~ a simple recycling idea: part 2 ~
So, we have an idea that is a non-zero-sum game for consumers, businesses, and the environment. But how do we move forward? One significant barrier is the cost involved in implementing and maintaining the program.
In a world where the market is expected to solve many of our problems, it's understandable that some might ask why we should even have to pay for recycling, after all "can't it pay for itself?". And indeed, up until 2018 before China introduced its National Sword policy, recycling plastics seemed like it was doing just that. But now that China has realised the true cost of this process to their own environment and people, the situation has fundamentally changed for recycling.
We must remember that recycling is not a product we're selling, it's a public good, and an important one - saving the environment. There is no reason to think this endeavour should be free, let alone profitable. A future worth living in is going to cost something. So, how do we pay for it?
Now, taxes often get a bad wrap because, while they bring in revenue to fund programs, they always come at a cost. But in this case, the cost serves the function of deterring the use of plastic, which is another major positive for the environment. So the cost and the benefit are both positive, making it non-zero-sum.
While there are 7 types of "recyclable" plastics - there is great confusion about which plastics are recyclable. Well, it's simple - basically none *.
First there are the most easy-to-recycle plastics, types 1, 2 & 5 (food, drink and other containers) and 4 (soft plastics) which were mostly processed in China and are now no longer processed there. Then there are the most difficult types, types 3 (construction materials), 6 (polystyrene) and 7 (everything else) which have never really been recyclable.
The confusion around these supposedly "recyclable" categories leads to contamination and an overall inefficiency in the recycling process. Add to that the fact that the only really recyclable plastics are usually containers of some sort, meaning that an intensive process of cleaning is required.This comes with a high energy cost and generates micro-plastics which increasingly end up in waterways.
But that's not all. Much of the plastic is not even being recycled but instead being used for waste-to-energy programs.
Because plastic is an oil product it can be "recycled" by incinerating it for fuel to power industry. This is increasingly the approach of many of the remaining off-shore programs. While this is technically a way of reusing plastic and keeping it out of landfill, this is being achieved by literally converting plastic into CO2.
There really is no escaping the fact that we need to disincentivise the use of plastic.
Will taxing plastic solve the problem? Unfortunately, no single solution will resolve the complex challenges we face. However, a glass reuse system and a tax on plastic can be part of a broader strategy to create a more sustainable future. Stay tuned for Part 3, where we'll explore current solutions and how we can combine them for greater impact.