One of the world’s harshest truths is that recycling won’t solve waste problems on its own.
Recycling is a band-aid at best, when you take into account contamination created by incorrect recycling and the degradation of plastic. Not to mention millions of pounds of recyclable materials never actually get recycled.
However, this doesn’t mean plastic pollution is something we should either accept as a fact of life or ignore. What it means is that we need to make adjustments to the way we approach the issue of waste.
The most recent EPA statistics from 2015 show that the amount of plastic waste generated in the US is increasing.
As much as 70% of the plastic that enters recycling facilities all over the world is actually unusable, and some of it even impairs machines and ruins loads of potentially recyclable materials.
But what happens with the plastic that doesn’t get recycled? Well, according to a report from the Guardian, hundreds of thousands of unrecycled plastic are shipped each year to impoverished countries such as Senegal, Laos, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.
Because there are no ways to handle that much plastic, the current solution is to ship it away and make it someone else’s problem.
This is of course a lot more harmful to the environment because all this plastic is most likely burned, which releases toxic fumes containing heavy metals, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid.
This could be easily blamed in people who don’t care about properly sorting their recyclables at home, but plastic recyclability is actually complex.
Even people who know their recycling very well understand how arcane the process is because there’s no way to know whether or not a type of plastic will be accepted by local waste processors.
This makes the recycling process less than effective, no matter how well you categorize and separate your waste.
The solution to all these issues is quite simple. For one, manufacturers who produce products and packaging should plan and have systems in place to take these things back once they’re no longer useful to consumers.
The move toward a circular economy that features a closed-loop system would make manufacturers responsible for the waste their products produce.
This would, in turn, motivate manufacturers to be less wasteful with their products and packaging from the start, because they’re aware they have to take care of it in the end.
Thankfully, plastic alternatives are not in shortage. They’re innovative and they’re not made of fossil fuels, so they’re a win/win for everyone.
Among the alternatives that are already proposed, you’ll find bioplastics made of arthropod shells, seaweed-based materials, biodegradable combinations of natural resins and cellulose, and mushroom0based foam, just to mention a few.
If companies wanted to take that step, there are some alternatives, such as Sulapac, that can be produced on existing production lines. That means companies could switch from their current materials to a greener version.
However, biodegradable plastics still have issues.
Even though we may think disposable products marked as “compostable” are better than plastic or other materials, they can still end up in the ocean, it still takes years for the material to break down, and it can still endanger wildlife exposed to it.
This kind of material also needs to be sent to specific industrial composting facilities, which are not available everywhere.
The fact is that most biodegradable alternatives, with the exception of plant-based and edible options, don’t actually help if they’re still used to create disposable items you can only use once.
Individual actions are key to making a true change in this situation.
A big part of helping the issue is changing the way we think about convenience and the value we place on durability. Even though it’s true that what we do matters, corporations are not be let off the hook.
If you take only 100 companies, you’ll find that they’re responsible for 71% of local emissions since 1988. This means that companies are the world’s biggest plastic polluters, including companies in the energy industry, beverage, meat and dairy as well.
Why can’t they be let off the hook? Because they have the resources and the power to reduce the amount of pollution they produce. Whether that’s plastic pollution or another kind.
In spite of this, few companies actually make the move, which is why consumer demand needs to rise. Putting pressure on these companies to take responsibility is key and even though that’s a challenge on its own, it’s the only way we can make a palpable change.