There is growing concern amongst recyclers that our recycling efforts are not enough and that, perhaps, plastic is too problematic to recycle.
Whether you own a supermarket or eCommerce store, your consumers end up with large quantities of packaging in their homes every year. And regardless of whether your consumers are avid recyclers or not, many of us know very little about where our plastic waste ends up. Is it actually repurposed or is it left floating in the middle of the ocean somewhere?
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that recyclers across the globe are questioning whether they’re actually saving the planet. Some have even gone so far as to label plastic recycling a myth, and it’s easy to see why. It appears that our current waste management systems are unable to keep up with recycling initiatives. In 2018, nearly a quarter of all plastic waste was sent to landfills and 43% was incinerated.
So why is plastic such a problematic material to recycle and what are the problems with recycling plastic?
Why is it so difficult to recycle plastics?
Recycling is the process of extracting materials to recover or reuse them for another purpose. Out of all the materials that end up in our recycling bins, plastic is probably the most difficult to recycle.
This is because plastics are composed of several different polymer types. Hence, it’s almost impossible to recycle different plastics together as they melt at different temperatures. Before plastics can be recycled properly, they need to be separated. This is not only time consuming, but costly. Black plastic food trays are a nightmare to separate as their dark colour makes it difficult for sorting machines to spot them.
To complicate things further, only certain types of plastics are worth recycling. For example, most plastics worsen in quality when recycled, this is known as downcycling. Such plastics either have to be mixed with virgin plastics and other materials to become valuable.
Plus, plastics such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE) need to be chemically recycled before they make it onto the shelves. And as there is currently a very limited supply, it can be expensive to produce post-consumer recyclate even though it is key for food approval. Not to mention, if such materials are being used for food packaging, they need to be manufactured in compliance with EU regulations and have a certified supply chain. This helps ensure that packaging is food approved and safe to use.
What are the social impacts of plastic?
As we mentioned earlier, plastic pollution can have social as well as environmental consequences. Take Indonesia for example. Around 283,000 tonnes of plastic waste is imported into the country each year, with the majority coming from European countries.
This waste has caused levels of toxin dioxins in chicken eggs to rise almost 70 times above European safety standards. As you can imagine, long-term exposure can have adverse effects on a person’s health and can even lead to cancer. Hence, it’s important for brands to be aware of both the global and local implications that plastic waste can have.
As recycling is managed at a local level in the UK, which materials are recycled and the amount can vary drastically from council to council. Though plastic recycling doesn’t currently benefit from regulation at a national (or international) level, brands are not entirely powerless.
Opting for more sustainable packaging negates the need to worry about where waste ends up once it has left the shelf. Every brand has a responsibility to ensure that their model of production doesn’t just start and end in the factory. It’s all about creating a circular economy, which means keeping a product’s end-life at the forefront of design and production. This will not only help ease consumer consciences but also reduce brands’ impact on global communities and the environment.
Is recycling plastic worth it?
In short, one of the main problems with recycling plastic right now is that there is too much competition with virgin plastics. Virgin plastics are typically cheaper than recycled plastics as they are cheaper to produce in mass given the falling price of oil. But the market wasn’t always like this.
At one point in time, recycling plastic was not only the more sustainable option but also the more economic one. In 2019, however, recycled plastics cost an extra £57 a tonne compared to virgin plastics. And the price appears to be gradually increasing each year. This could mean that as demand for virgin plastics continues to go up, the demand for recycled plastics will steadily go down. This certainly isn’t good for any of us, let alone the environment.
What is the future of the plastics industry?
Though it’s currently cheaper for brands to use virgin plastics, consumer ethical spending is on the rise. In fact, ethical consumerism swelled to over £41 billion at the end of 2019. This indicates that the war on plastic is not over quite yet.
Consumers today aren’t just looking for quality products, they want to buy products from brands that align with their ethics. In fact, protecting the environment is the main reason that many consumers decide to ditch brands. In 2019 alone, 47% of consumers left behind their favourite products because the brand no longer aligned with their beliefs. This suggests that brands need to pay close attention to what consumers want.
Consumers aren’t the only ones fighting the problems with recycling plastic. Politicians and industry leaders are also demanding better packaging materials. The Plastic Packaging Tax, which takes effect from April 2022, will tax businesses for packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic.
The purpose of this bill is to encourage brands to move away from virgin plastics. So, the demand for recycled plastics could in fact go up, not down. What’s more, as demand goes up, recycled plastics will gradually become cheaper, making recycled plastics the more economic option for businesses once again.
How can your brand get involved in this change?
There’s lots of information out there to digest and it can be difficult to know where to start when thinking about the problems with recycling plastic. But we’re here to help. Get in touch with our team to learn more about our mission and the products we offer. If you want to see what we can do first-hand, simply fill out our online form to order a sample pack.
We offer the perfect solution for plastic pollution waste. Our range of recyclable plastic packaging contains 30% recycled plastic. This means that your brand can have premium packaging that is also sustainable and does not compromise quality.