In December, we wrote about Canada’s proposed single-use plastics ban, examining its merits, and whether it could give a significant push toward the circular economy. In it, we looked at concern over whether the ban should be all plastics instead of only single-use items, noting it’s not just plastic cutlery or grocery bags that are hard to recycle.  

Recently, a debate on this very topic has been ramping up, centered around a tough reality: many plastics are hard to recycle, and most end up in landfills or are incinerated. This awareness may force a shift in how we’ve thought about recycling for decades, by raising a difficult question: do the words ‘plastic’ and ‘recycle’ belong together at all? 

What’s new in the plastics recycling debate 

Back in the fall, some U.S. states challenged plastics industry giants on their use of the recycling symbol – the ‘chasing arrows’ sign stamped onto many everyday plastics that lead many consumers to believe it’s recyclable. In California, political leaders claimed the use of this symbol is misleading, as many everyday items like yogurt cups or coffee cup lids are rarely recycled.  

Around the same time, Oregon put together a task force to better examine environmental labeling, and before that, New York introduced a bill to eliminate the three arrows symbol from any non-recyclable item. These developments were explored in detail in a CBS news article, where advocates outlined how misconceptions about plastics recycling have muddled both consumer awareness and the ability to push for change. One advocate said that holding plastics manufacturers accountable is a major step to ending “greenwashing” in the recycling industry, which is when companies make false or misleading claims about the sustainability of their products. 

This can be a highly politicized debate, with different players bringing varying arguments about the use – or misuse – of plastic. In the CBS piece, plastics industry leaders said they’ve simply been following guidelines laid out decades ago, when recycling and the use of plastic in so many everyday items was in its infancy. At the time, companies were required to use specific codes to indicate the type of plastic used in a product, and its recyclability based on that code. Conversely, some manufacturers argue they’re not responsible for what happens to the plastic, and that what they make is recyclable; it’s just that many facilities may not have the capacity to do so.  

Politicians and activists have countered this by saying that the recycling symbol leads to confusion, and as a result, it isn’t fair to blame consumers or facilities. Beyond improving waste management and recycling capacity across the board, some argue that companies need to shoulder more of the burden when it comes to responsible production, information, and messaging.  

This debate over plastics recycling mimics much of what takes place when discussing climate change issues, with the common sticking point being responsibility: who should take blame or ownership for the problem? Should it be companies, consumers, producers, advocates, or politicians? Is it some, or both? While there may be no easy answer, there is a clear need here: innovation in how plastics are made, used, and disposed of. 

What works and what doesn’t  

Plastic, both single-use and otherwise, is so widespread that shifting away from it will be a big task; like most global issues, it will require innovation in various sectors. While who should be responsible for better plastics recycling is cause enough for debate, it gets more complicated when it comes to alternatives, like chemical or mechanical recycling, or producing easier-to-recycle plastics. 

Although many developed countries have mechanical recycling infrastructure, a large portion of their postconsumer plastic waste is still poorly managed. This is mainly because of the low efficiency of processes involved in mechanical recycling — sorting, washing, shredding and melting — to deal with mixed municipal solid waste, and the recovery of specific types of plastics. However, advanced sorting technologies that rely on machine learning and robotics are under development to facilitate and improve the sorting process.  

Another, more technical, challenge has to do with the high risk of clogging in the shredding machines when flexible packages are processed. Moreover, commonly used multi-material, multilayer plastic packaging, is a very difficult material to recycle. An emerging option lies in what’s known as chemical recycling, where chemical processes are used to convert materials into chemicals and fuels. However, the current gap between established recycling technologies and broad recycling targets means we need to pursue innovation in these areas as soon as possible.   

It’s worth mentioning that these problems aren’t just present in plastics or plastics recycling; composting, for example, has faced its fair share of controversy and debate since it was more widely implemented in North America over the past few years. In that regard, advocates say that certain items labeled as compostable aren’t, either for the fact that the components don’t break down as quickly as stated, or facilities don’t have the capacity to sort them to determine whether they’re plastic or not (some compostable alternatives like cutlery, for example, look very similar to their plastic counterparts). The composting debate helps us see that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the plastics problem. 

Moving forward 

Having more recyclable plastics, or overall better managing the disposal and use of them will have a major impact on our environment. It’s an area where big, important changes can be made, especially if there is the right coordination between manufacturers, facilities, and policy-makers. While the debate goes on, what can be done right now, in the immediate, is innovation: finding creative, sustainable solutions that drive positive change.  

Although changing labeling – like doing away with the chasing arrows symbol on so many products – may seem small, we can’t move forward without good, accurate information, which has clearly been lacking in this realm for the average consumer. Raising awareness about what does and doesn’t work with plastics recycling is an important step; from there, better solutions can take center stage.