Around the world, plastic waste — everything from bottles and wrappers, parts in our phones and televisions to the foam in our mattresses — is acknowledged as a global crisis, endangering marine life and contaminating our water and food.
More than 170 countries are looking for a solution as part of a UN committee negotiating a legally binding agreement on reducing plastic waste.
“The impacts of plastic production and pollution on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution are a catastrophe in the making,” said the UN.
Negotiations wrapped up in Paris earlier this month and will continue in Nairobi, Kenya later this year.
But finding a way to put the genie back in the bottle is no easy task. And finding a solution depends on what the question is — should we be eliminating plastic or finding ways to manufacture it that would make it more efficient to recycle?
The UN said that we need an entire overhaul of the system, including a redesign of products and packaging to reduce plastic use, as well as systems to ensure plastic is reused and recycled.
It’s an idea that is also being touted by the influential Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is dedicated to creating a circular economy in numerous areas of the economy including fashion, food and plastic, by using design to eliminate waste and pollution, and ensuring that items are reusable, recyclable or compostable.
The foundation was behind the “Plastics Pact Network,” a global initiative that involves some of the world’s largest packaging companies and manufacturers, including Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, which pledged to have 100 per cent recyclable or compostable packaging by the year 2025, said Cal Lakhan, a York University research scientist.
Although the network is nowhere near meeting those targets, the “foundation is still seen as a trusted authority in all things circularity, and have significant backing from industry and government alike,” said Lakhan.
However, not everyone agrees that recycling plastic is a solution.
In a statement last month, Greenpeace USA said the UN negotiations should focus on drastically reducing plastic production, and not recycling, because of the “catalogue of peer-reviewed research and international studies concluding that recycling actually increases the toxicity of plastics.”
The report said plastic contains more than 13,000 chemicals, with at least 3,200 of them known to be hazardous to human health, quoting figures from a UN environment program briefing.
Greenpeace is recommending that production of plastic be capped and phased down, and said that plastic has no place in a circular economy.
Regardless of what side of the argument the UN negotiations land on, there’s no question that recycling is not an easy solution.
Globally, less than 10 per cent of plastic gets recycled for a number of reasons — sorting plastic is difficult and expensive; there may be no market for it; it’s contaminated with food which means it goes to landfill or there’s not the infrastructure in place to recycle it. How do you separate a shoe made of multiple types of plastic or a chip bag that has six layers?
For those plastics that are recycled, the process can be messy.
Some plastic waste can be ground down into plastic pellets and used again. But others are so contaminated or mixed together they have to be chemically recycled — or depolymerized — to bring them back to their basic chemical building blocks, which are molecules known as polymers.
“Some 4.4 million tonnes of plastic are discarded in Canada every year, more than half of which is packaging,” according to Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental advocacy organization. “Only 400,000 tonnes of discarded plastic, or less than 10 per cent, is turned into pellets or flake that can be made into new plastic products.”
Environmental Defence said chemical recycling of plastic can result in even more greenhouse emissions than producing virgin plastic.
In response to the pollution crisis, Canada has banned some single-use plastics, including grocery bags, and a handful of hard-to-recycle plastics used in takeout.
They include polystyrene foam, which is porous and easily contaminated, and carbon black, which ends up in landfill because the pigment blocks optical sorters in recycling facilities.
The federal government is also considering a requirement that recycled content account for 50 per cent of nonfood plastic packaging, part of our country’s goal to reach zero plastic waste by 2030.
But Canada lacks the infrastructure — collection, sorting and recycling facilities — that we would need to meet that target, said Apala Mukherjee, the president of chemical company BASF Canada, infrastructure that would cost billions of dollars to put in place.
So whether the UN negotiations will result in a reduction in plastic production, or mandated recycling targets, remains to be seen. The agreement is supposed to conclude by the end of next year.
Many proponents of plastic say that it’s a material we can’t do without.
It’s not only cheap and durable, but widely used in areas such as packaging, clothing, medical and personal protective equipment, and construction materials, according to the federal government.
Plastic production soared from two million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, according to the UN.
That figure is expected to go up when petroleum companies increase plastic manufacturing in the face of a decreased need for oil and gas due to electric vehicle use.
Mukherjee believes “a circular economy is the only solution that can match the scale of the plastic pollution problem.”
“As useful as plastics are, how we design, produce and use plastics is incredibly wasteful as they are not currently designed with circularity in mind but are manufactured as a single use item that gets easily discarded,” wrote Mukherjee in an email, “sticking with the old linear take-make-waste model that causes thousands of plastics to end up in landfills, burned or leaked into the environment.”
“This is unacceptable, and this practice’s environmental and societal impacts are problematic and require change.”