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Real-world solutions to the plastic waste challenge

Plastics pollution in India
When China announced in 2018 that it would no longer accept recycled materials from the United States and Europe, the world’s most developed countries had to figure out—and quickly—what to do with bales of mixed plastics and other recyclate. It remains a work in progress.

During the summer of 2018, China made an announcement that would turn the recycling world upside down: It would no longer accept recycled materials from the United States and Europe. Up until that time, China had been accepting some 45% of the world’s plastic waste imports. Now, the world’s most developed countries would have to figure out—and quickly—what to do with the stacks of bales of mixed plastics and other recyclate.

It didn’t happen fast enough, however, and recycling companies were soon looking at mountains of plastic waste with nowhere to put them except in landfills. Much of the waste plastic has been shipped to Malaysia, which has started its own crackdown on imports of waste plastic from America and shut down illegal recycling facilities that have become dumping grounds for material nobody wants. Other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Vietnam and India, are also taking steps to restrict the import of foreign plastic waste.

Much of the plastic waste being shipped to foreign shores from the United States and Europe was hard-to-recycle plastic and, even if it could be recycled, there was no market for it. The bales of recycled plastic—much of it mixed materials that would be impossible to sort—were dirty and not fit for turning into new flake to be sold back to companies to make products containing recycled material content.

How did we get into this mess? It all seemed so easy at first, when the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), then known as the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), developed an ingenious method for recycling plastics—chasing arrows with a number from one to seven in the middle indicating that this item could be recycled. The only problem was that numbers three through seven could not really be recycled. Only #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) were easily recyclable into material that converters demanded for new, recycled-content products.

However, instead of giving priority to #1 and #2 plastics, recycling systems in the United States went to the “single-stream” method, in which huge recycling bins were set up in neighborhoods where people could put all their waste: Plastic, paper, cardboard, glass and metals. Curbside recycling programs, which made consumers feel good about recycling, weren’t much better. Single-stream recycling soon became a huge, dirty mess that resulted in some 25% of the materials collected in the blue curbside bins being sent to landfills, and that is a low estimate. Some say that it’s closer to 70%, a result of China and many other countries refusing to accept recyclate they cannot economically reprocess.

This dilemma created the development of innovative technologies to try and solve the problem of what to do with the plastics that can be recycled but aren’t. Attempts are also being made to recycle difficult-to-recycle plastics. Taking a look at the various methods currently being used and why they are not working, as well as newer schemes that are being developed to address the issue might help us see where and why the system is failing.

To read the rest of this article, which discusses the pros and cons of various programs and technologies for solving the plastic waste dilemma, including mechanical recycling, returnable packaging schemes, chemical recycling, pyrolysis and waste to fuel, download this free PDF.

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