- Plastics were once considered a revolutionary material that would replace natural, scarce products. It wasn’t until the 1960s that plastic pollution was first recorded in the ocean by scientists studying plankton.
- There are three kinds of recycling — biological, mechanical, and chemical. Most recycling innovations that tout a fully circular model by circulating plastics in an endless loop, merely reinforce our dependence on fossil fuels.
- Over the past decade, industries have shifted the blame for plastic pollution onto consumers. Individual carbon audits, pledges to curb single-use plastics, upcycling and zero-waste lifestyles are being touted as solutions, while petrochemical industries continue with business as usual.
- In January 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MOEFCC) issued the new Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR) rules that specify the quantity of waste to be managed by producers, importers and brand owners who generate plastic packaging waste.
Plastics today are blighted, as their impact on the environment has now been exposed. But it was not always so. In 1869, the first synthetic polymer named celluloid – marked the transition from natural, exploitative products such as ivory, tortoiseshell and horn, to inexpensive, human-manufactured materials. In 1907, the first fully synthetic non-flammable plastic, bakelite, was developed.
During World War II, as the availability of metal, wood, glass, and paper dwindled, plastic production increased. Synthetic plastics offered unimagined advantages over traditional materials. Plastics replaced the bonding agent in the plywood construction of military planes and were used for many aircraft parts. Vinyl plastic-based paints and varnishes provided a protective coating for military craft, both in air and on water. Nylon replaced silk in ropes, parachutes, body armour, and helmet liners. Acrylic sheets also known as plexiglass were used instead of glass in aircraft windows. Buttons, batons, radios, razors, toiletry containers and cockpit housings – plastics were everywhere.
Plastics, with the help of additives, were versatile, durable, affordable and disposable. For all its convenience, the actual cost of plastic on the planet, its biodiversity, and human health hadn’t been calculated.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that plastic pollution was first recorded in the ocean by scientists studying plankton – large plastic gyres or garbage patches were found to be disrupting ecological cycles. Later, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought to attention the adverse effects of synthetic chemicals in the environment. Since then, the media coverage on plastics has exploded.
What are the types of plastic recycling?
The very advantages of plastic have made it difficult to find alternatives for phase out, or recycling of plastics today. Although plastic production occurred at breakneck speed, recycling innovations have been slow and challenging, compounded by the huge variety of plastics in circulation. As per the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 14-18% of global plastic waste is being recycled. Though so many products are recyclable, in truth, most countries lack the infrastructure to do so.
Organisms in soil or water, like microbes, bacteria, fungi and worms, can break down some plastic polymers. In laboratory settings, enzymes have also been shown to break down plastics. After this process is complete, the only by-products are heat, carbon dioxide, and water vapour, with some part of the biopolymer being converted from organic carbon into humus, much like composting.
However, reported instances of biological recycling are incomplete and slow, and at present, can hardly tackle the scale of the problem of plastic pollution. Speeding up these processes or making them more efficient has proven difficult. Even if researchers could optimise and scale them up, they would need to be cost-effective enough to compete with virgin-plastic manufacture and chemical recycling methods.
Waste is collected, sorted, washed, dried, ground up, made into granules or pellets, and compounded. Due to the degradation of quality with every cycle (most plastics can only go through three-seven cycles), mechanical recycling creates a closed loop, with end-result plastics that aren’t suitable for all purposes.
Most chemical recycling methods today follow three routes to treat plastic waste: a) Dissolution which is a process that liquefies the sorted plastic waste using heat or chemical solvents without altering its chemical structure, b) Depolymerisation – a stage that uses different combinations of chemistry, solvents and heat to break down polymers into monomers, and c) Conversion – a process by which mixed plastic waste is broken down into oil- or gas-like feedstock or raw materials, that is then used to produce chemicals including plastics.
In principle, industries claim that chemical recycling results in plastics of similar quality to virgin plastics made from traditional fossil resources. Both mechanical and chemical recycling have their pros and cons. Yet, there has been severe backlash from global environmental organisations against them.
What is circular economy? What is carbon lock-in?
Most recycling innovations seek to address the challenge of plastic pollution by enabling a transition to a fully circular model. The term ‘circular economy’ is often used to promote chemical recycling or breaking down polymers into viable, low-polluting fuel sources, with promises to create an infinitely recyclable loop of virgin plastic, In other words, a circular economy creates a continuous supply chain for plastics. And most plastics are derived from fossil fuels.
Recycling technology that circulates plastics in an endless loop would result in a vicious ‘carbon lock-in’ – where our dependence on fossil fuel resources is continually reinforced through technology (recycling processes), infrastructure (recycling plants), institutions (corporations and government) and behaviour (consumption patterns).
In the past decade, as per a study published in September 2021, oil companies have been investing in fossil-fuelled plastic production at an unprecedented rate, as they have in plastic recycling technology.
For instance, PureCycle Technologies for end-of-life polypropylene was developed by a scientist at Procter & Gamble (P&G), among the world’s top 10 plastic polluting corporations, as per the report ‘The 2021 Global Brand Audit by Break Free From Plastic’. The recycling endeavours of many companies that are also responsible for plastic pollution, have flopped. Claims about chemical recycling have fallen far short of the mark.
In August 2020, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) published a report that investigated the claims of chemical recycling processes and concluded that most processes are severely polluting, energy-intensive, prone to technical failures and release chemical toxins into the environment. Chemical recycling has also not proven to transform unsorted garbage into high-quality fuel and clean plastic resin. If oil is the end product, which needs to be burned for fuel, it doesn’t necessarily curb greenhouse gas emissions or the production of virgin plastic.
What are some of the innovations in recycling?
Between 2010 and 2019, the European Patent Office (EPO) recorded a sharp increase in the patents filed for waste recycling technologies. Over 9,000 patents were filed for chemical recycling technologies with 2,300 more for plastic-to-monomer recycling; 4,500 patents for mechanical recycling; and 1,500 patents for emerging technologies such as biological methods. Worldwide, the US and the EU accounted for 60% of patenting activity in plastic recycling and alternative plastics technologies, with Japan coming in third. With so many recycling patents filed by the Global North, the Global South stands to inherit technologies that may not always be as viable for their economy or environment and may ignore existing infrastructure and systems.
Technology, however, cannot fix the problem of leakages – the pathways by which plastics end up in terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems. “In India, leakages from the recycling sector are huge, often unaddressed, and are not much talked about. Inventorying and mapping material recovery facilities, with respect to plastics is crucial,” says Swati Sambyal, an independent waste management expert. “Where does material flow to after it has been produced? Who collects it once it has served its purpose? Is it collected by an aggregator or via the formal collection system? What value does it have? If it doesn’t have much value, it will be discarded – these rejects form a really large part of the leakages. Only an entire value chain analysis can help determine how eco-friendly or circular the whole recycling system is,” continues Sambyal.
The CounterMeasure projects run under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), funded by the Government of Japan, have partnered with several on-ground organisations to identify leakage pathways of plastics, especially those that end up in the Ganges river in India. Such baseline data will not just inform the action needed to counter plastic pollution, but also the policies that ensure lesser plastic finds its way into our rivers, and ultimately, our oceans.
Who is responsible for recycling plastic waste?
Over the past decade, industries have shifted the blame for plastic pollution onto consumers and their throwaway mentalities. Individual carbon audits, pledges to curb single-use plastics, upcycling and zero-waste lifestyles are being touted as solutions, while petrochemical industries continue with business as usual. While individual choice and habits are important in addressing the problem, the change also needs to start with businesses and corporations.
The answer does not lie in producing more disposable, recyclable packaging, nor in addressing plastics at the end of their lifecycle but in rethinking the very materials we use.
In 2016, India followed in the footsteps of many countries and expanded its first Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR) framework to hold producers accountable for their plastic production and packaging.
On the 18th January, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MOEFCC) issued the new EPR rules that specify the quantity of waste to be managed by producers, importers and brand owners who generate plastic packaging waste. It also mandates that producers of plastic packaging materials operating in India must collect all of their produce by 2024. The implementation of this policy is believed to be a mammoth challenge.
However, the EPR framework is a step in the right direction. If local administrations push for compliance, companies commit to finding plastic-free alternatives, and consumers strive to make better choices, there might be a chance to turn the tide on plastics in the years to come.
Read more: [Explainer] Where the plastic things are: unexpected plastic products in our lives
Banner image: Only 9% of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. Plastics have a lower recycling value compared to other materials such as glass, metal, cloth and paper. Photo by Hans Braxmeier/Pixabay.