The Imbalanced Plastic Recycling Market: Less Plastic Is Recycled Than You Might Think

unrecycled plastic
Photo courtesy of Climeco

For years, the consensus has been that we need to reduce, reuse, and recycle materials as much as possible. Linear models of waste management are not sustainable, and as consumption grows, so does the need for new ways to manage waste.

As some of the most-used materials in the world, plastics have become a major focus for recycling. Because plastic does not degrade (rather, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics), the best course of action for plastic waste seems to be recycling.

However, plastic recycling happens less often than you might think. The market is dominated by low-value plastics that can only be recycled a limited amount of times, and plastics that are contaminated by other materials, including other types of plastic, cannot be recycled at all. This leads to a large number of plastics being discarded rather than recycled.

Let’s take a closer look at the truth behind recycled plastics and why we need to find a solution for discarded plastics.

DISCARDED PLASTICS
Photo courtesy of Climeco

Although recycling is the best way to manage plastic waste, only a very small percentage of plastic waste is actually recycled. Worldwide, less than 10% of plastics are recycled, even if they are recyclable.

According to a World Bank report on plastic circularity in Vietnam, 0% – 2% of PET polyester was collected for recycling, and 35% – 65% of PET packaging was collected for recycling. PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is the most recyclable type of plastic and, in theory, should be recycled much more often.

As for other types of recyclable plastic, only about 20% – 50% of PP (polypropylene) plastic was collected for recycling, and about 20% – 50% of LDPE (low-density polyethylene) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) were collected for recycling. These types of plastics can be recycled, but because they are low value, they can usually only be recycled once or twice before needing to be discarded. So, even if the recycling rate for these types of plastics increases, they will still be discarded.

Of the plastic resin materials collected for recycling, not all will actually be recycled. Recycling is an industry, and too often, market demands don’t reflect the market supply. In lieu of regulations, companies often see more financial gain from producing virgin plastic rather than recycling plastic or offering recycled plastic products. Furthermore, plastic that has been compromised can’t be recycled, so even if an item is mostly made of PET materials but contains other types of plastics, it cannot be recycled. This means that the vast majority of plastic waste ends up discarded in landfills or nature.

Plastic recycling in Southeast Asia

recycling

Although the plastic waste problem is a global issue, five Southeast Asian countries are among top contributors to global ocean plastic pollution.

Therefore, special attention needs to be paid to plastic waste management in this area if we are to get our global plastic waste under control.

In Southeast Asia, plastic recycling and waste management is largely left up to the private sector. This means that there is little to no regulation or government support surrounding plastic waste management. Although there have been recent green initiatives within Vietnam, green plastic waste management has largely gone without incentivization. According to the World Bank report (linked above), the government does not provide much financial support for plastic recycling companies or companies that use recycled plastic, and it’s difficult for plastic recycling companies to acquire bank loans because of the low market value of recycled plastic.

Furthermore, there is little public demand for recycled plastics. Without public or government support, companies have very few reasons to invest in green plastic waste initiatives or make an effort to recycle their plastic. Because virgin plastic often has a higher market value than recycled plastic, plastic producers are incentivized to produce new plastic rather than offering recycled plastic options. 

This means that even though there’s plenty of plastic resin in Vietnam that can be recycled, their low market value will result in lower recycling percentages in favor of more profitable virgin plastic. As a result, most plastic waste ends up in landfills or as litter even if recycling resources are available.

More plastic is being discarded than recycled

discarded plastics
Photo courtesy of Climeco

PET plastics are the most recyclable type of plastic waste, but it makes up less than 10% of plastic production, according to a study by Science Advances. The largest plastics in production are PE (36%) and PP (21%). Although these two types of plastic can be recycled, they lose integrity each time they’re recycled, and they will ultimately become non-recyclable. This makes them low-value.

Unfortunately, even PET plastic will eventually be discarded. The same Science Advances study estimates that only 30% of all plastics produced are currently in use (around 2500 Mt). Between 1950 – 2015, around 6300 Mt of plastic waste has been discarded. Of that, 12% of plastics were incinerated, 9% were recycled, and 60% were sent to landfills or improperly discarded. Only 10% of the recycled plastic was recycled twice.

The numbers don’t lie. A huge portion of plastics worldwide has been discarded to landfills or nature, and the issue is only growing. While EU member states, the UK, and other countries are making efforts to increase the amount of plastic waste that gets recycled through government policy, other countries, like those in Southeast Asia, have yet to regulate the recycling market in such a manner. Even with regulation, however, plastic recycling is limited, and both recyclable and non-recyclable plastics will ultimately end up discarded.

TONTOTON’s solution to discarded low-value, post-consumer plastic

plastic
Photo courtesy of Climeco

Because more plastic waste is mismanaged than recycled, and there are few government regulations that encourage sustainable waste management, it’s up to the private sector to properly manage plastic waste. Due to market demands and low recycling rates, more plastic is leaking into the environment than ever before, and it’s only going to get worse. 

In many coastal communities in Vietnam and Cambodia, plastic waste is rising to dangerous levels. Not only is it leaking into our oceans, but it’s also contaminating rivers, leaking into households, and emitting toxins that are harmful to the members of these communities. Much of this waste is low-value, post-consumer plastic (what we call orphan plastic) that cannot be recycled. 

TONTOTON has developed a solution to the plastic waste problem that both removes plastic waste from the environment while providing employment opportunities to the local population. We also offer resources to empower communities to take their overwhelming plastic waste problem into their own hands. We’ve monetized orphan plastic, paying local community members for the plastic waste that they collect. To keep our employees safe, we supply personal protective equipment, training, and access to healthcare.

Once the plastic waste is collected, we send it to cement factories where it is converted into energy and raw materials. As of now, this is the best way to manage orphan plastic waste so that we can remove it from the environment while innovating better ways of waste removal.

Our projects are funded through a certified plastic credit system that allows our corporate partners to take responsibility for their plastic waste and production while they strategize ways to limit their plastic consumption overall. It addresses a massive hole in the plastic waste management system while supporting vulnerable communities and helping businesses to do better: a win for everyone.