The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment. In this Horizons, we look at ways to reduce plastic waste through regulation and technological improvements.
Even though governments around the world are banning single-use plastic products (for instance bags), plastic pollution remains an urgent environmental threat. As the Plastic Waste Makers Index shows, worldwide single-use plastic waste keeps increasing. Single-use plastics are still almost entirely made from fossil fuel-based polymers, causing not only pollution but also contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, according to the report, the top-20 petrochemical companies that produce these polymers lack in recycling efforts. With the industry taking little responsibility, other measures are needed. One way is to make producers pay through extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, which can improve recycling rates by 60-75%. Another solution could be (more) regulation. While rich countries have contributed to the problem by exporting their plastic waste, recently the European Parliament has proposed to ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries. In addition, the United Nations is negotiating a treaty to end global plastic pollution. In this process, the European Union is playing a leading role in setting a global standard. The Brussels effect may once again proof its worth.
With governments around the globe setting rules to deal with plastic pollution, the search is on for recycling improvements and plastic alternatives. Today, recycling is still costly and difficult because different types of plastics may be combined in products, making it harder to recover them. In addition, each time plastic is melted the quality declines. Nevertheless, improvements in the recycling process can tackle these issues. Solutions such as Recycleye’s AI-powered waste-picking robots help lower sorting costs, while technologies such as chemical recycling can improve the recycling of difficult waste streams that contain a mix of materials (e.g. clothes). Companies are also exploring alternative materials for the plastics we use in clothing, packaging, and other products. Renewable chemistry company Avantium developed a process to create bio-plastics from plants, while companies such as Ecovative, MycoWorks, and Boltthreads use mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms) to create mushroom leather or compostable packaging. A third solution direction is reuse or longer use; each time we use the same plastic bag, the environmental impact is reduced. With these three solutions, plastics can become less throw-away and more sustainable.