Can we truly recycle plastic?

12/07/22

Recycling is often thought to be the miracle solution to tackle plastic pollution. However, to this day, it is impossible to expect recycling to eliminate all the plastic we use, so let us explain why. 

The truth about recycling  

When it comes to fighting plastic pollution, many misconceptions emerge. They are problematic because they prevent real and effective action to address the plastic problem at its source. This is the case with recycling. 

Sorting and recycling waste is by no means a useless action, but we must keep in mind that only 10% of sorted plastic packaging will actually be recycled. Compared to an annual production of 400 million tons of plastic, this is clearly not enough. Moreover, not all plastics are recycled because they are mixed with other materials, because it is too expensive or too complex; and not everything that is potentially recyclable is recycled, some waste escapes the recycling channels and ends up incinerated, buried or in the environment. 

The real problem is that our production and consumption of plastic exceeds our capacity to deal with it. The average European consumes 120 kg of plastic per year, and this figure is expected to increase in the coming years. 

Our recycling infrastructure cannot handle the amount of plastic we produce and consume, but what happens to our waste? 

Yes, we can recycle, but on the other side of the world  

Since we are not able to properly process the plastic waste we produce, a solution has been found: we send it elsewhere. 

For 30 years, China was the destination of choice for plastics from all over the world, receiving almost half of the global production. It received the most contaminated and least usable waste before transforming it into pellets. 

With the reinforcement of the Chinese legislation on waste treatment, Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.) has become the new Eldorado for Western plastics. Thus, we leave to others the responsibility of treating and recycling our waste: out of sight, out of mind. 

Faced with the accumulation of waste, some countries have turned to landfill or incineration of their recyclable waste, polluting the air and soil in the process. Recycling is therefore not the solution to fight plastic pollution, but rather a band-aid to limit the damage.   

Reduce plastic at source  

Waste sorting is an essential citizen gesture, indeed without this first step, recycling is not possible. But beyond the democratization of this eco-gesture, it is the entire industrial sector of plastic that must be questioned. The exponential production and consumption of plastics must be reduced at the source.

The best waste is the one we don't produce, so everyone must take their share of responsibility to act: manufacturers, institutions and citizens, we are all part of the solution.

A large part of the plastic pollution in the world is produced by a handful of brands whose products we consume before throwing away the packaging.

At our level, let's rethink the way we consume by refusing over-packaged products and single-use plastics. It is possible to reduce the amount of plastic that pollutes the ocean and our lives. Discover our guides to learn about good zero plastic practices, to adopt at home, at the office and even when traveling.

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