Publications from government, academia, civil society organizations, and consultancies paint problematic picture of a circular plastics economy; plastic packaging waste per person found to increase over last decade; low percentage of plastic produced is effectively recycled; pyrolysis (a type of chemical recycling) of plastics produces 9x more emissions than mechanical recycling; “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics found to not break down in home compost systems.
A wide range of recent events and publications from multiple stakeholder groups discuss an increasing number of complexities and limitations to achieving a truly circular economy for plastics. Plastic packaging waste generated per person was found to have increased in the last decade, a low percentage of the volume of plastic produced is effectively recycled, pyrolysis (a form of chemical recycling) of plastics has been found to use significantly more energy and produce more emissions than mechanical recycling, and studies are showing that now commonly marketed “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics often do not break down in home compost systems.
Plastics at COP27
The topic of plastics is being featured prominently in discussions at the COP27 meeting from November 7th to 18th, 2022 when delegates from across the globe are meeting in Egypt to discuss climate change. This includes a side event on November 10th concerning “how combatting plastic pollution and illegal traffic in plastic waste can help reduce carbon emissions.” The event description explains that “plastics are a massive source of oceans pollution and also contribute to global warming… [so] the event will showcase the importance of responsible trade in plastics, and the environmentally sound management of plastic waste.”
Recycling statistics in Europe
Recently, Eurostat, an open data service run by the European Commission, updated the packaging waste and recycling data for all EU countries, Türkiye, and Norway through 2020. Darrel Moore of the online magazine Circular looked through the new packaging data and found that the average European was responsible for 34.6 kg of plastic packaging waste in 2020, of which 13 kg was recycled (38%). While the volume of plastic packaging sent to recyclers has increased in the last decade by 23%, more waste was actually produced per person (an extra 3.4 kg) due to the ever-increasing volume of packaging on the market.
Eurostat limits recycling volumes to waste likely sent to reputable recyclers, however just because a piece of packaging reaches a recycler does not necessarily mean that packaging item is truly re-cycled into a new piece of packaging (FPF reported). Often plastics are rather downcycled into products that likely cannot be recycled again, for example, plastic grocery bags into park benches or PET bottles into clothing.
Recycling statistics in the US
Looking at plastic packaging recycling in the United States, Greenpeace surveyed all 375 material recycling facilities with curbside recycling in the US and found that only PET and HDPE bottles and jugs fulfilled the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) definition of recyclable, and no plastic packaging fulfilled the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) New Plastics Economy Initiative definition of a recyclable plastic product, which is dependent on the availability of recycling infrastructure and requires effectively recycling at least 30% by volume of a plastic.
The FTC considers an item recyclable when “a ‘substantial majority’ of US residents, defined to be at least 60%,” have access to a recycling facility that collects the product and “that the collected product be used in the manufacturing or assembly of a new item.” The second component is especially important because, according to Greenpeace, sometimes a recycling program will accept a plastic from the community even though that type of plastic will still be thrown away once it reaches the sorting facility. In total, only about 5-6% of plastic packaging in the US gets recycled. In 2021, recycling facilities for PET and HDPE reached 60% of the US population with about 21% of PET and 10% of HDPE volume in the US actually getting recycled.
Reporting by Resource Recycling shared findings from several reports and responses from the American plastics industry, which differ from Greenpeace statistics. “When looking at recycling, the Association of Plastic Recyclers uses the amount of consumer-facing packaging produced. [Association president Steve] Alexander said it appears Greenpeace is using all plastics created as a denominator.”
The association’s 2022 report found that PET, PE, and HDPE “have a 21% recycling rate… [While] the National Association for PET Container Resources report on PET recycling for 2020 found that PET bottles have a 26.6% recycling rate in the US. [And] a separate industry report found a 27.9% recycling rate for natural HDPE bottles and a 34.2% recycling rate for color HDPE bottles in 2019.” It is important to note that while the industry figures are higher than those reported by Greenpeace, all but colored HDPE bottles still do not meet the EMF definition of being recyclable.
In September 2021, the US state of California passed legislation to regulate the use of recyclability labeling in the state. By January 2024, packaging within California can only be labeled “recyclable” or other terms such as “earth friendly,” “environmentally friendly,” “green,” etc. if at least 60% of Californians have access to suitable recycling facilities.
Two technological alternatives are sometimes proposed for dealing with the high volume of plastics in the waste stream – pyrolysis (a type of chemical recycling) and biodegradation. However, Zero Waste Europe and scientists from University College London recently investigated the viability of the two solutions, respectively, and found them to be lacking.
A Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) report published in September 2022 explains that as part of the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive revision, “the European Commission (EC) commissioned Eunomia, a British consulting firm, to consider the possible introduction of recycled content targets for plastic packaging by 2030… Eunomia determined recyclate quantities that must come as outputs from chemical recycling or mechanical recycling.” ZWE calculated carbon emissions from the recycling scenario proposed by Eunomia, along with scenarios for (i) reducing the total volume of plastic packaging, (ii) shifting a higher percentage of packaging to mechanical recycling, and (iii) combining reduction with more mechanical recycling.
Even when using data from life cycle analyses developed by organizations with an interest in supporting chemical recycling, the emissions calculated from mechanical recycling were nine times lower than those from chemical recycling. In all four scenarios, “over 75% of the total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to chemical recycling.” ZWE found that if 30% of the chemical recycling proposed by Eunomia was replaced with mechanical and that was combined with a 20% reduction in plastic production – the result would have 45% lower greenhouse gas emissions that taking Eunomia’s proposal.
Danielle Purkiss and co-authors from University College London organized a citizen science program with over 1600 participants from across the UK tasked with reporting results from attempts to compost plastic at home. “Of the biodegradable and compostable plastics tested under different home composting conditions, the majority did not fully disintegrate, including 60% of those that were certified “home compostable.” On top of the majority of “home compostable” plastics not breaking down, there was also significant misunderstandings made by participants over what types of plastic could be composted, “14% of sampled plastic packaging items tested were certified ‘industrial compostable’ only and 46% had no compostable certification.” Because of the public confusion and lack of degradation even when properly composted, the authors conclude, “home composting is not an effective or environmentally beneficial waste processing method for biodegradable or compostable packaging in the UK.”
Misunderstandings around waste management do not only pertain to compostable and biodegradable plastics. UK waste management company Biffa found that 17% of recycling collected cannot be recycled due to contamination. Contamination can come from recyclable materials being placed in the wrong bin or non-recyclable or food-contaminated items get mixed in. Circular quotes one Biffa spokesperson saying “recycling doesn’t happen by magic,” and for recycling to increase they need businesses and consumers to avoid “wishcycling” – throwing something in the bin because they want it to be recyclable.
These are not the first reports to highlight issues with waste management around plastics (FPF reported, also here). The issue has become common in media coverage and in national and international regulation including the European Union, ASEAN, United States, and Australia. United Nations Member States are currently negotiating an internationally binding treaty to reduce plastic production and pollution (FPF reported).