In the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometres from the nearest landmass, trillions of pieces of plastic – mostly microscopic, and often decades old – have been brought together by circulating ocean currents. This giant accumulation of plastic waste, known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, stands as a monument to humanity’s reckless disregard for our planet.
The disastrous impact of plastic waste on the oceans and other habitats have begun to be widely recognised in recent years. Items such as plastic bags, fishing nets and six-pack rings can strangle, choke or drown marine life. Animals also confuse plastic for food; their carcasses are often found washed ashore with stomachs full of plastic junk. Less well understood are microplastics and nanoplastics, which are ingested by almost all animals, including humans, with uncertain physiological consequences.
“The number-one priority should be increased and effective sorting infrastructure… especially for films and flexibles”
While there are many reasons why plastic ends up in the oceans, there is no doubt that a far larger share of plastics could be reused or recycled than is currently the case. Recycling cannot, by itself, solve the crisis. But investment in new infrastructure for collecting, sorting and recycling plastic waste is an important part of the solution.
Supply and demand challenges
A 2017 study found that 90 percent of all plastic in the oceans is flushed through just 10 river systems, eight of which are in Asia. However, the causes of plastic pollution are much more global.
Developed countries have several options for disposing of plastic, ranging from burying it in landfill sites to burning it in energy-from-waste facilities, as well as recycling waste into new products. However, a lack of recycling capacity means the most economical option is often to export the waste to handlers in Asia and Africa.
“The moment that you export plastic waste, you actually do not know what’s happening to it,” warns Irene Hofmeijer, head of the plastics practice at South Pole, a sustainability consultancy.
She notes that when waste is exported to countries lacking effective waste management systems, there is a high risk that the waste will end up in dump sites, from where it may enter the oceans.
Experts point to the need to scale up plastics recycling infrastructure, especially for types of plastic that are currently more difficult and expensive to recycle.
“The number-one priority should be increased and effective sorting infrastructure… especially for films and flexibles,” says Adam Herriott, a sector specialist in resource management at WRAP, an environmental NGO. “We also need to develop the ability and technology to remove plastics from the residual waste stream, as well as more reprocessing capacity across all formats, including films and tray-to-tray recycling.”
The other side of the coin is that there needs to be consumer demand for recycled products. There are some positive signs on this front. As awareness of plastic pollution has grown, several major beverage manufacturers have pledged to significantly increase the share of recycled plastics in their packaging.
“We’re seeing a lot of industries move away from virgin plastics and toward recycled plastics,” says Graham Rihn, founder and chief executive of RoadRunner Recycling, a US-based firm that has raised almost $130 million from venture capital and private equity investors. “This has led large production companies to seek out materials to increase the amount of recycled content within their products.
“As consumer demand for environmentally responsible products ramps up, the more likely it is that the plastics industry will adapt.”
A tipping point
Channelling investment into plastics recycling infrastructure is far from straightforward, however. Lucy Mortimer, a partner at Archipelago Eco Investors, which manages the Future of Plastics Fund, notes that venture capital investors have a key role to play in supporting “fascinating” new technologies that can help with the collection and sorting of plastic waste.
However, she points out that “most of those technologies aren’t beyond their first pilot plant yet. They can’t get debt finance; they can’t get a massive amount of traditional growth capital”.
Mortimer predicts there will ultimately be a tipping point where recycling technologies demonstrate that they can be scaled up and start to receive more significant financial backing.
In the meantime, however, she warns that municipalities responsible for household waste collection are often locked into long-term contracts with waste handlers. “The waste handlers, without an increased mandate, have no economic rationale to push for increased recycling of materials that are hard to recycle.”
At its heart, the crisis of plastics pollution represents a market failure. In the absence of regulation, companies that produce plastic products and packaging can effectively pass the costs of managing the eventual waste onto municipal governments – which often do not have the financial resources or expertise to ensure the waste is properly recycled.
Stronger government oversight of plastics, combined with a ramping-up of private investment into new facilities, offers the best hope for improved recycling and reuse of plastics. Policymakers are taking at least some steps in the right direction. Tighter international rules on the shipments of plastic waste have already come into force. A proposed EU regulation would impose requirements for some products to contain a certain percentage of recycled materials. And the UN aims to negotiate a legally binding treaty on plastic waste by 2024.
But recycling alone is not enough to solve our plastic problem. It is impossible to look at the plastic pollution crisis without reaching the conclusion that much of the plastic ending up in the ocean should never have been manufactured in the first place. A large share of plastic waste comes from items that are designed to be thrown away after a single use, even though they may take centuries to decompose. Much of these single-use plastics are not even needed. “Plastic packaging is unnecessary for the vast majority of fresh uncut produce,” says Herriott.
Greater investment into improved recycling infrastructure must be accompanied by new business models for producing consumer goods that currently rely on plastic packaging. Without both elements, there is no way societies can continue to reap the benefits of plastics without inflicting grave harm on the planet’s ecosystems.