Studies estimate that at most 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, with an additional 12% incinerated, most of it only having been produced in the last decades (Jambeck et al., 2015).
If no action is taken, the remainder will continue contaminating our environment in dumpsites, landfills, or leak into the ocean. While developed nations may boast of high plastic collection and recycling rates, the reality is often far more complex, as not all plastic placed in recycling bins is actually recycled. This is because scrap plastic formally registered as ´recycled´ by developed nations is commonly exported to emerging economies for further sorting, processing and recycling. This lowers processing costs and avoids environmental impacts in the country of origin, which may record an artificially high recycling rate while waste importing countries in emerging economies are ultimately responsible for processing the waste. However, waste importing countries typically lack the necessary enforcement and facilities to properly process this scrap plastic, resulting in ocean, air, and land pollution. Jambeck et al. (2015) found that many waste importing countries report high waste mismanagement rates, such as India (87%), Indonesia (83%), Viet Nam (88%) and Malaysia (57%). Jambeck et al. (2015) stressed that global scrap plastic imports and exports are not adequately represented in these figures, which means that the amount of imported waste that is mismanaged remains uncertain.
Considering these challenges, it is important to monitor and better understand the global plastic recycling sector, including its economic, social and environmental impacts. It is paramount to strengthen global regulations that adequately control transboundary movement of scrap plastic to provide greater transparency and avoid potential plastic leakages into the environment from the recycling sector. Further studies that identify opportunities for streamlining, monitoring and enforcement at a global level are required. Studies should seek out current and future opportunities throughout plastic value-chains to improve the industry’s environmental performance and reduce marine plastic litter.
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Place of publication: Arendal, Norway