Plastic recycling failures prove it should be the packaging of last resort


Here we go again with plastic recycling. I’ve just read another plea on behalf of the plastics industry that their materials are great for the environment if “the right material selection, design, and end-of-life approach is adopted.”

Therein lies the rub.

Glass, steel and aluminium are simple to recycle and the consumer knows what to do with them. It is also pretty straightforward to recycle paper and board, with some exceptions.

The demise of so many previous plastic recycling ventures illustrate the problem. What happened to the UK’s Closed Loop Recycling company and this Reuters report on a US failure are just two of many examples.

For the end user, sorting all the different kinds of plastics is confusing, time-consuming and “just how many bags do I need to store this stuff?” If this is left to the processors, only a small fraction of all the available plastic can be recycled and the system soon becomes uneconomic. More will end up in the sea or in landfill/

no plastic recycling - bottle on beach

All of which means the right end-of-life approach seems at best a solution for niche materials, at worst an unachievable goal. The result is more landfill, more incineration, more leaching, more pollution.

In California, the Attorney General has had enough. Rob Bonta claims, “For more than half a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.” He has launched a state investigation into the petro-chemical industry.

Better than plastic recycling

There is a better way.

Let’s not shilly-shally around with endless ‘it’s great if all these caveats are satisfied’ articles.

The priorities are clear.

·       Reduce – more bulk filling and refill stations

·       Reuse – more returnable rather than one-trip packaging

·       Recycle – choose materials, especially the ‘endless materials’, for which clear, economic and sustainable recycling schemes already exist

Do I see a world in which we have no plastic packaging? No. For some applications, it remains the best, indeed the only practical, option.

But I see new plastic packaging as a choice of last resort. Once we look at it in that way, we simplify the need for plastic to a small stream of materials and uses. We should be able to put systems in place to deal with this.

Then we relentlessly focus on ways to drive down the carbon impact of the original manufacture and transport of whatever packaging we do require to meet the needs of consumers around the world.

If you want to join me in this quest, I’d love to hear from you. And if you’d like regular updates on corporate reputation and ethical PR, subscribe to Lucidity, 360’s monthly newsletter.

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