Op-Ed: Plastic recycling and new opportunities for an old problem
The world produces 381 million tons of plastic waste every year. That figure is set to double by 2034. The first synthetic plastic was produced in 1907, marking the beginning of the global plastics industry. It was in the 1950’s that global plastic production became large-scale.
Over the next 65 years, annual production of plastics increased nearly 200-fold until it reached the 381 million tons mark in 2015. A significant jump from the 270 million tons in 2010.
Poor waste management and lack of recycling determines the risk of plastic entering our food chain, mostly through water (salt and surface) pollution. Improving waste management systems across the world critical to reducing plastic pollution and protecting the health of all living creatures.
It’s important to acknowledge the value plastic plays in our daily lives. Certainly, plastic is a necessary evil. It plays an important role in preserving food from farm to retail. It protects foods from plagues as well as it preserves their shelf life which is necessary for healthy human consumption.
Most types of plastic aren’t biodegradable and the fact that 50% of them are single-use and only 9% is plastic that has been recycled or remanufactured means the majority of polymers manufactured today will persist for decades and probably for centuries in our environment. An estimated 88% of the ocean’s surface has been impacted by plastics and microplastics. It is nearly impossible to clean the oceans from plastic waste.
Therefore, this type of pollution needs to be tackled at the source.
In May 2019, participants from 180 governments amended the Basel Convention — a global treaty established in 1989 to observe the fundamental principles of environmentally sound waste management — to include plastic waste in a legally binding framework. This ammendment will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, while also ensuring that its management is safer for human health and the environment.
The new provisions will help with reducing the amount of plastics into the marine environment and communities. While the United States is one of only two countries that has not ratified the Basel Convention, the treaty still affects U.S. importers and exporters.
With this amendment, many developing countries will — for the first time ever — have information about plastic wastes entering their country and can refuse plastic waste dumping. This new protocol will begin on Jan. 1, 2021.
These international policies will not only further reduce or limit the markets we can export our recyclables but is another layer on top of the China “National Sword Policy.” In 2018, China implemented an import ban on 24 types of recyclables. They no longer wanted to be the dumping ground for the world’s recycled waste.
They imposed a 99.5% purity standard that most U.S. exporters found impossible to meet. This left municipalities and waste companies across the U.S. (including Puerto Rico) scrambling for alternatives. Recycling municipal programs took a hard hit.
In Puerto Rico, it was harder. Many curbside recycling programs had sustained damage to their facilities during Hurricane María. Our recycling rate has fallen to a low 10%, according to private recycling companies.
As a result of the Sword Policy and moving ahead seeking a solution to the plastic problem, the European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastics in May 2019, which includes plastic cutlery and straws. The ban will take effect in 2021 and have a two-year phase out period. By mid-2023 and early 2024, according to the type of plastic, it will be permanently phased out.
The EU plastics strategy also includes a Circular Economy Plan, a policy framework adopting a material-specific lifecycle approach to integrate circular design, use, reuse and recycling activities into plastics value chains. The strategy seeks that by 2030 all plastic packaging produced or placed on the EU market is either reusable or recyclable.
In America some cities followed suit banning plastics materials from their waste stream. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. We need to see this challenge as a window to develop better solutions for our throwaway culture.
These new policies and restrictions offer a new incentive to develop domestic market opportunities and the circular economy in Puerto Rico.
These new policies and restrictions offer a new incentive to develop domestic market opportunities and the circular economy in Puerto Rico. From public policy to academic research, investigation and innovation to new economic models, Puerto Rico needs to hop on the bandwagon of green business and circular economy.
We can’t let any more plastics end up in any of our 29 landfills or shorelines. Not only it is harming our limited natural resources and tourism assets, it is hindering our economic potential as a Caribbean green business hub.
It’s time to rethink the value of plastics as raw material for new products. We need to promote sustainable production that will bring new opportunities to Puerto Rico, increase job growth and expand the products our businesses carry and export.
We need to tackle the plastic problem now. Time is running out. Let’s do so in a manner that generates business and economic opportunities and provides benefits to our society and the environment.