The system of recycling is not a sustainable one. It has failed a number of times because of the multiple drawbacks.
If you think that the plastic you consume is getting recycled, you might be living under a rock. If it’s really high-end plastic, then it could be a possibility. Otherwise, we are still guilty of causing landfills and pollution.
The plastics industry tried to convince people for a long time that their products are recyclable, which is apparently not the actual case. This whole fiction was put to an end by China and the World Trade Organisation in 2017.
For more than 25 years, many countries, including the U.S., have been sending massive amounts of plastic waste to China instead of recycling it on their own. Some 106 million metric tons — about 45% — of the world’s plastics set for recycling have been exported to China since reporting to the United Nations Comtrade Database began in 1992.
The most valuable stuff was sorted and sold domestically, the valueless stuff was exported to where it had value in China, and the stuff with a negative value was sent to the landfill.
The World Trade Organisation banned the import of all sorts of plastic in China. As a result, the country’s 2018 plastic import volume dropped 99% compared to 2017. China has employed people to sort plastics on the basis of size and density.
The labour was made to do everything manually as machines were unable to achieve the level of accuracy required in sorting. The labour was hired on minimum wages for such a complex task.
The massive, global industry quite literally ended overnight. The import of these products was creating a serious environmental and public health problem. The sorting facility of China would often illegally dump the portion of the plastics that even they couldn’t profitably recover, creating an environmental problem.
Even though it looked like plastic recycling was profitable once the externalities were priced in, it once again became clear that plastic recycling was not, in fact, a viable system.
Medium value plastics are more profitable to make from scratch than from reclaimed material. That’s why the world’s recycling system broke. That puts the plastic industry back where it was in 1969.
When companies can’t make a profit recycling, it doesn’t happen, or at least not at the rates needed to make the plastic industry sustainable. A big chunk of what went into the recycling bin ended up not getting recycled. Consumers and municipal leaders were happy because they believed that the plastic they consumed was guilt-free
Though some scientists are working to develop an enzyme that can eat plastic in a matter of days, the recycling problem is not a technical one. Recycling is not the proper key. We need to come up with a truly sustainable option. But for now, we ought to reduce the consumption of plastic until we find a permanent solution.