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The Plastics Recycling Challenge

By EarthX Stories posted 04-02-2020 15:00


The recycling industry radically changed in March 2018 when China stopped taking plastic waste from the U.S. And it’s not just China refusing trash from the U.S. Last summer CNN reported that over 1,600 tons of plastic trash in 83 shipping containers labeled “recyclable products” ended up in Cambodia and were immediately turned around and shipped back to the U.S. and Canada.

"Cambodia is not a dustbin where foreign countries can dispose of out-of-date e-waste, and the government also opposes any import of plastic waste and lubricants to be recycled in this country," Neth Pheaktra, Secretary of State and Spokesman to the Ministry of Environment, told CNN.

After having East Asian countries as a destination for waste, including plastic recyclables, for 25 years, the U.S. recycling industry is facing challenges. The plastics industry itself contributes to the issue as many – if not most -- plastic manufacturers won’t use recycled plastic, and many plastic products could be designed with recycling in mind but simply aren’t.

Because the process around shipping recyclable plastic waste out of the country is not longer feasible and the current domestic market for recycled plastic is so low, one result is a reduction in curbside recycling which in turn leads to recyclables ending up landfills, plastics being toxically incinerated, and more new plastic being created rather than recycled and reused.

Another issue is many plastics simply are not recyclable. A Greenpeace reportfrom February 2020 found many plastic pollution items are labeled as recyclable, but are actually aren’t because they include elements such as shrink sleeves that render then un-recyclable.

“This survey confirms what many news reports have indicated since China restricted plastic waste imports two years ago — that recycling facilities across the country are not able to sort, sell, and reprocess much of the plastic that companies produce,” said Jan Dell, independent engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, in a statement.

The problem is big, but help is on the way

The numbers around plastic waste are daunting. In 2018 alone the plastics industry discharged 128 million pounds of plastic pollutants into U.S. waterways, a figure that includes around 78,000 pounds of cancer-causing chemicals. Water-borne plastic waste is so ubiquitous it’s found throughout the world’s oceans. In early 2020, a new species of shrimp-like crustacean found in the Mariana Trench was given the name Eurythenes plasticus in recognition that one was recovered with a 0.65-millimeter microfiber of plastic in its stomach.

“We decided on the name Eurythenes plasticus as we wanted to highlight the fact that we need to take immediate action to stop the deluge of plastic waste into our oceans,” said Alan Jamieson, head of the research mission, in a statement.

Steps are being taken to address the issue of plastic pollution and recycling. The Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit in February 2020 against ten companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Procter & Gamble claiming those enterprises pollute waterways, coasts and oceans with their massive plastic packaging output. A recent study found Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Nestle alone account for 14% of plastic pollution worldwide.

“The products that we are targeting in our lawsuit are contained in plastic packaging that is designed to be used for a short period of time, sometimes just a few minutes. And yet, this packaging pollutes our bodies from one generation to the next, and our planet for centuries,” said Earth Island’s General Counsel Sumona Majumdar in a statement.

Beyond legal action, technological innovation in chemical and solvent-based recycling is making inroads into the plastics recycling issue at its core. Both processes break PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic waste down into an end product with virgin plastic-like quality for use in manufacturing. Chemical- and solvent-based plastic recycling is already occurring in the U.S. and Europe. Recycling innovation is also tapping leading-edge tech like robotics and artificial intelligence to improve tasks like sorting material in recycling facilities.

The challenge of plastic pollution and recycling doesn’t have easy answers. And previous solutions, such as shipping plastic waste to other countries for recycling is no longer an option. What is a source of hope is there are groups taking legal action and pursuing innovative solutions to meet the challenge.anna-auza-LctoBGY6cR8-unsplash.jpg



04-22-2020 11:13

I'm glad shipping plastic overseas is no longer an option. We've taken the 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude for too long. If we're faced with this urgent problem then there might be quicker solutions.

04-21-2020 12:01

I would like to give a shout-out to Balcones Resources, a private family-owned recycling/shredding business based in Texas (but also operating in Arkansas). I took a site tour a few years ago. At the time, plastic items were more valuable to "recycle" than glass bottles, for instance.

Just a thought - could manufacturers switch to making more "plastic" items from glass, instead? I know glass is heavier, but all those lipstick and cosmetic containers, spiffy designer travel mugs, disposable utensils and the like potentially be made of glass instead of plastic (with the proper engineering)? Well, you never know. 

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