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Plastic recycling: the problems and solutions

Janet Schultze
Written by
Janet Schultze
/ Published on
June 19, 2023
Plastic recycling problems and solutions

In both mainstream news and trade journal news, single use plastics reduction and improving recycling are constantly making headlines.  Most recently, the global plastics treaty talks in Paris have brought the issue of global complexity to the forefront.  While it is evident that excessive plastics waste and increased use of petrochemicals to create this eventual waste needs to be addressed in many ways, there is no easy plan to be agreed upon and then carried out globally. As a consequence, in this blog, we will elaborate on the problems and solutions of plastic recycling.

What causes global recycling complexity?

It was reported that the treaty talks broke down over the subject of capping production of virgin plastic resins. This could potentially cause a host of other problems, among them a slowing of economic growth and many ruined businesses. The fact is that we live in a very diverse world, with varying needs and resources as it relates here to plastics use, material alternatives and resource management. For example, sachets, mostly non-recyclable multilayer flexible packages, are quite common in Asia due to the lack of money and storage space to purchase personal care and cleaning products in larger packages.  Banning them is not a workable solution and recycling is difficult, although there are businesses working to make recycling these a reality.  In the USA, single use shopping bags and beverages, including water, are at the top of the complaints list. Americans are on the go, demand many beverage choices and are able to pay for them, so single serve bottles deliver production and distribution efficiencies in that regard.  We shop in different types of retail outlets, and apparently demand a lot of bags, which require little material and energy to produce.  What works in one country or region will be problematic in others. And who are we to tell other countries how much plastic they should have and how their citizens should change their behavior? Even within a country, there won’t be agreement on taking a hard stance on banning certain types of plastics and forcing change on manufacturers and consumers.  

Effective recycling methods

The solution is a value change that will be implemented in incremental improvements, all along the supply chain. The top of the chain is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which is a policy tool making producers legally and financially responsible for mitigating the environmental impacts of their products and packaging. While there are some programs in effect already, powerful CPG companies fight against this, and it discourages upstart competitors from entering the markets. There are considerations about this. Is it really Coca Cola’s fault that they are offering what consumers demand in single serve beverages? Is it their fault that consumers litter some bottles and throw some in the trash instead of recycle them? Recycling is not feasible everywhere. Also, studies by ABC News and nonprofit organization The Last Beach Cleanup, among others, have demonstrated that at least several retailers’shopping bag recycling collection bags go to landfills, incinerators, third world countries and waste transfer stations that do not recycle. And the proposed solution is to ban those bags altogether. People who don’t use Keurig K-Cups believe K-Cups should be banned.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are helping to create incremental improvements. Recently, companies have introduced recycling of PVC pipe that can be used as home siding, decking and other products, as well as methods and small processing sites of recycling multi-layer flexible sachet packs and pouches. Chemical recycling has been recently introduced on a large scale to recycle post-consumer plastic into usable resin that is a higher grade than typical post-consumer recycled material.


Plastic recycling problems across different industries

CPG’s are constantly looking for sustainability improvements, which include reducing carbon footprint, reducing transport costs, using less material, using recycled materials and eliminating unnecessary packaging, so long as it presents the brand, protects the product, is able to properly dispense and reclose if applicable, and withstand an appropriate number of openings.  On the other hand, pharmaceutical and healthcare companies are increasing their use of plastics, while improving patient outcomes with advanced medical devices and allowing patients to treat themselves and avoiding visits to a doctor’s office. While this causes more products like injection pens and syringes to end up in a landfill, it delivers a significant cost improvement to healthcare and improved patient outcomes. This trend will not be reversed and patients can continue to expect more self-care at home as medical technology advances.

How to encourage plastic recycling?

The recycling rate is low in part due to its unavailability in many areas and limited capabilities. Additionally, companies continue to produce polystyrene containers for packaged foods, food service items and protective packaging, which, although it is inexpensive and lightweight, is very limited in its recyclability. One way to improve the recyclability rate and effectiveness is to do a better job at the collection sites in terms of sorting so that fewer mixed material bales will be created and sent to processors of mixed materials, which has a lower value and demand than bales of single materials that will be recycled into something of higher value.  If more single plastic can be sorted, bundled and reprocessed, it would have the potential to reduce the use of virgin plastic resins.

Reducing virgin plastic use and improving post-consumer recycled materials is very important in our global environment. The way we do it is very complex. The entire lifecycle must be considered, as well as the alternatives and the locations, the business and people on earth that will be impacted. Our natural resources are priceless and irreplaceable.

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