Waste myth #9: Increasing plastic recycling is the best way to reduce plastic pollution. It isn’t.
By Mike Ritchie, Director, MRA Consulting Group
Stopping plastic pollution is a four-legged chair – better recycling, bans, pollution enforcement and international aid.
Plastics are a key part of our society. They add enormous value to our way of life. Just think medical equipment, vehicles, desks, kitchen utensils, packaging, light switches etc. Plastics are everywhere and make life better in most applications.
The biggest problem with plastic is not its use but the fact that plastic (and particularly single use packaging plastic) escapes the economy into the environment. Plastics are a scourge in the environment. Think sea birds, turtles, polluted beaches etc.Tweet
There are two myths I wish to address:
- Recycling is the only way to reduce plastic pollution; and
- Landfilling plastic causes harm.
Myth – Recycling is the only way to reduce plastic pollution
We currently use 3.5 million tonnes of plastic per year. About 2.5 MT of this arises as waste each year. Of that only 16% is recycled.
Most of the recycling is drink bottles (soft drinks and milk bottles) and commercial plastic in the form of pallet wrap and agricultural film plastics. In total that is about 400,000 t of recycling. (Of this REDcycle collected about 7000t/yr; hardly a blip.)
On the pollution side of things WWF suggests that 130,000 t of the 3.5 million tonnes ends up as plastic pollution per year.
So the question is “Do we believe that if we grow plastic recycling rates, that this in itself could/would reduce the 130,000 that is being littered or illegally dumped?”
I think the link is pretty weak and the only link I know of between recycling and litter is CDS (Container Deposit Schemes).
Container Deposit Schemes provide a cash rebate to recover eligible containers. The NSW CDS for example has resulted to a 52% reduction in littering of eligible containers (plastic drink bottles in this case).
But according to the NSW EPA, CDS container litter accounts for only 5.2% of total litter volume.
So even if we could eliminate drink container litter it would have a marginal effect on total litter.
It goes without saying that we should do this. Every gain is a gain, and we should strive to increase diversion:
- Better recycling
If we increased the container rebate from 10c to 20c we would likely reduce eligible container littering even more (capture more than the current 52%).
But it doesn’t fix the other litter – chip packets, plastic bags, thongs, fishing nets, cups etc.
We could expand CDS schemes to cover more plastic packaging (e.g. cups and plates, fishing nets etc) and where feasible we should also do that.
Governments are now driving recycling rates upwards which is excellent. Higher landfill levies, design rules for products, labelling mandates, grants for infrastructure and recycling targets.
But my main point is that (other than CDS cash rebates for collection), it is hard to see how higher recycling rates per se, could have more than an indirect effect on littering and illegal dumping rates.
An important part of the puzzle, but insufficient by itself.
In the last 4 years State Governments have begun selectively banning avoidable or substitutable single use plastics (shopping bags, polystyrene cups, polystyrene clam shells etc).
We need to ramp up these bans significantly.
Here is my hit list: all formed polystyrene (the stuff surrounding your new TV when it is delivered), bead polystyrene, fruit stickers, wet wipes, sunglass cleaners, helium and water balloons, single use cutlery and take-away food containers.
Banning these products will materially reduce plastic pollution.
- Pollution enforcement
We need to address the escape to the environment head on. It is too easy to litter or illegally dump in Australia and get away with it.
It took the NSW EPA four separate prosecutions of the same bloke to get its first jail sentence for illegal dumping (he dumped asbestos waste outside a kindergarten).
It is too easy to litter with impunity.
Our penalty regime is pathetic.
Singapore for example does not have a domestic littering or plastic pollution problem. The reasons are simple. They do not accept littering as part of their culture. We do. We are timid.
NSW has the “Don’t be a Tosser” campaign which tries to shame people into doing the right thing. Ok but not nearly enough. It is the sort of nice education campaign you have when you don’t have real powers to enforce.
Here is a comparison of like-for-like penalties in Singapore vs Australia (averages; in Au $):
- Singapore – First offence $2,000; Second $4,000; Third $10,000.
- Australia $80-250.
- Littering from a vehicle:
- Singapore – up to $50,000 (or up to 1 year in jail).
- Australia $250-500.
- Illegal dumping:
- Singapore – First offence $50,000. Second offence $100,000 and mandatory jail sentence of up to 1 year.
- Australia $7,500-15,000.
You get the picture.
- International Aid
Australia is relatively well placed to manage plastic pollution. We have sophisticated waste collection systems, well run landfills (by and large), expanding recycling systems, an enforcement system (that could work if it had the right penalty arrangements), and governments now recognising that plastic pollution cannot continue.
That is not true of most developing countries. The lack of waste management collection systems is the key problem. That is easily remedied with money. Australia should prioritise its aid program toward developing waste collection systems.
It is worth reinforcing that it is the collection that is important. Whether the resultant waste is recycled or landfilled is a secondary consideration at this time (see discussion below).
MRA does a lot of work in the Pacific. If Pacific nations were provided decent funding, most could develop robust collection and disposal systems (including recycling), to greatly reduce plastic pollution. This is no less true in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Myth – Landfilling plastic causes significant harm
Which brings me to the myth that landfilling plastic is pollution.
Politicians and the media regularly conflate plastic pollution (littering in the environment) with landfilling. For example, “Over 80% of Australia’s plastic is polluted or gets dumped in landfill!”. True but misleading.
Plastic in landfill is not pollution. It causes no harm. It causes no greenhouse gas emissions. It causes little or no leachate. It slowly decomposes into microplastic but even these are entombed. A properly run landfill can dispose of plastic safely.
Yes, landfilling plastic is a waste of resources (oil and gas) but even that is pretty small. Plastics manufacture consumes about 7% of oil and natural gas, globally.
To put it another way, if all plastic used in the economy could be safely disposed to landfill and none escaped to the environment, then our plastic challenges would be greatly diminished.
To be clear, recycling is generally better than landfilling from a life-cycle perspective. We should always recycle it where it is viable and sensible. But we must stop conflating landfilling with pollution. They are not the same thing.
It is the escape of plastic to the environment that is the real and most urgent problem that we need to solve.
To fix plastic pollution we need to focus on the problem. Pollution. So here are my remedies:
- Improve recycling generally but particularly expand the scope and rebate value of CDS type systems to reduce littering;
- Ban single use plastic products that are common in litter and pollution;
- Strengthen enforcement and significantly increase penalties as a deterrent; and
- Provide Aid to support waste collection systems in developing countries.
We need to stop confusing pollution, recycling and landfilling. They are different. If we want to address the scourge of plastic pollution, we need to address it head on.
Mike Ritchie is the Managing Director at MRA Consulting Group.
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