Why recycling plastic may not be as good for the planet as we thought

In today’s newsletter: a new report finds that recycling plastic is not an adequate solution to the pollution crisis. What should we do instead?

Plastic bottles awaiting recycling – not as helpful as we used to believe. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is an environmentalist mantra that everyone has been able to get behind because, in the age of overconsumption, humans are producing more waste than ever before. Every year we dump 2bn tonnes of municipal solid waste on to the planet and – according to the World Bank – that number is expected to rise by 70% to 3.4bn tonnes by 2050. For years, campaigners and scientists have said that this level of waste generation is unsustainable and is detrimental to the natural environment, wildlife and humans.

To ensure that less of our stuff ends up in landfills, more and more people are advocating for a circular economy. No one wants to be seen to be destroying the planet, so corporate actors are also getting on board, with many big retailers pledging to reduce single-use plastics in their products, as well as opting to use recycled materials.

For most of us, the process of recycling ends when we throw the coffee cup or plastic packaging into the relevant bin. Someone comes to collect it and off it goes, leaving our conscience clear. The story does not end there, however: plastic recycling increasingly looks like a futile endeavour. Much of it still ends up in landfill, or in poorer countries where it is melted down into pellets, dumped, or burned.

For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Guardian environment correspondent Damien Gayle about the secretive recycling industry and whether it actually makes a difference. That’s right after the headlines.

In depth: ‘Each time we recycle plastics they become more dangerous to us and the planet’

Rubbish in bins and recycling in boxes wait to be collected outside a residential property in Bristol, England. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

“Waste and recycling are the dirty secrets of our consumer society,” Damien Gayle says. “The fact is everything that we consume has waste attached. We throw it in the bin or the recycling and we like to just forget about it.” But we shouldn’t, Damien says. Because, as uncomfortable as it is to think about where our used tissues and empty crisp packets go, the pile of rubbish will just continue to grow and pollute, infecting the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

What happens to most plastic?

Last year, world leaders, environment ministers and other representatives from 173 countries endorsed a historic UN resolution that seeks to end plastic pollution and create a legally binding global treaty by the end of 2024. At the moment, only 9% of plastics are recycled globally. In the United States that number is even lower, at just 5%.

In the run up to the latest round of negotiations in this agreement, Greenpeace warned that ultimately we cannot safely recycle plastic. “What [the studies they reference] have found is that the toxic chemicals that are found in virgin plastic become more concentrated when they’re repurposed into recycled plastics for further use,” Damien explains. “Greenpeace are basically saying plastics cannot ever be regarded as compatible with a circular economy, because each time we recycle them they become more dangerous to our health and the health of the planet.” The campaign group are part of a larger chorus of voices who doubt the effectiveness of recycling as a way to deal with plastic pollution.

And then there is the small issue of microplastics. One recent study found that the process of recycling plastic could be releasing huge quantities of microplastics – which can be toxic to humans and to animals – into the environment. They’re already everywhere: microplastics have been found deep in the lungs of living people, in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica and in the depths of the ocean. As one writer put it, microplastics have “moved into virtually every crevice on Earth”. Researchers say that they do not know what the long-term health implications are, but early studies are already indicating that microplastics are harmful to human bodies as many of the chemicals they contain are carcinogenic.

Exporting the problema

A 2013 photo of a recycling facility in Shenzen, China. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

For years, many rich countries outsourced their recycling, shipping it overseas to be sorted out by other people. Until 2017, China was the world’s biggest importer of such material, but decided to close its borders to almost all types of waste because of concerns about contamination and pollution, effectively killing an industry worth $24bn a year. In the years that followed, poorer countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have picked up the slack, as well as Poland, India, and Turkey. For Damien, this shift represents “neo-colonialism – offloading our toxic waste on to the people who can least deal with it”.

After receiving waste that was not sufficiently recyclable or which caused significant pollution, many of these countries have followed China and are drastically limiting the amount of waste they import or banning it outright.

Is there any point to recycling?

Before you put your recycling bin in, er, the recycling bin, the general consensus is that the solution is not to stop recycling altogether. While imperfect, it is the best option we have – the alternative is creating more landfill sites or incinerating more waste, which produces more carbon emissions than natural gas.

Ultimately, the only real way to tackle plastic pollution – and to curb the growth of already gigantic levels of waste – is to produce less stuff. Recycle is the last R — the first two, reduce and reuse, are perhaps the key to stop humanity drowning in its own castoffs.

“Greenpeace are calling for a pathway to the total elimination of the production of virgin plastic,” Damien explains. However, high profit margins mean that there is little will to create a plastic-free future. “It’s everywhere because it’s cheaper. The petrochemical sector is one of the biggest industries on the planet and it’s cheaper for them to produce virgin plastic than almost any other equivalent,” Damien says. Alternatives are more expensive for the consumer too, he adds. In a world that is moving – albeit slowly – away from fossil fuels, plastic is a key way that these companies are planning to keep the lights on for the next few decades.

Producers of plastic have pushed recycling as a viable way to deal with waste – but it seems the solution may be closer to home. Says Damien on eliminating virgin plastic: “I think that’s the only logical and realistic path that we can have for us as a species to survive”.

The Guardian