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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Recycling is often heralded by business and government as an effective way to combat climate change and pollution problems. Does that claim stack up? You’ll discover that in fact, reusable glass bottles are the best packaging option over short distances, and not recycling. It will also become clear that recycling is a way for companies to shift responsibility for their waste to consumers, rather than addressing the problem themselves.

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Plastic brick company Lego announced recently that they are abandoning their project to make Lego pieces from recycled plastic bottles. Lego is trying to reduce its impact on the environment through changing the materials it uses to produce the bricks. They currently use acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which needs about 2kg of petrol to make 1kg of plastic. The test involved recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) from plastic bottles, but the conclusion was, according to the company, that recycled bricks would result in higher carbon dioxide emissions and a larger environmental impact than the current process.

In New Zealand, only 29% of plastic bottles are recycled, yet the world average for plastic bottles is 50%. Consumer Magazine conducted some research in 2021 into the extent to which plastic packaging was recyclable. In New Zealand, 52% of plastic packaging was found to be, in practice not recyclable, despite some claims made by manufacturers. This result was the second worst (behind Brazil at 92%) among the countries tested. In Australia, only 14% of plastic packaging is not recyclable.

Image: Consumer Magazine Research

Despite this, New Zealanders still believe that recycling is one of the most effective actions to combat climate change. In some research into environmental attitudes by IPSOS in 2022, 62% of respondents are already recycling, and a further 33% are likely to start recycling in the next year, totalling 95% of the population who are now likely to be recycling. However, 50% of New Zealanders believe that recycling is one of the top three actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In actual fact, recycling comes in at 60th place, behind numerous other actions that are more effective.

Image: IPSOS research 2022 New Zealanders' Attitudes and Behaviours Towards Climate Change

As Lego have found out, recycling plastic isn’t exactly a carbon-friendly process. It involves the emissions of carbon dioxide in processes that transform the plastic from bottles into plastic that is strong to make Lego bricks. Recycling is a process which involves the addition of energy in order to transform one thing, into something else. As we will see, reusable packaging is more environmentally-friendly than recycling.

Plastic Recycling

In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – 3.4% of global emissions. 90% of these emissions came from the production of plastic, because plastic is made through using fossil fuels like petrol. The OECD believe that by 2060, the impact of plastics is set to more than double, from 1.8 to 4.3 billion tonnes of GHG emissions.

In 2019, researchers from the University of California looked into the relative emissions of different ways of treating plastics. They concluded that it wasn’t recycling that had the largest impact; rather, using 100% renewable energy in the production process was the most effective way to reduce plastic emissions, by 51%.

The researchers analysed four different strategies:

  1. Replacing fossil-fuel plastics with bio-plastics, in this case made from sugarcane.
  2. Using renewable energy in the production process (using wind power and biogas).
  3. Recycling plastics
  4. Reducing growth in demand from 4% per year to 2% per year.

They report, “Our study demonstrates the need for integrating energy, materials, recycling and demand-management strategies to curb growing life-cycle GHG emissions from plastics.” In an interview with the University of California to release the article, the authors explained what they meant. “We thought that any one of these strategies should have curbed the greenhouse gas emissions of plastics significantly,” author Sangwon Suh said. But they didn’t. “We tried one and it didn’t really make much impact. We combined two, still the emissions were there. And then we combined all of them. Only then could we see a reduction in future greenhouse gas emissions from the current level.”

What this study shows is that recycling by itself has very little impact on the emissions generated by plastic. It is only when combined with other changes, including reducing the growth rate of our consumption of plastic, that we see an overall impact.

Plastic is a good material, economically speaking, because it is strong, lightweight, cheap to produce, and easy to make. That is why many companies use plastic, for construction, packaging, everyday items, and more. However, plastic is incredibly damaging to the environment, and in many cases today requires fossil fuels like petrol to produce. We should also be asking whether plastic is the material to be using in an ecological future. Is transitioning to a ‘circular economy’ of plastic recycling even a good idea?

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Is plastic recycling part of an environmentally-friendly future?

Chelsea M. Rochman, Mark Anthony Browne, and other scientists make the case for classifying plastics as hazardous waste materials, and not solid waste, as they are currently. This is for multiple reasons. Firstly, plastics break down slowly in the environment, where they gradually make their way into food webs of small animals such as fish, invertebrates, and microorganisms, which ingest small bits of plastics called microplastics. When microplastics enter an organism’s tissue, they cause harm, such as tissue degradation and cellular dysfunction. It is estimated that human beings ingest up to 5 grams of microplastics per week.

Further, the ingredients in plastics, such as monomers, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate can be carcinogenic – they can cause cancer. Polyethylene, however, which is used to make plastic bags, is often thought to be safer. However, even these plastics can become dangerous when they pick up traces of pesticides, and end up disrupting key physiological processes in the body. Plastics also contain endocrine disruptors – molecules that stop some of the functions of the endocrine system, leading to cancer, thyroid disruption, and other non-communicable diseases.

The authors note that the same approach was used to clean up the atmosphere of Chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) some years ago: they were classed as hazardous materials, and began to stop being used, and when they are used, they are treated with extreme caution. Rochman and Browne therefore call for the most harmful plastics to be replaced by safer materials, and then for a closed-loop recycling of these safer materials.

Currently, 430 million tonnes of plastic are produced yearly, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, which is more than the weight of all human beings on the planet (390 million tonnes). Globally, 95% of all plastic used in packaging is disposed of after one use, and one third of this is not collected – it therefore enters the environment unmanaged, and causes pollution.

The best solution to waste management problems such as this is to not produce the waste in the first place – especially as a huge proportion of plastic packaging is used once and then disposed of. There are alternatives to this packaging that exist, for example, selling items in bulk, or in reusable containers, which have much lower emissions, and do not produce waste. The pollution problem with recycling schemes is the leaks in the system: every time plastic is not thrown away into a bin, it enters the environment and is then incredibly difficult to clean up, as it begins to affect other animals and plants.

Image: Lacey Williams on Unsplash.

What about glass and aluminium cans?

In 2020, Zero Waste Europe conducted a study to measure the difference in emissions between different types of packaging. They found out that in most cases, reusable glass bottles are the best option.

Recycled glass bottles require 75% of the energy used in the production of new glass bottles. However, glass bottles can also be washed and re-used. Reused glass bottles produce 85% lower emissions than single-use glass bottles, 75% lower emissions than plastic (PET) and 57% lower than aluminium cans. However, emissions for glass per unit of packaging are consistently 3-4 times greater than for plastics and aluminium.

When comparing reusable glass bottles to single-use PET plastic bottles, the glass bottles are preferable. Despite having much higher initial emissions, gradually the emissions balance out when the glass bottles are reused. However, this is only the case with smaller bottles. 2-litre plastic bottles and re-used glass bottles have approximately the same emissions.

Looking at aluminium cans, reused glass bottles seem to win again. After only three uses, glass bottles have lower emissions than single-use cans.

Transport distance also plays a role in the emissions involved in a particular type of packaging. With distances of more than 100km, reusable glass bottles have higher emissions than cartons or bags in a box, because of the transport of the bottles to be cleaned, refilled, and sent back to the distribution point.

In sum, the authors conclude that 76% of studies they looked at showed that reusable packaging is the most environmentally friendly option. Recycling is more energy intensive than reusing packaging, and recycling involves a new input of energy each time, whereas the effects of reusing packaging are balanced out over multiple uses. The more something is reused, the lower the total emissions for this type of packaging.

Image: Globelet Reusable on Unsplash.

Is recycling a worthwhile behaviour, then?

Recycling is a behaviour done, in most cases, by the consumers themselves. When you buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, or a can of peaches, it is up to you to make the choice whether to recycle or not. This of course depends upon the recycling facilities in the area where you are using these items: if you are in a park with no recycling bins, the bottle of Coca-Cola probably won’t end up being recycled; when you’re at home, the tin of peaches probably will be recycled.

This is a good and easy solution for companies. They do not have to take any responsibility for their products, and the impacts of the packaging that they use. If something is not recycled, or is found in the environment somewhere, it is because a careless consumer put it there – not because the producer made a product in a plastic bottle. The possibility that their products can be recycled is both a selling point and a way to shirk responsibility. In the mid to late 1970’s, Coca-Cola switched from reusable glass bottles to plastic bottles, which were more light-weight and cheaper to produce. Coca-Cola and Pepsi were among the founding members of Keep America Beautiful, an organisation aimed at reducing the amount of waste thrown into the environment. The result? Cheaper costs of production for Coca-Cola, and advertising campaigns placing the responsibility on those who drink these beverages, rather than the company that produces them.

As we have seen, reusable glass bottles are one of the most carbon-friendly packaging options. Recycling is a process that involves adding a lot of energy to transform the old item into a new one. Reusing packaging means that we must simply clean it, and then use it again.

How do I decide which packaging is best?

For most of us, the most effective action when it comes to packaging is to follow these simple rules, in order:

    • Does this item I am purchasing need packaging? If not, don’t use it or don’t buy a version of it with packaging. For example, buy loose apples rather than plastic-wrapped ones. Avoid packaging wherever possible.
    • If the item needs packaging, can I use a glass bottle or jar to buy the item? Most pantry goods, as well as cleaning liquids, can be bought in bulk in this way. You can get flour, oats, soy sauce, olive oil, laundry detergent, and more, and use reusable glass jars.
    • If the item cannot be bought like this, is there an option which doesn’t involve plastic? For example, buying soap wrapped in paper rather than plastic, jam in a glass jar rather than plastic pot, etc.
    • Finally comes the choice of recyclable packaging. Which among the options involves recyclable packaging? This is sure to be better than single-use throw-away plastic.

As we have seen, there are many alternatives to recycling, and purchasing items in recyclable packaging is a good action, but by no means the most effective way to reduce emissions.

To have the most impact, the companies producing goods must change the packaging and distribution of the goods they are selling. Consumers are not the ones responsible for this packaging, nor are they able to start buying in reusable jars if the producers do not sell their products in this way. By pointing out the inefficiency of recycling to your favourite brands on social media, and choosing to shop at places where reusable containers are welcome, we can force companies to change their packaging.

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