Can We Recycle Plastic Sustainably?

Plastic packaging waste

Since 1950, humans have produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. Out of this staggering amount, only around 9 percent has been recycled — the rest is filling up landfills and directly contaminating nature.

While recycling is on the rise today, it’s clear that society still has a long way to go to achieve greater plastic sustainability. Unfortunately, the ever-growing consumption rate is a factor halting this process. Every minute, over 1 million plastic bottles are sold, and the overall demand for single-use plastics remains high.

We’ve adopted the notion that once we do our part and throw the plastic product in the right recycling bin, someone else takes care of the rest. But what if that’s not the case? As we look toward the future, what can we do as individuals to advance sustainable plastic recycling?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Plastic waste is an issue in every country in the world. You might have heard of the “Green Fence” — a global initiative to send mass quantities of waste to China for recycling. This system has been more or less functional for years, encouraging the growth of a throwaway culture in countries like the U.S. and Australia. But when China stopped accepting recyclables in 2018, many were left looking for alternatives.

The unhindered consumption of plastics, together with the radical drop in demand, has shown us that in many cases, there’s a lack of local solutions and inadequate waste management infrastructure. This means that the vast majority of plastic waste ends up in landfills despite individual consumer efforts — simply because there’s no effective solution in place.

That’s why the best thing consumers can do is follow the “3Rs” (reduce-reuse-recycle). Ideally, we would buy as little single-use plastic as possible and look towards zero-waste solutions. We can also consciously choose the types of plastics that have a higher potential to be reusable or recycled. For instance, plastic coffee cups contain various multi-material layers, making them difficult to be recycled — we can refer to the number at the bottom to make the distinction.

Exploring recycling guidelines in our area also goes a long way. These can often inform us about the local waste management system (single- or multi-stream) and provide specific guidance on how to handle more complex plastics, such as keyboards, which shouldn’t go in your curbside bin. Apart from recycling centers, it’s useful to explore other options. Grocery store chains often offer solutions to collect items traditionally seen as non-recyclable, such as plastic bags.

Take (Collective) Action

Apart from understanding where and which kinds of plastics to recycle, one of the most prominent obstacles to effective recycling is contamination. Most communities rely on a system where everything gets collected at a single point and then shipped away. Any dirty plastics — such as unrinsed peanut butter jars — can present a significant slowdown. Currently, U.S. waste is contaminated about 16 percent to 17 percent of the time, so it’s worth becoming more vigilant about this.

However, while actions like these are meaningful, it’s hard to progress without a top-down approach. That’s why we should take collective action to call for more robust sorting, classification, and infrastructure locally. Building functional systems could offer more flexible solutions to problems like contamination. It could also ensure that individual recycling efforts actually produce tangible results.

A lot of cities, municipalities, and states are eager to tackle the issue. But they’re having trouble figuring out how to do so. Getting more involved as a member of the community to promote awareness and push for greater transparency and accountability in waste management is key.

Support Innovative Solutions

There are many actors, both startups and established players, looking to advance plastic recycling through innovative solutions. Whether it’s those turning plastic back to virgin material, or those designing smart trash cans to bring greater transparency into waste management, supporting these actors helps raise awareness of both the current recycling realities and the solutions they’re promoting.

Apart from the macro solutions, there are also inventions to try out at the household level. For example, there are companies providing specialized laundry balls and filters for washing machines that capture and recycle any microplastics from clothes that would otherwise be left to contaminate water sources.

While individual actions form a great foundation for a sustainable future, we have reached a point where collective action is necessary to make true change. What can we do as individual consumers? We can start by supporting innovative players and demanding accountability and optimized waste management at the community level. By doing so, we will be able to move towards better plastic recycling models that will actually make an impact.

About the Author

Andrew Joiner is the founder and CEO of EnMass Energy, which started off developing sustainable power projects in Pakistan, and has developed into a global waste-to-energy supply and development platform with projects in India, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. Andrew is a global leader who has consulted a wide array of international partner organizations as part of 501Carbon. He has provided advice to the US White House Council on Environmental Quality and the United Nations Environmental Program.

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