% of the global plastic currently in use is recycled, and much of this recycled plastic falls short in quality. Presently, recycling represents a form of "downcycling," wherein the sustained utilisation of new or "virgin" plastic persists.
The Coalition to Eradicate Plastic Pollution
At the onset of 2019, an alliance comprising 30 of the world's premier industrial enterprises emerged – the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW). This coalition committed to investing $1 billion in combating plastic pollution. One avenue through which the Alliance ostensibly tackles this issue is by fostering enhanced and widespread recycling, particularly in regions that currently lack the requisite infrastructure. Notably, industry giants in the oil and gas sector, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Dow, participate in the AEPW.
Ironically, these same conglomerates profit from the utilisation of economical shale gas as a raw material for plastic production and funnel tens of billions into new plastic manufacturing facilities. On one hand, these industry leaders espouse the belief that recycling can combat plastic pollution. On the other hand, their inundation of the market with virgin plastic undermines the viability of the recycling business model, as the cost-effectiveness of new plastics is so pronounced that recycling only remains feasible through taxpayer subsidies.