For many years we were led to believe that recycling was the solution to the problem of plastic pollution. Even today the big multinationals still offer us green recycled plastic bottles and invite us to differentiate. And we do it. Not all of us, of course, but many. More eager than ever to do our part. What we really didn't know is what is really happening to our waste. Maybe we imagined a wonderful, very clean system in which the plastic is separated, maybe shredded, and finally transformed into new objects, without being dispersed into the environment.
Why is recycling plastic not convenient?
New, disturbing journalistic dossiers have been opening our eyes for some months now and confronting us with the naked and raw truth that plastic is not a wonderful material, even if it is cheap, ductile, and resistant. Plastic lasts forever. For better or for worse. Plastic is not easy to recycle, quite the opposite. It's nothing like glass that can be recycled forever. To recycle plastic you have to clean, sort and shred it into small pieces called flakes. From these you can then produce new objects. Unfortunately, however, with each step the polymer loses quality and deteriorates.
This is one of the reasons why recycling plastic is not profitable, because the material you get from a very expensive process is not good quality and is therefore worth very little. Who would do this? Rich countries hardly ever do it. Or they only do it for those types of plastics that are best suited to the transformation process. The rest of the plastic that we more or less diligently separate is either burnt or, even smarter, sold to poorer countries, often under international trade agreements (in short, we force them to take it, to do as they please with it). It is much easier and cheaper to place it on a container heading south than to recycle it at home.
This huge amount of plastic waste ends up in the "recycled plastic" box and we can blissfully wash our hands of it. Often, however, when it arrives at its destination, the plastic is simply deposited in huge open-air landfills or burned. The countries that receive it are unable to dispose of it and manage it, and they are almost swamped with it. What they receive is also the worst plastic, the most difficult to recycle, the least valuable and often the most toxic.
But where does our plastic go?
Until 2017, China was taking the plastic waste to recycle it (?), but then they got fed up and closed the ports to our rubbish. Since then we have had to find alternative solutions: Malaysia (Greenpeace discovered traffic of more than 1300 tons in the first six months of 2019 alone, illegally shipped from Italy to this South-East Asian country), India, Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa and Africa in general.
Again according to Greenpeace, in the first nine months of last year, out of a total of 2,880 tonnes of plastic waste shipped directly from Italy to Malaysia, 46 per cent was sent to plants without the necessary permits. This means, among other things, that child labour is often used to treat the waste, without any protection or safety. Children, in short, are rummaging through our rubbish for a few pennies a day.
According to the data collected from Environmental Sciences Europe, dating back to 2019, rich countries have exported more than 172 million tonnes of plastic in the last 30 years. This waste has landed in 33 different African countries. The value of plastics moved to the African continent amount to $285 billion USD.
The role of the big lobbies
Yet emerging African countries are among the most environmentally conscious: many have already banned the use of disposable plastics, well before countries with more advanced economies, and despite the fact that they are constantly hampered by the big plastic (and therefore oil) lobbies that try in every way to maintain the status quo. Understand for yourself who has the upper hand, who has the most economic and legal means and who therefore continues to rage unpunished and without any responsibility
Of course, perhaps in Europe these great giants clear their conscience with a bit of greenwashing while they continue, together with politicians all over the world, to support the systematic "trade" of waste that is flooding the poorest countries with our rubbish. They show us images of Asian rivers completely overflowing with waste and make us believe that they are all produced locally, when this is not the case, most of that waste comes from Europe or the United States. It is our waste. The waste we thought we had sent for recycling.
Reducing plastic (especially disposable plastic) is the only solution.
Recycling is not the solution. Not for plastic, at least. Reducing the production, consumption and trade of this substance is the only possible solution at the moment. Unfortunately, the collapse in oil prices has made plastics even more attractive to world trade giants: producing plastic packaging is even cheaper than before and glass and metals cannot keep up. Let's just hope that consumers are wiser than the big international giants.