Think you’ve done enough by making sure your waste plastic goes in the right recycling bin? Perhaps you imagine it floating off to a happy place, returning in a few months as a soda bottle or fibres in your newest sweater?
The fate of the items we throw out is far from certain. As of 2015, around 9% of all the plastic waste ever generated had been recycled, while 12% was incinerated and 79% was sitting in landfill or the natural environment, according to research published in Science Advances.
“There are essentially three different fates for plastic waste,” recycling, incineration or dumping, the authors of that report, including Roland Geyer and Jenna Jambeck, wrote. “Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal.”
The fate of plastic matters since we’ve become so dependent on it and its many benefits. Even so, our plastic habit has created some well-known challenges, with some items taking as long as 1,000 years to break down. Fostering a circular economy - a key plank of the World Economic Forum’s work - is one way to address this issue, and could represent a $4.5 trillion global growth opportunity by 2030.
While most policymakers support the idea of a circular economy - one that aims to minimise waste and make the most of resources - business leaders who backed a public-private initiative, supported by the World Economic Forum, expressed frustration at the slow pace and limited scope of progress.
Until recently, it’s been relatively easy for developed nations to offload their recycling burdens on to developing ones, with many tonnes of plastic exported to China and India. Now, those countries are clamping down, with India’s government banning imported solid plastic waste, after China led the way.
India’s move means plastic exports will probably shift to other countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The nation had replaced China as the biggest recipient of US trash, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, followed by Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea.
And that’s already having a knock-on effect elsewhere, since exporting has become a straightforward way for developed nations to deal with their plastic mountains. A WWF report estimated that in 2016 4% of global plastic waste was shipped abroad - around 13 million metric tons - and that G7 countries accounted for half of that.
“Unless plastic exporters heighten their contamination standards, or countries invest in their own recycling capacity, the international plastics trade will remain fragile,” the report said. And it risks “exacerbating the damage that plastics have on the environment”, it said.
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Other nations are also imposing or considering restrictions, according to an investigation by Greenpeace, creating a plastic merry-go-round that never stops. In Poland, stricter controls were introduced after a series of polluting fires at waste dumps filled the air with noxious gases.
All that underscores how while exporting can offer a quick fix, long-term sustainable solutions - like cutting down on single-use plastics and improving recycling processes - offer the clearest path forward.
And that means reducing usage, innovating compounds that decompose more readily and bolstering transparency and accountability in recycling, according to WWF’s action plan.
“Plastic is not inherently bad,” the WWF report said. “Unfortunately, the way industries and governments have managed plastic, and the way society has converted it into a disposable and single-use convenience, has transformed this innovation into a planetary environmental disaster.”