The Belgian-born American chemist, Leo Baekeland, could never have imagined that his invention of plastics would be so ubiquitous in our world today. Neither could he have imagined that plastics would be mishandled so irresponsibly that millions of tons of plastic waste would be left untreated, accumulating every month on this beautiful planet.
Every year, around 350 million tons of plastic waste are globally generated, and shamefully, less than 16% of this waste is recycled. If we believe a 2018 McKinsey report, it will take just one decade for our plastic waste to rise to an alarming 460 million tons per year. Despite the best of intentions and numerous debates and discussions, the global recycling rate has been declining over the last two years and will continue to do so into next year.
The production of prime plastics (virgin plastics produced from petrochemicals) has seen a growth of 3% per annum over the last few years. However, it is disheartening to know that the recycling rate had been growing by less than 2% and is now on a negative trend. At this rate, there would be 12 billion tons of plastic waste on this earth by 2050; allow me to emphasize that I said billions, not millions.
Is this the legacy we want to leave for future generations? Do we want our children and grandchildren to grow up with mountains of plastic in their backyards?
COVID-19 has proved beyond any doubt that we cannot live without plastics. The World Health Organization recently estimated that the world is using about 89 million masks and 76 million gloves each month, spiking our consumption of single-use plastics. Plastics have saved thousands of lives. I am afraid that the pandemic may put the topic of sustainability in the back seat.
How did we arrive at this broken state of plastics recycling? The world has yet to grasp the enormity of the issue at hand. There is a tremendous amount of ignorance at the general public and government levels. The problem is much more serious than we are being led to believe.
International trade has decreased from 15 million tons in 2015 to less than 5 million this year. Moreover, as per the Basel Convention, which will take effect next year, every contract will need to be approved by the environmental authorities of both importing and exporting countries, creating a heavy administrative burden. These rules will likely cause a further reduction in trade, which will inevitably exacerbate the low recycling rate.
Furthermore, petrochemical companies are investing $200 billion toward new capacity in plastics production, whereas investment in recycling is substantially lower. Globally, 2 billion people have no access to a basic waste collection system.
The coronavirus pandemic has reiterated that we cannot live without plastic. It’s high time that we channel our efforts toward real solutions.
The need of the hour is to increase the rate of recycling. In order to increase this rate to 40% in the next five years, we need to triple the amount of waste we are recycling. In the best-case scenario, mechanical recycling capacity can be increased by only 6 million to 8 million tons annually. This would be enough to cover only the incremental waste generated each year, leaving the majority of existing plastic waste to end up in landfills and oceans.
At the same time, the commercial success of chemical recycling technology is a few years away. Moreover, chemical recycling plants require a relatively large quantity of plastic waste, as feedstock, to operate. More often than not, there isn’t enough plastic waste in one location to feed a plant, and bringing in waste is a logistical, administrative, and financial burden.
The movements of plastic waste today are being monitored in the same ways used for blood diamonds or other hazardous goods. Let there be a free flow of plastic waste with proper checks and balances.
People need to be educated about the significance of plastic. As we wake up in the morning, the first thing many of us do is reach for our mobile phones, which are made with plastics. We commute to work in vehicles made with plastics. We use computers, laptops, and printers—all made with plastics. Plastics touch the life of every person every day, everywhere. Plastics provide flexibility, innovation, and cost-efficiency. They enhance the design and are extremely lightweight.
Yet there is a war on plastic. Many compare plastics to tobacco and pollution. The truth is we need plastics, and we need them desperately. It is equally necessary to recycle them properly.
We must see COVID-19 as a wake-up call for sustainability. It is time to make significantly more ambitious plans. As governments provide assistance and loans to recover from the pandemic, they should focus on a green recovery. Contracts and loans should be granted with green conditions in place.
Everyone wants sustainability, but nobody wants to pay for it. The economics of recycling are complex. The industry should be prepared to pay a premium for recycled material over the prime material. External costs must also be kept in consideration.
Governments should take steps to promote the demand for recycled material. They can take initiatives like offering tax concessions on scrap and recycled material and incentivizing public procurement of products made from recycled material.
The European Union is considering the introduction of the plastic waste tax. It’s a pity that this tax revenue is being considered for a purpose other than plastics recycling. This tax revenue should be used only for the promotion of recycling.
Many leading companies and brand owners have made commitments to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to use 5.4 million tons of recycled plastics by 2025. Shareholders, auditors, and fund managers should monitor these commitments to ensure that they move from paper to practice.
Once these steps are taken, we will be much better equipped to handle climate change.