According to Geyer, Jambeck and Law (2017), approximately 35% of plastic produced is used in packaging, the vast majority of which is used once and then discarded. And less than 14% of plastic packaging is recycled globally, as noted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This low number is likely driven by a combination of consumer confusion about where/how to recycle, weak collection infrastructure, and broken links between plastic design and scalable processing infrastructure.
Packaging plays an important role in protecting and delivering quality products to our customers. But in most cases, packaging is simply a means to transport a product. Once the end user has removed the product packaging it becomes waste. The World Bank estimated that the world produced 3.5 million tons of solid waste per day in 2010, and that amount is projected to double by 2025.
Plastic may sometimes be the best solution for packaging in terms of overall carbon footprint – but we want to find end-of-life solutions. There are barriers to growing plastic recovery markets. For instance, “plastic” is not one material – it is multiple base materials with many different kinds of additives. Even if the material can be collected, these variations make sortation and processing difficult.
Globally, recycling infrastructure at the household or municipal level is weak. For example, less than half of U.S. homes have access to household recycling infrastructure. Even when materials are collected, sortation is problematic. Consumers often put non-recyclable materials in bins, and technology at sortation facilities has not kept pace. China recently imposed a ban on plastic waste from foreign countries, specifically around low value plastics and contaminated (improperly sorted) bales. Additional challenges also include, but are not limited to: economic viability, variability of quality recycled material, and industry and policy fragmentation.