In addition to cutting production, the report says, the world needs to improve recycling systems, which alone could reduce plastic pollution by 20% by 2040. But recycling in its current form is problematic for a number of reasons. On the one hand, the recycling rate in the United States is now only 5% of plastic waste. The United States and other developed countries have long been shipping millions and millions of pounds of plastic waste that they cannot profitably recycle to developing countries, where bottles, bags and wrappers are often burned in the open or escape into the environment.
A fundamental problem is that over the years plastic products have become much more complicated and therefore much less recyclable: nowadays food pouches can have layers of different polymers, or a product can be half plastic, half paper. “By accepting and then imposing design rules that allow, for example, a limited number of polymers or a limited number of chemical additives that play well in the system, this already significantly improves the economics of recycling,” says Llorenç Milà i Canals, Head of the Life Cycle Initiative Secretariat at UNEP and lead coordinator of the report. “It makes recycling much more cost-effective because it will take a lot less to put these materials back into the economy.”
However, even properly done recycling comes at a huge environmental cost: A study published earlier this month found that a single facility can emit 3 million pounds of microplastic per year in its wastewater, which flows into the environment. The upside, at least, is that the facility would have released 6.5 million pounds of microplastic had it not installed filters, so there is at least one way to mitigate this pollution. But these tiny particles have now corrupted the entire planet, including a wide range of organisms. And generally speaking, as the production of plastics increases exponentially, microplastic pollution increases in parallel.
In this sense, recycling compounds the problem of plastic pollution. “Plastic was not designed to be recycled, and recycling it just reintroduces toxic chemicals and microplastics back into the environment and into our bodies,” Cohen says. “THE [UNEP] the authors of the report even go so far as to acknowledge that even if it is achievable, a circular plastics economy would take decades to develop, and even in the best-case scenario, following the roadmap as described would lead to an estimated 136 million metric tons of plastic will leak into landfills, incinerators and the environment to cause pollution in 2040. That’s a huge and unacceptable amount of plastic.
In fact, recycling allows the plastics industry to continue to manufacture all the plastic it wants, under the guise of sustainability. “If you had an overflowing bathtub, you wouldn’t just run for the mop first, you would turn off the faucet,” says Jacqueline Savitz, policy manager for the nonprofit conservation organization Oceana, who doesn’t did not participate in the report. “Recycling is the mop.”
Another strategy highlighted in the new report is “extended producer responsibility,” in which manufacturers don’t just make the products and wipe their hands dry. The plastics industry has long encouraged recycling (even though they know the current system isn’t working) because it makes you, the “careless” consumer, responsible for the pollution. Extended producer responsibility puts the burden back on the industry, requiring producers to, for example, put in place systems to take back bottles and reuse them.