Plastic usage took off in the 1950s when it was introduced as a durable packaging solution for food and other products, but its greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. A robust material, its inability to break-down and biodegrade has meant that it is left to take up space in landfills, or worse, make its way out into the wider world to pollute our environment and the surrounding oceans. Shockingly, only around 9% of the world's plastic has been recycled since 1950 due to a variety of factors including lack of facilities and the unsuitability of many plastics to even go through the recycling process. So why isn't more packaging recyclable?
"In Britain alone, around 27 million tonnes of waste is thrown away per year with only about 45% of that reported to be recycled, but in reality, that number is far smaller."
Lacking Infrastructure Recycling is undoubtedly a critical process, and we still need to encourage it, but it is by no means the be-all and end-all of sustainability. In Britain alone, around 27 million tonnes of waste is thrown away per year with only about 45% of that reported to be recycled, but in reality, that number is far smaller. Britain itself lacks a great deal of recycling infrastructure and so sends large amounts of its waste plastic abroad with nearly 2/3rds of that ending up in China, and large quantities making its way to Indonesia and other parts of South-East Asia. The problem with this is that this system is very, very fallible.
The Flaws In What We Do Have So why don't we do more to invest in recycling? There is more than just one simple answer. Many items are considered too small to be processed by mass recycling plants, deemed too fiddly, time-consuming and expensive to sort. These items fall through the system only to be buried in a landfill, burned for energy (which in itself causes air pollution) or just left to clog up the oceans. Many recycling centres also sort plastic by bouncing a beam of light off of them, but this can lead to dark or black coloured plastics unable to be classified, as they absorb light. As such, they are just thrown away. The cosmetics industry is particularly problematic for this with many smaller items and coloured containers not getting sorted. It also has a problem with products containing microplastics, such as glitter or microbeads, which can not be recycled at all, and often get into the water supply and, subsequently, the oceans.
Sending It Across The World Because of this expense and lack of commitment to recycling, many wealthier nations send their waste to be recycled in countries where it is cheaper to do so but this raises even more issues. For one thing, transporting waste uses large amounts of energy, often from fossil fuels that, in themselves, pollute the environment. But the major issue is less so, how it gets there but what happens to it when it arrives. At present, there are not enough adequate checks to make sure this plastic is actually recycled, and often it just ends up in a landfill or the ocean after being shipped to the other side of the world.
Sending The Rubbish Back Many of these nations that previously accepted this waste are now no longer prepared to do so, aware that it is starting to damage their own environments and land. Indonesia and Malaysia have both returned shipments of waste back to the UK, and other countries, after a backlash against developed nations using South East Asia as a dumping ground. China has also banned the import of 24 kinds of solid waste, including plastic water bottles.
“At present, there are not enough adequate checks to make sure this plastic is actually recycled, and often it just ends up in a landfill or the ocean after being shipped to the other side of the world. "
Serious Changes Need To Be Made It is evident that recycling is a good thing and still much needed. However, with faults in the present infrastructure and more and more plastic still being produced, the best way to deal with this is to switch to biodegradable products and reduce our overall plastic consumption altogether.
Focus on Reducing and Reusing If more of what is produced were to be biodegradable, the environmental impact of our shopping and consumption habits would be significantly reduced. Consumers have a voice in this as it is their spending patterns that force change. The more people that are environmentally conscious in their purchasing decisions, the more likely retailers will follow suit in providing eco-friendly products. We should be reducing our consumption, reusing what we already have and recycling where it is viable. Bamboo is an ideal replacement in the case of many single-use plastics as it continues to grow once it is harvested, is biodegradable and very durable. Essentially acting as a superweed, it can grow up to 10-metres a day without chemicals or fertilisers. My Little Panda also only sends out our products using recyclable, biodegradable packaging, further reducing the plastic usage in our system.