Civil society coalition International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) released a report on June 29, 2021, examining whether the current investments in mechanical and chemical plastic recycling will be enough to support a circular plastic economy. The coalition found that “recycling at the margins cannot provide a solution to plastic pollution when plastic production is set to grow exponentially.” The report considers the economic viability and social costs of plastics recycling activities, recovery activities such as incorporating waste into construction materials or burning for energy, and managing toxicity.
According to the report, chemical additives are an ‘invisible’ pollution that increasingly affects humans as plastic production and recycling continue to grow. Chemical additives, which may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals or persistent organic pollutants, can be difficult to remove during mechanical recycling (FPF reported). Although chemical recycling through depolymerization of plastics by pyrolysis, gasification, or solvent-based regeneration may be able to purify some polymers, the processes “create a significant hazardous residual waste stream” (FPF reported). Another recent report by IPEN found that “toxic chemicals in plastic waste exports from wealthy countries are contaminating food in developing/transition countries… levels of dioxin and PCBs in eggs in some locations were so high that residents could not eat a single egg without exceeding the safe limits for these chemicals established in the European Union.” IPEN gives three main recommendations: that “governments must” (i) reduce the amount the plastics allowed to be produced potentially through an international treaty (FPF reported), (ii) “manage existing stockpiles of plastic waste in an environmentally sound manner,” and (iii) drive stakeholders to produce a system to “maximize non-toxic polymer reuse” by considering the entire life cycle of the polymer.
In a separate report, the civil society organization Break Free From Plastic audited the plastic pollution solutions launched by seven of the top fast-moving consumer goods companies: Procter and Gamble, Mondelez, PepsiCo, Mars, Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Unilever. These seven were identified as being the top companies represented in litter items collected from environmental cleanups since 2018. Break Free From Plastic found that the majority of the projects launched by these consumer goods companies promote technologies that are “unproven-at-scale” or that involve another organization collecting and disposing of the plastic waste, where disposal may include burning. Eighteen projects were found to have no further information made available after their initial press releases. The report claims that “only 15% of the projects are proven solutions like reuse, refill, and alternative delivery systems.”
Upstream, a zero-waste promoting civil society organization, in their recent Reuse Wins report, argues “trying to solve the plastic pollution problem by targeting plastics alone misses the point because all single-use products create waste and cause unnecessary harm to the environment and public health.” Instead, the authors performed life cycle analyses of reuse items for takeout and delivery to quantify after how many uses each item breaks even economically and environmentally with a single-use alternative. Upstream found that over the expected lifetime of reusable products, food service ware, and packaging, greenhouse gas emissions are lower compared to disposables. In addition, “100% of the 121 businesses and 11 institutional dining programs that have documented the cost impacts of switching from single-use to reusable saved money, accounting for the costs of new products, labor, and increased dishwashing.”
The Food Packaging Forum recently released a series of fact sheets summarizing the properties, applications, chemical safety, and end-of-life options for five food packaging materials, including plastics. FPF also maintains a database of food packaging related commitments and initiatives by brands and retailers.
Takada, H. and Bell, L., (June 29, 2021). “Plastic Recycling Schemes Generate High Volumes of Hazardous Waste.” International Pollutants Elimination Network
Petrlik, J., et al., (June 22, 2021). “Toxic Chemicals in Plastic Waste Poisoning People in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe & Latin America.” International Pollutants Elimination Network
Break Free From Plastic (June 22, 2021). “Missing the Mark Report: Consumer goods companies are missing the mark with false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.“
Miriam Gordon (June 2021). “Reuse Wins: top findings show reuse beats single-use every time.” Upstream
Marc Fawcett-Atkinson (June 29, 2021). “Plastic recycling could be more dangerous than you think.” Canada’s National Observer
Clare Goldsberry (June 28, 2021). “Report Blasts ‘False’ Corporate Solutions to Plastic Pollution.” Plastics Today
Waqas Qureshi (June 16, 2021). “Poll finds support for refillables and frustration at supermarkets.” Packaging News