The Problem with Plastics Pollution

November 6, 2019

Meg Sobkowicz Kline is an Associate Professor of Plastics Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Her research is focused on plastics recycling, biodegradable plastics, and safer and more efficient manufacturing methods.

America’s love-hate relationship with plastic bottles and bags has been pushed to the brink since China stopped accepting imports of contaminated recycling in February 2018. My social media and news feeds are rife with images of six-pack ring-choked birds, turtles with straws up their nose and trees decorated with grocery bags as the media pounds away at municipalities who simply have no place to send their recyclables other than the landfill.

Without the market for recycled goods in China, single-use plastics are piling up at Municipal Recycling Facilities because the waste management companies do not have domestic markets for the majority of collected materials. While recycling numbers 1 (e.g., water bottles) and 2 (milk jugs) are separated and recycled at appreciable rates in the U.S. (30% and 25%, respectively), other contaminated streams and mixed or colored plastics simply do not have sufficient value in secondary markets and, as a result, manufacturers are not accepting these materials.

Generally speaking, manufacturers find that new fossil fuel-based plastics are cheaper and more reliable for manufacturers than recycled material—and so the waste simply piles up instead of being recycled. Under the pressure of the waste pile-up, municipalities are sending most bales to landfill – eroding the public trust and defeating the purpose of recycling in the first place.

There is hope on the horizon, however. Some common sense regulations along with modest incentives could provide the critical impetus for a more sustainable plastics economy in the U.S. The most prevalent solutions of today, such as plastic bag and bottle bans, merely inconvenience brick and mortar shop owners and their customers, while Amazon and Kraft foods encase their products in ever more packaging to ensure safe delivery anywhere in the world. A tax credit for companies that keep packaging designs simple or use recycled content could go a long way toward reducing the waste problem. Or conversely, a modest tax could be levied on plastic packaging that is not designed for a responsible end-of-life (e.g., biodegradation or effective recycling). Improved labeling systems could provide consumers with tools to make better purchasing and sorting decisions. In the academy we are eager to partner with industry, government and consumer stakeholders to start the conversation now on the best path forward.

The European Union has the world’s best track record on single-use plastics recycling, due in large part to tighter regulations. In 2016, the EU recycled just over 30% of all plastics, whereas the U.S. only recycled 9%. It is fair to argue that European society is just better indoctrinated into a zero-waste lifestyle, but that belies the role of government in holding businesses accountable for the externality of environmental damage. Without the constraint of regulation companies profit from well-designed, durable and functional packaging while the public suffers the burden of environmental contamination. Some businesses are taking initiative and banding together to work for change (e.g., the Alliance to End Plastic Waste), but their efforts risk falling far short of the large scale action needed without government help and guidance.

One aspirational concept that has taken some hold here and abroad is the circular economy. Championed by the U.K.’s Ellen MacArthur foundation, the circular economy seeks alternative consumption patterns that “look beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model” and aim to design waste out of the system in order to build economic, natural, and social capital. For example, biobased and biodegradable plastic could be composted after use and transformed into new food for plants used to create the next generation of packaging. Closing the loop in this way harnesses natural processes, minimizes waste and eliminates extraction of non-renewable resources. Government sponsored programs can catalyze collective action through tax and incentive programs in order to approach such a grand vision.

As an educator I want to tell my students that there are real alternatives to the status quo and that they can be part of the solution. As a plastics engineering professor and research scientist, I know that technological advances in plastic packaging enable lighter weight protection for perishables and other goods, and reduced fuel consumption and food spoilage in the modern world. However, the globalization of the waste management industry has now exposed a critical weakness in U.S. policy – insufficient regulation of single-use packaging use and recycling.

However, it is one that we can fix if we simply have the will to do it.