Muneera Abdullah explores the life of plastic, after disposal. In our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture, she lifts the lid on plastic pollution, illegal recycling facilities and landfill, finding that recycling shouldn’t be our first line of defence but our last.
It is the late 1860’s. The manufacturing world is about to undergo radical change. A new era lies in wait, in which materials can be moulded to fulfil an infinite number of potentials. Enter the first plastic, celluloid, in 1869. Its purpose? To preserve Earth’s natural resources. The material was first proposed as an alternative to ivory, which was obtained by slaughtering elephants for their tusks. Celluloid use was later expanded to replace other materials like linen and tortoiseshell.
“This rapid turnover of goods… that plastic enabled, eventually contributed to the development of an economy dependent upon fast paced consumption.”
But it wasn’t until after WWII that plastic entered the mainstream market. Products containing plastic were cheaper and easily replaceable by the next thing advertised. This rapid turnover of goods and consumer products, that plastic enabled, eventually contributed to the development of an economy dependent upon fast paced consumption.
Perhaps the question of plastic culture is the same as the question of a consumerist society. What is bought is used, discarded and replaced at a much higher rate than ever before. We are allowed to consume, under the false illusion of not having to face the consequences of our consumption. Now we find ourselves in a world littered by plastic.
“plastic has an infinite number of lives that begin after it’s first discarded“
The disposability of plastic has created a culture in which it is easy to feel that, once thrown away, our trash is no longer our problem. If it is not seen (or smelled) then it does not exist. This style of thinking needs to be replaced with an understanding that plastic has an infinite number of lives that begin after it’s first discarded; an entire industry depends on this. In the UK, a country which has one of the highest rates of plastic waste production per citizen- second only to the US, the waste industry profits from the export of discarded material to low- and middle-income countries.
Until the National Sword policy was put into place, China was the main target for such transactions. But since 2018, the government has placed an increasing number of limitations on the kind of waste it will accept, forcing the UK to redirect plastic waste exports to countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is important to note that determining the fate of plastic waste once it is exported can be very difficult, often ending up in landfills – where it’s possibly burned – or sent to illegal recycling and waste management facilities. Earlier this year, forty-two shipping containers full of illegal plastic waste were tracked by the Malaysian government and there have been reports of the waste potentially being sent back to the UK.
Furthermore, these countries might only present a temporary alternative as further bans are being put into place against foreign waste, due to the unsanitary and pollutive consequences that come with such imports. So, what happens when developing countries stop importing the UK’s plastic waste? Plastic recycling depends on the selling price of plastic waste. If it does not sell, is it worth recycling?
In the UK, 45.7% of domestic waste is set out for recycling, compared to the US’s 25.8%. Whether or not the waste that is painstakingly sorted into various bins throughout the nation’s homes is actually recycled, is another question entirely. With the difficulty that comes with tracking the fate of exports meant for recycling, it can’t be known for sure.
“recycling is not the ultimate solution and should not be regarded as our first line of defence, when fighting plastic pollution, but rather as our last.”
According to an article on CBS news, in Malaysia, companies are importing and dealing with plastic waste, from developed countries, in illegal recycling facilities where it causes more harm to the environment than good. This, in addition to the health hazards incurred through the process, makes one wonder whether our recycling system is really worth it.
It is worth mentioning that the concept of domestic recycling was first proposed by the plastic industry itself, as a response to the backlash against plastic pollution, in the 1970’s. After escalating public pressure, certain legislations were proposed, at the time, to limit plastic production. The industry needed to provide an alternative mode of action that people could stand behind without damaging profits. The idea was that recycling would stop plastic from entering landfills.
However, even when dealt with appropriately, recycled plastic is always of a lower quality than virgin plastic. There is only a finite number of times that plastic can be recycled before it reaches an unusable quality. Meaning, that no matter how diligent we are with our recycling, the fate of all plastic is either a landfill, incineration, the ocean or some waste management facility. That is not to say that recycling is not important or that it should not be done. What this means is that recycling is not the ultimate solution and should not be regarded as our first line of defence, when fighting plastic pollution, but rather as our last.
“Approximately 6.9 billion tons of plastic thrown away since the 1950’s: 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated, and 60% left to accumulate in landfills.”
More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced per year around the world. With a yearly flow of about 5.5 to 16.5 million tons of plastic, making its way into our oceans. Of the, approximately, 6.9 billion tons of plastic thrown away since the 1950’s, 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated, and 60% left to accumulate in landfills. Plastic packaging is a big part of the issue, but so is the fashion industry, with microplastics found in clothing, entering the sewers systems with every washing cycle. Perhaps a more top down approach needs to be adopted, where our consumption is questioned before anything else. If we can regulate what we consume and how we consume it and then consider where our waste goes to next, then maybe the rate at which plastic is produced and released into the environment could be reduced.
Header image credit: National Geographic