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Plastic Recycling is Fail – Here’s How the World Must Respond



Disclosure Statement

Cressida Bowyer receives funding from UK Research and Innovation and Flotilla Foundation

Keiron Roberts is funded by UNEP, Innovate UK, and Research England

Stephanie Northen received funding from the Flotilla Foundation.


The University of Portsmouth is a member of The Conversation UK and provides funding.

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Recycling plastics was once thought to be the solution for the excess of virgin (or new) plastics produced every year. This is not realistic any more. The global recycling capacity cannot keep pace with the consumption, production, and waste of natural resources.

As wealthy nations like the UK export their recycling abroad, mountains of plastic waste accumulate in poorer countries. Some nations import more plastic waste than they can recycle.

Recycling itself can also cause problems. A report from Greenpeace and International Pollutants Elimination Network reveals how toxic chemicals in plastics, like flame retardants or plastics that have come into contact with them, can contaminate recycling processes by spreading the toxins to subsequent batches of waste plastic. A recent study revealed that recycling plants can release hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of microplastics each year into the environment.

Only 6-9% has been recycled. In most countries, plastics and other waste are collected for recycling. However, only a small amount is recycled into similar or identical products. This is known as closed-loop recycling. Only 2 % of plastic waste is recycled and is not downcycled into a lower-quality product. Recycling cannot replace virgin materials as they can only be recycled twice without losing their necessary properties. Most recycling produces downgraded materials which can’t be used for the original purpose.

The majority of plastic waste is thrown away. EPA-EFE/Sedat Suna

In order to be more sustainable, it is important to take action earlier in the life cycle of plastic products. This means reducing the amount of plastic that’s made at each stage and reusing existing plastic or replacing it with other materials.

Reduce the amount of money you spend

To reduce the amount of plastic entering the economy, manufacturers must stop producing so much. It is not a good idea to make plastics that are difficult to collect, reuse, recycle, or that are toxic. They are everywhere: multi-layered sachets and thin films, for example. They should be eliminated as a matter of priority.

Global Caps could limit plastic production to recyclable products and packaging. This would reduce the pressure placed on recycling systems.

If you can afford it, choose alternatives to single-use packaging. You can choose loose vegetables or products that are packaged in reusable packaging.

Retailers should make it easy for customers to fill up containers. Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock


By using the plastic that you already own for as long as possible, it reduces the need for new packaging and products. It also reduces how much waste needs to be sent for recycling.

Around 250 billion single-use cups are used globally each year. This figure could be reduced by setting up national mandates to encourage the use of reusable bottles and cups. This could include shops and cafes providing reusable packages for any products they sell and ensuring each is used, tracked, and washed before returning it.


There are alternatives to plastic, such as metals, glass, or paper, but they do not offer a sustainable solution. The best material to use depends on what the item is used for.

To ensure that any material does more harm than good, it should be evaluated rigorously throughout its life cycle. Such assessments should include all social, economic, and environmental costs.

Read more: Ranked: the environmental impact of five different soft drink containers.

The actual cost of making, distributing, and disposing of plastic is estimated to be more than ten times greater than what the customer pays for the product. Including the hidden costs of environmental damage and human misery arising from pollution in the price of virgin plastic, by taxing manufacturers or retailers, for instance, could boost the economic case for alternatives.

Recycling is still useful.

Medical devices are not all recyclable. Recycling material keeps it in the economy when all other alternatives are exhausted and delays the need to make more virgin plastic. Recycling is essential, but it shouldn’t be a reason to make more plastic.

Recycling should not pollute. Plastics must be made in a way that can be safely and cleanly recycled by manufacturers. Toxic additives should be banned. Simple labels help consumers to make informed decisions on how, where, and what they want to reuse or recycle. This will help avoid recycling loads being contaminated by non-recyclable wastes and toxic substances.

Plastics that are sent to be recycled should be handled in a socially and ecologically responsible manner. The high-income countries that export waste to the poorer countries to be recycled at a cheaper price do so without ensuring there is infrastructure to manage it where it ends. This leads to waste leakage into the environment and toxic plastics blocking drainage channels and floodingis burned outside, which has its own health and environmental risks. A ban or restriction on export could help.

The Ebrie Lagoon is polluted in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. EPA-EFE/Legnan Koula

Workers in the informal sector of the waste sort, sell, and collect recyclable materials. They are responsible for 60% of global recycling. The knowledge of waste reclaimers is valuable and should be recognized. We need policies to protect their right and to improve their livelihood.

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Jane S. King

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