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  • Abhay Bhagwat

The Plastic Pollution Emergency and Meaningful Actions to Stop it - Part 2 of 2

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

Ending the plastic pollution from single-use packaging is a significant challenge. There are many routes to this, but not all are equally effective. In this article, we discuss the various possible routes and rank them on a list of key criteria. This analysis will make selection easier for the economic actors that cause plastic pollution.

Here is our current understanding of the various interventions against plastic pollution:

Top priorities: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Mechanical Recycling (RRRmR). The three R's will tackle the issue at source. Mechanical recycling can deal with some of the packaging waste that remains. The next best alternative is co-processing in cement kilns. Anything that cannot be RRRmR'd should go to cement kilns for co-processing.

I am "cautiously pessimistic" about Chemical Recycling for the reasons cited in the above table.

Data on the efficacy of Refuse, Reduce, and Reuse is hard to come by, but the annual production of plastics used in single-use packaging has continued to rise year-on-year, which suggests that these three strategies are, at best, offsetting some of the growth that would otherwise have happened.

Globally, the rates of mechanical recycling remain stubbornly below 10%, and in some countries, it has reduced over the last few years. The reason for this is that it is becoming difficult to ship plastic waste to developing countries and claim that it is recycled. Another 12% of plastic waste is incinerated. This means nearly 80% of plastic ends up in the biosphere, polluting land and water.

Co-processing in cement kilns, therefore, becomes the only short-term answer for whatever is not being mechanically recycled.

There are an estimated 3000 cement kilns worldwide, and 4.3 gigatons of cement were produced in 2021, most of it using coal. These kilns can easily swallow up the 0.5 gigatons of plastic produced globally every year. The cement industry currently makes up 8% of carbon dioxide emissions. It emits more than 500,000 tons of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide annually.

Co-processing plastic waste in cement kilns will not only dispose of plastic waste, but this route will emit less CO2 and other pollutants overall. And this route can be scaled rapidly with almost no new capital expenditure.

If and when other recycling routes mature, prove to be more effective and become scalable, plastic waste can be progressively diverted to them.

What are we waiting for?

Image generated by AI for Packaging for the Future 2023

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