How A Selective Market Affects Global Plastic Pollution Problem

plastic bottle

We’ve all seen the pictures: aerial images of garbage patches floating in the oceans, a turtle with a straw embedded deeply within its nose, coastal communities drowning in plastic waste. These powerful images have created a mass global movement to remove plastic waste from the environment and move toward more sustainable options, like recycled plastic.

However, the plastic waste problem requires more than simply moving toward recycled materials. Although recycling materials is important, it only addresses a small part of the problem. What are we going to do about the non-recyclable plastic waste that’s being mismanaged on a daily basis?

Furthermore, recycling plastic depends upon the market. Although many types of plastic can be recycled, they are often left in landfills. Other types of plastic require specialized recycling methods that simply aren’t marketable; the cost of labor is not worth the potential profit. Even when plastic can be recycled, it can’t be recycled indefinitely, and ultimately, it will either end up in a landfill or abandoned to nature.

Companies that care about their plastic footprint must do more than investing in recycled plastic materials and their recycling processes. If we are to put an end to the plastic waste crisis, we must also focus on plastic waste that’s not recycled. Currently however, the market is selective. It only focuses on the value plastic materials because it makes financial sense. This then creates a great market imbalance in which bias does not favor the low-value, commercially non-recyclable plastic wastes.

Here’s how plastic waste management is imbalanced and why we must start caring about all types of plastic if we’re going to save our oceans and enjoy a cleaner planet for all.

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ORPHAN PLASTICS: WHY DO WE NEED TO PAY ATTENTION?

Countries across the world are implementing circular waste management systems in which materials are kept within the economy for as long as they can be used. Because of this, there’s a push to move toward more recyclable raw materials. Although this is ultimately a good thing, it’s causing us to abandon a type of waste that’s arguably the  worst of all: plastic waste that cannot be recycled.

There is almost no market demand for nonrecyclable plastics or plastics that can’t be easily recycled. Because there is so much of a focus on developing and using recyclable plastic, government regulations often focus on creating a market for recyclable plastics while ignoring low-value, post-consumer plastic (what we call orphan plastic). We need to focus on all types of plastic waste if we want to see cleaner oceans and waterways and protect vulnerable communities.

Both governments and companies are focusing on recycling materials, like plastic. In fact, the Single-Use Plastics Directive seeks to ensure that, by 2025, at least 25% of the plastic in PET bottles is recycled. While this is a step in the right direction, it will not solve the plastic waste crisis. Companies must take additional action to not only limit the amount of non-recyclable plastic that they consume and produce, but to do what they can to mitigate the damage caused by the non-recyclable plastic that has already been mismanaged.

Most plastic isn’t recyclable

non-recyclable plastics

Recycling plastic comes with many limitations. Different types of plastic must be recycled differently, and they can only be used in certain types of items. Even if a plastic is recyclable, it must be completely clean, and it cannot have contaminants (like paper or other types of plastic). Sometimes it takes more effort to recycle the plastic than its market value is worth. 

For example, disposable coffee cups often go unrecycled even though they can be recycled. This is because the plastic within the coffee cups must be separated from the paper on the outside of the cups which can only be done with a special machine. The profit from recycling these types of cups is often not enough to justify the labor that goes into separating materials, so they end up in landfills even if the waste is placed in a recycling bin. 

This has led to growing levels of mismanaged waste in spite of recycling efforts. According to National Geographic, around 91% of plastic doesn’t get recycled. Much of the plastic that does get recycled loses quality over time, so it will eventually become nonrecyclable. This is a major issue when the market is solely focused on recyclable plastic.

If you care about our oceans, you must address non-recyclable plastics

non-recyclable plastic

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), and Polypropylene (PP) are among the most recycled plastics. These types of plastic are easier to recycle, so there is greater market demand. However, this leaves huge amounts of plastic waste that goes unrecycled. 

Items like plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic packaging have essentially no market value. This type of plastic waste is difficult or impossible to recycle, and government entities have put little effort into creating a market for these plastic types. This means that this type of plastic is often left in landfills and abandoned to nature where it can easily leak into our oceans.

Plastic waste makes up 80% of the debris found in our oceans. This is for a number of reasons. Plastic does not degrade over time. Rather, it will break down into smaller and smaller pieces which are then consumed by marine wildlife and even humans, causing massive health risks. Furthermore, because plastic can be difficult to recycle, and we’ve really only created a market for PET, HDPE, and PP plastics that can be easily recycled, most plastic waste ends up in landfills or abandoned to nature where it can leak into the ocean. 

Although regulatory entities are largely ignoring low-value, post-consumer plastic, your company doesn’t have to. If you truly care about our oceans, then you must do what you can to address other types of plastic within your company besides recyclable plastic. Don’t just boast that your company uses recycled materials. Take additional action now to address the true plastic waste problem.

TONTOTON has created a market for low-value, post-consumer plastic

Plastic Collection Center

TONTOTON provides a great example of creating some equilibrium in the unbalanced plastic recycling market.

We’ve monetized low-value, post-consumer plastic (what we call orphan plastic), providing an additional source of income to individuals in vulnerable communities while removing a type of plastic waste that’s typically abandoned in nature as ocean-bound plastic waste. Although this type of plastic waste cannot be easily recycled, it can be converted into energy and raw materials, allowing us to make use of this waste one last time before it reaches the end of its life cycle.

Our system has allowed us to remove literally tons of plastic waste that would have otherwise ended up in our oceans. Our projects are focused in key coastal communities in Vietnam and Cambodia that experience mass amounts of mismanaged plastic waste. In some of these areas, the plastic waste is even leaking into households.

By monetizing orphan plastic, community members have been able to enjoy cleaner communities, plastic-free waters, and an additional source of income. Furthermore, we provide personal protective equipment, training, and access to healthcare to those in our employ. We’re simultaneously removing ocean-bound plastic from the environment while providing a better quality of life for those in the communities in which we work.

We’re funded through a certified plastic credit system. If your company is looking for ways to take responsibility for your plastic waste, you can purchase plastic credits through TONTOTON, and our projects will remove an equal amount of plastic waste that you want to take responsibility for. We always encourage our corporate partners to take additional action; while purchasing credits through TONOTOTON will help you take responsibility for your orphan plastic waste now, you should take further steps to eliminate your low-value, post-consumer plastic production and consumption.

If we want to properly address the plastic waste crisis, we must focus on more than recyclable plastic. We need to eliminate the true scourge: plastic that cannot be recycled. That’s what we do here at TONTOTON. Join our efforts today.