Nature and Biodiversity

Your recycling actually gets recycled, right? Not always, says this report

A man on a boat collects plastic materials from dirty water in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain   TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC15820905D0

Thousands of tonnes of this could be ending up in the world's waterways and oceans. Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

David Elliott
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Plastic Pollution

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • Up to 31% of plastic exported from Europe for recycling doesn’t end up being recycled, a new study estimates.
  • Thousands of tonnes could be ending up in the oceans.
  • Technologies that enable traceability could help create a 'circular economy'.

Here’s a different perspective on the plastic waste problem. You’ve probably heard how 90% of the plastic in our oceans comes from just 10 rivers – eight of which are in Asia. But have you ever thought about where that debris actually comes from?

For at least some of it, the surprising answer could be Europe, according to a new study.

Have you read?

European countries benefit from sophisticated waste management infrastructure, and they’re collecting an increasing amount of post-consumer plastic waste. But 46% of plastic separated for recycling in the European Union, UK, Switzerland and Norway is still exported. This often ends up in South-East Asian countries, where a significant amount is rejected from recycling streams into overstretched waste management systems.

And up to 31% of this plastic isn’t recycled at all, according to research published in the journal Environment International. Instead, thousands of tonnes of it could be entering the ocean – up to 7% of the total exported, the study says.

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Estimated loss of polyethylene plastic into the ocean from recycling waste mismanagement. Image: Environment International

What did the study look at?

To reach these numbers, the researchers looked at international trade and waste management data for destination countries. They then modelled what happens to all polyethylene – one of the most common types of plastic in Europe ­– that is shipped away from the continent for recycling. This ranged from being turned into recycled resins to ending up as landfill – or ocean debris.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

The study suggests that because exported recycling often has poor traceability downstream, true recycling rates may differ from those reported in the places the waste originates. And estimating the best-case, average and worst-case scenarios of ocean debris pathways from exported recycling in 2017, it proposes that between 32,115 and 180,558 tonnes - or 1% to 7% of all exported European polythene - ends up in the ocean.

Countries including the UK, Slovenia and Italy export a higher share of their plastic outside of Europe, the report says, which could mean a higher share of their recyclable plastic waste continues life as ocean debris.

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What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

So what can be done about it?

Plastic is a cheap, convenient material whose benefits include helping to prevent food waste by preserving food and enabling the creation of lighter-weight parts to make vehicles more fuel efficient.

And the authors of the Environmental International report say their findings should not put people off recycling, which remains the best waste management treatment from an environmental perspective.

But they also warn that for Europe to realize its planned 'circular economy', this potential pathway for ocean debris needs to be blocked.

Making material flows more transparent could help – and there are some innovative ways technology could enable this.

The World Economic Forum report Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Circular Economy says information on optimal recycling methods can be introduced at batch or unit level for plastic packaging that could help downstream partners identify the materials.

This involves scanning what’s known as a cryptographic anchor attached to or embedded into the packaging, such as IN-Code’s programmable, tamper-proof, edible markers. These markers would enable traceability throughout the life of the packaging.

And in the near future, an “internet of materials” – a decentralized, standardized data system allowing a large number of parties, including downstream recycling operators, to securely exchange information – could also play a part.

For more on the Forum's work on plastics, please click here.

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