Why Recycling is not the answer to Plastic Waste

Plastic is intrinsic in many aspects of our lives. It is present in the toys we buy our kids, in the packaging of our favorite foods and drinks, and the clothes on our backs – it’s hard to avoid but undeniably useful.

Our affinity with plastics arose during World War two, when the need for lightweight and flexible materials grew. Since then, the world has adopted the single-use plastic lifestyle so many of us live today.

But, the detriments of plastic cannot be ignored.  

The most understood detriment of plastic is that it is hard to breakdown, taking anywhere from 500 to 1000 years. The results of this can be abhorrent.

Many people will have seen the videos of turtles with straws up their noses, or photos of marine life with plastic rings around their bodies, or pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which covers an area of 1.6 million square kilometres. This is only part of the story.

Micro-plastics have become a growing concern with estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. This doesn’t not only have dire implications for marine life, it also impacts the quality of our food.

Marine life that ingest plastic can often exhibit high levels of toxins and as these travel up the food chain it becomes more concentrated. This is called biomagnification and it presents a real problem for our next indulgence of fish and chips.

Recycling has long been seen to be the silver bullet solution. To simply place your plastics into a bin to be dealt with at arms-length is brilliant, but we were blind to what was really happening to our plastic waste.

China jolted us back to sense in 2018 when they announced they were effectively banning to imports of recyclable materials.

The State of Play in Australia

China’s announcement that it would no longer accept recyclable material (including plastic) with a contamination level over 0.5 per cent exposed Australia’s lack of recycling infrastructure.

Australia’s average level of plastics contamination sits between 6 and ten per cent. This meant we could no longer export our “recyclable material” to China, resulting in it ending up in landfill or in massive warehouse stockpiles.

Over the past two years state governments, the Federal Government  and industry have begun implementing changes in recycling practices and have looked to invest in the recycling industry. However, China’s ban on imported plastics has exposed how hard it is to properly manage the amount of plastic we are producing.

An important question you might be thinking is why did China decide stop accepting contaminated recyclables?

As touched on earlier, plastics that are not recycled take a long time to breakdown and the micro-plastics that often enter our ecosystems have a detrimental impact on the health of our natural ecosystems and our own health.

The truth was, that China was not recycling most of the plastic that was imported, instead the plastics that were too difficult to process were either burnt or were dumped in landfill.

What had once been a mutually beneficial relationship between China and much of the world soon turned. China no longer needed the worlds plastic as it produced enough itself. China also sought to minimise the health and environmental impacts of contaminated waste on its natural ecosystems and people.

It is worthwhile acknowledging that other countries, particularly in South East Asia, have accepted imports of other countries plastic waste, but this has merely shifted the problem. The environmental degradation that was happening in China is now happening continues to occur in countries like India and Indonesia.

Why plastic waste is so complicated to recycle

Many of us will have seen the recycling symbol on our everyday packaging. But what we don’t realise is that this means the packaging is only technically recyclable.

The sobering fact is that only nine per cent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. There are two main reasons why plastics are not being recycled:

The impact of COVID-19

A silver lining of the Corona Virus pandemic has been the reduction in Co2 emissions, which helps in the battle against climate change. The same cannot be said of plastic waste consumption.

A rise in single use plastics and packaging has been on the rise globally. For example, during the peak of the pandemic in Italy, authorities reported an 8 per cent increase in plastic waste, citing online shopping as a chief influence.

Growth in online shopping has also occurred in Australia, but the demand of single-use plastic can also be seen in the forced change to single-use coffee cups and an increased demand in medical equipment.

Some of this increase in plastic waste is unavoidable, but there are still ways we can all limit our reliance on plastic.

A Plastic Free Solution?

With China no longer willing to take our plastic waste and governments trying to play catch-up, a lot of the burden will fall to us – the consumers and retailers.

To draw on the well-versed phrase “reduce, re-use, recycle”, instead of focusing all our efforts on recycling, we should firstly be focusing our efforts to reduce and re-use.

The growing presence of keeper cups for our morning coffees was a prime example of the power of awareness and shows how willing people are to get behind the cause – peer pressure at its finest.

At Unpackaged Eco, we want to be part of this plastic free revolution and we’d love it if you could jump on board and support companies, such as ours, to be part of the refill movement. We’ve started with plastic free cleaning products, and this is just the beginning.

Whether it is bringing your own refillable packaging for your weekly shopping trip, buying unpackaged cleaning products, or going plastic free in your store, we can all make a difference.

If you’re interested to learn more about the benefits of reducing your plastic consumption, and running an eco friendly home, stay tuned. In the meantime, check out some of our refillable and planet-friendly cleaning products available on our website.

Written by Jack Ryan