Lost opportunity: 91 percent total plastic produced has gone unrecycled

We need to talk about the one billion elephants in the room – the mass equivalent to the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since its inception about 65 years ago. If we herded all those elephants into a single country like Argentina, there’d be no room for any other living being.

There’s a reason why we’ve produced so much plastic. Plastic is the wonder material. Its durability and adaptability make it ideal for a vast array of both rigid and flexible applications, including aeroplane and automobile parts, construction materials, food and product packaging, and clothing.

Demand has only increased over the years. In 1950, 1.5 million tonnes of plastic were produced. In 2015: 322 million tonnes. And plastic is the material of the 21st century: half of all plastic ever made was manufactured in the past 13 years alone, with volumes only expected to increase.

Plastic’s strength has a major drawback, however. Natural processes are unable to break down the polymer – only pyrolysis or incineration are capable of completely disposing of this modern material, yet these methods come with a host of health and environmental consequences.

In an effort to initiate meaningful conversations on improving material recovery, Dr Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and some colleagues collected historical data on plastic production and waste. Their study, published in Science Advances, found that of the 8.3 billion tonnes of total plastic ever produced:

  • Only 9 percent has been recycled.
  • 90 percent of the material recycled was only reused once.
  • About 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent ended up in landfills.
  • 30 percent is currently still in use.
  • Packaging only remains in use for about a year.
  • Plastics in construction and machinery remain in use for the longest period of time.
  • If current production trends hold, total production will be 12 billion tonnes by 2050.
  • The US lags far behind Europe and China in recycling. 2014 recovery rates: Europe (30 percent), China (25 percent), and the US (9 percent).

Geyer’s hope is that the recycling industry can introduce better waste management solutions based on real measurements.

Despite the data, however, the recycling industry has a few challenges to overcome. For starters, recovered commodities are outcompeted by virgin plastics due to steady supplies, predictable quality, and low fossil fuel prices. Additionally, recycling infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle changing materials and increasingly comingled waste streams.

Even so, the future of recycling is bright. Given the finite nature of fossil fuels, virgin materials will fall behind in the long-term. Moreover, current and emerging technologies – such as near-infrared spectroscopy, artificial intelligence (AI), and advanced robotics – as well as proper operational management could help many facilities achieve sorting and processing efficiencies that affords recovered commodities the competitive edge over virgin materials in both quantity and quality.

If you own or operate a material recovery facility (MRF) or a commercial business that generates waste and are looking to offload excess material in an economically and environmentally sound way, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill Supply. For over 50 years, we’ve been helping businesses capture significant profits from their waste streams through innovative marketing and operations strategies.