Yoni Shiran, Programme Director at SYSTEMIQ, tells us why recycling is not the single answer to the plastic pollution dilemma.

Plastic’s low cost, light weight, convenience, durability, and ability to be produced in different colours and shapes have driven its proliferation. As plastic production and use have surged, so too has plastic pollution, and with it the amount of plastic in the ocean,[i] which could already be as high as 150 million tonnes,[ii] - with severe consequences for ecosystems, businesses and communities. An analysis by SYSTEMIQ and The Pew Charitable Trusts, Breaking the Plastic Wave projects that without action, municipal solid waste plastic could double, plastic waste flowing into the ocean could triple and plastic stock in the ocean could quadruple in 20 years.

From across the plastic value chain and government, decision-makers have advocated to ambitiously scale-up the recycling industry, as a means to provide an economic sink for plastic and reduce use of virgin feedstock. Dozens of companies have committed to use 100% recyclable plastic, to use at least 25% recycled content in their products, and to support the scale-up of mechanical recycling and chemical conversion infrastructure in different ways. All of these aim to significantly increase the abysmal global plastic recycling rate, which is currently below 15%.

But while recycling is critically important – and we should absolutely pursue all these measures – we will never recycle our way out of the plastic crisis. In Breaking the Plastic Wave, we estimate that even if we scaled mechanical recycling infrastructure, waste collection infrastructure, design for recycling, and even chemical conversion as ambitiously as we can possibly imagine, globally, and starting immediately, we would still see a 40% increase in plastic pollution relative to today given the rapid growth in plastic production, especially in the Global South where infrastructure is lacking most. Put simply, if we focus solely on recycling, the speed at which we can realistically scale the solution is slower than the growth of the problem.

Several limiting factors are tempering faster growth of recycling. First is the (realistic) rate at which we can scale collection. Closing the global collection gap would require connecting about 500,000 people to collection services per day, every day, until 2040. Most of these people live in middle-to-low-income countries, where funding is least available, and/or in rural areas, where waste collection is more logistically challenging and expensive. Additionally, value chain losses can reach 42% and technical constraints limit mechanical recycling to 3-5 loops (this is before accounting for the challenging economics of recycling, which could be addressed through better policy and R&D). Chemical conversion has similar challenges: first, waste still needs to be collected, and most chemical conversion technologies are not profitable enough to cover collection costs. Besides, chemical conversion also has process losses, cannot process all polymers or highly contaminated waste, and is not economical in many parts of the world.

Breaking the Plastic Wave is not about fighting plastic; it is about fighting plastic pollution. And yet we must recognize that although the scale-up of recycling and waste management is critically needed in many parts of the world and is the cornerstone of a circular economy, these efforts alone will not be enough to stop plastic pollution within budgetary and political constraints at the current levels of plastic production — let alone the expected growth. Even if we could, this scenario would come with a 56% growth in greenhouse gas emissions, a 125% growth in public spending and a 39% growth in private sector costs (after accounting for revenues from recycled plastic) by 2040.

It is therefore essential to couple recycling ambitions with ambitious reduction and substitution measures (while accounting for unintended consequences like carbon emissions of substitutes). Breaking the Plastic Wave estimates that reduction and substitution can offset the expected growth of plastic in the next 20 years, leaving recycling with the ‘simple’ task of scaling sufficiently to deal with today’s plastic volumes.

[i] C. Ostle et al., “The Rise in Ocean Plastics Evidenced From a 60-Year Time Series,” Nature Communications 10 (2019), http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09506-1.

[ii] J.R. Jambeck et al., “Plastic Waste Inputs From Land Into the Ocean,” Science 347, no. 6223 (2015): 768-71, http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1260352.