Do you believe every one of your plastic is reused? New research study reveals that it can land in the sea

We all know that it is wrong to throw your trash in the sea or any other natural place. But you might be surprised to learn that plastic waste ends up in the environment even if we thought it was being recycled.

Our study, published today, examined how global trade in plastic waste is contributing to marine pollution.

We have found that the country it is shipped to is the country where it is shipped to is the most common place in the environment. Plastics that are of little value to recyclers, such as lids and styrofoam foam containers, are most likely to pollute the environment.

The export of unsorted plastic waste from Australia will cease – and this will help address the problem. But there is still a long way to go before our plastic is recycled in a way that does not harm nature.

Research shows that plastic that is intended for recycling often ends up elsewhere.

Know your plastics

Plastic waste collected for recycling is often sold for reprocessing in Asia. There the plastics are sorted, washed, chopped, melted and processed into flakes or pellets. These can be sold to manufacturers to develop new products.

The global market for recycled plastics is dominated by two main types of plastics:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which represented 55% of the market for recyclable plastics in 2017. It is used in beverage bottles and food containers to take away and is marked with a “1” on the packaging

  • High density polyethylene (HDPE), which makes up about 33% of the market for recyclable plastics. HDPE is used to manufacture pipes and packaging such as milk and shampoo bottles and is marked with a “2”.

The next two most commonly traded types of plastic, each with a 4% market share, are:

  • Polypropylene or “5” used in containers for yogurt and spreads

  • Low density polyethylene, known as “4”, is used in clear plastic film on packaging.

The remaining types of plastics include polyvinyl chloride (3), polystyrene (6), other mixed plastics (7), unlabeled plastics, and “composites”. Plastic composite packaging consists of various materials that are not easy to separate, e.g. B. durable milk containers with foil, plastic and paper layers.

This last group of plastics is generally not sought as a raw material for manufacturing and is therefore of little value to recyclers.

Read more: China’s recycling ban puts Australia in a very messy waste crisis

Symbols on PET plastic

Articles made of PET synthetic resin are marked with a “1”.

Plastic tides change

China banned the import of plastic waste in January 2018 to prevent the preservation of low-value plastics and to stimulate the domestic recycling industry.

After the bans, global trade in plastic waste shifted to Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The biggest exporters of plastic waste in 2019 were Europe, Japan and the USA. Australia mainly exported plastics to Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Australian waste export ban recently became law. From July of this year, only plastics that are sorted according to individual resin types can be exported. mixed plastic balls cannot. From July next year, plastics must be sorted, cleaned and processed into flakes or pellets in order to be exported.

This can help solve the problem of recyclable materials becoming marine pollution. However, a significant expansion of the recycling capacity for Australian plastics will be required.

Map with the import and export card of plastic waste worldwide.

Map with the import and export card of plastic waste worldwide.
Authors provided

What we found

Our study was funded by the Federal Ministry for Agriculture, Water and the Environment. It included interviews with trade experts, consultants, academics, NGOs and recyclers (in Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand) and a comprehensive review of existing research.

We have found that plastics in the international plastics trade are most frequently released into the environment in the destination country and not in the country of origin or transit. Low-quality or “leftover” plastics – those that are left after more valuable plastic has been reclaimed for recycling – are most likely classified as pollution. How does that happen

In Southeast Asia, only registered recyclers are often allowed to import plastic waste. Due to the high volume, registered recyclers usually sell plastic bales to informal processors.

Respondents said that when plastic types were classified as low quality, informal processors often dumped them in uncontrolled landfills or in waterways. Sometimes the garbage is burned.

Plastics stored outdoors can be blown into the environment, including the ocean. Burning the plastic releases toxic smoke that is harmful to human health and the environment.

Respondents also said that when informal processors wash plastics, small pieces of it end up in the wastewater, which is discharged directly into the waterways and ultimately into the ocean.

However, respondents from Southeast Asia said that their own household waste management is a major source of marine pollution.

Birds fly over landfills

Plastic waste that is intended for recycling can end up in an overseas landfill before being blown into the ocean.
Anupam Nath / AP

A market failure

The price of many recycled plastics has plummeted in recent years due to oversupply, import restrictions and falling oil prices (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic). However, clean bales made of PET and HDPE are still in demand.

In Australia, material recovery plants are currently sorting PET and HDPE into separate bales. However, it leaves small contaminants in other materials (such as caps and plastic labels) that make it difficult to recycle into high quality new products.

Before the price of many recycled plastics fell, Australia clashed with all other types of resins, trading them as “mixed plastics”. But the price of mixed plastics has dropped to zero and they are now mostly stored or landfilled in Australia.

However, several Australian facilities are investing in technology to sort polypropylene so it can be recovered for recycling.

Shampoo bottles in the supermarket

High density polyethylene items such as shampoo bottles make up a large portion of the plastic waste market.

Do plastics differently

Exporting countries can help reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean by better managing trading practices. This can include:

  • Improvement of the collection and sorting in exporting countries

  • Review target processing and monitoring

  • Verification of plastic shipments during export and import

  • Improving accountability for shipments.

But that won’t be enough. The complexity of the global recycling trade means we need to rethink packaging design. This means reducing the need to use low-quality plastics and composites, or replacing single-use plastic packaging with reusable options.

The authors would like research papers from Asia Pacific Waste Consultants (APWC) – Dr. Amardeep Wander, Jack Whelan and Anne Prince and Phil Manners from the CIE.

Read more: Here’s what happens to our plastics recycling when it goes offshore

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