Why recycling isn’t the answer to plastic pollution problem


While recycling is in last place of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra, it seems to get top billing in policy making, headlines and behavior change. This prioritization will need to change if the United Nations Plastic’s Treaty is going to avoid a “doctrine for recycling at the expense of providing a legal foundation for reducing plastic consumption.” 


This conclusion is convincingly supported by author Krisitna Syberg in her article, “Why Recycling Isn’t the Answer to the Plastic Pollution Problem” published by Scientific America on December 13, 2022.


Supporting her argument that failed recycling efforts have dominated policy, she notes that 7 of the 9 specific targets of the European Union’s goals for a new plastic economy relate exclusively to recycling. 


So, what is the harm in that? Syberg says that the recycling focus can result in member states investing effort there, instead of working toward reduction targets. A recycling focus can also stop states from setting reduction targets when recycling demands high-quality plastics (such as single-use bottles) that could actually be reduced or eliminated.


The article gives an important perspective as the United Nations Environment Programme works to decide on specific methods to reduce plastic waste.  Plastic producing states like the US and Saudi push for voluntary compliance and solutions that do not reduce the fossil fuels that make plastic, while other states see the real solution as setting legally enforceable agreements and making less in the first place.


This article is part of “Nature Outlook: Circular Economy” supported in part by Google, and published by Nature, a weekly peer-reviewed journal.

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