To understand why plastic ends up in the oceans we need to first understand what plastic is. Plastic is a chemical product. The raw material for the vast majority of plastic is oil or natural gas. Depending on the final use of the plastic product, it first must go through different manufacturing processes to achieve the final material type.
However, not all plastic is the same. “Plastic” is a very broad term. It describes a material category but not one specific material type. Plastic is broadly categorised into seven different types with exotic names like “Polyethylene Terephthalate” (PET). You have probably come across PET as this is the material that most plastic bottles are made of and it is imprinted in the little recycling symbol on the bottle.
Why most plastics are not recycled
If you are confused by the seven plastic type categories it gets a little bit more complicated. Within every single one of the seven sub-groups you have hundreds of different variations. A plastic bottle for sparkling water and one for fruit juice might both be made from PET, but they will have some additives that change the material properties. This is necessary because every piece of packaging is engineered to protect the content of the packaging from outside influences. For example, fruit juice needs to be protected from UV light, while sparkling water needs to remain sparkling even after weeks on the shelf.
If you take these two bottles, melt them and produce a new bottle out of them, you won’t get the same material property. This means the product inside cannot be protected in the same way as the original material could protect it. The complexity of and different formulas in plastic leads to the fact that only 2% of all plastic ever produced is recycled in the same application again (Source: EllenMacArthur Foundation) (i.e. fruit juice bottle to fruit juice bottle). The rest of the material is usually down-cycled. This means it is turned into a new product but not in the same application. One such example would be a polyester T-Shirt or a fleece made from recycled bottles. Globally only 9% of all plastic was ever recycled or downcycled.
Other plastics are not recycled for 2 main reasons:
- Economic reasons: Collection, sorting and recycling is more expensive than buying new plastic
- Technical reasons: There is a material type called multi-layer packaging, which is a plastic-metal, a plastic-paper or a mix of different plastics which cannot be taken apart anymore
Non-recyclable means non-valuable
If recycling or downcycling is not an option, the biggest question is: What can one do with the plastic? The sad truth is: nothing. There is no demand to buy the material because there is no use case that would make economic sense. And if nobody wants to buy the material there will be no industry around it to take care of it. Long story short, the majority of plastic has no or even a negative financial value.
How can plastic have a negative value?
The plastic has a negative value as soon as someone decides to collect, sort, transport and finally dispose of it. You need to pay people and invest in infrastructure to do all that work. And at the end of the process, you are sitting on top of a mountain of plastic waste that no one is buying. You do not have to study economics to realize that this is a horrible business model. And that is exactly why nobody is doing it. Unless you live in a rich country where waste management is either paid for with tax money or governments oblige companies to pay for the waste management of the packaging material that they distribute.
If we now look closer into where plastic enters the oceans it happens mostly in developing countries. It is not like these countries do not care about our environment. These economies simply do not have enough money for proper waste management. So, plastic ends up in unmanaged systems from where it will eventually end up in the ocean.The key lesson from this article is: Proper waste management costs money. A big part of plastic waste has no value because it cannot be recycled.