Plastics are convenient and undoubtedly make our lives easier. They are cheap, light, durable and resistant to water and oil. What we often forget, however, is that they are a long-lasting material so when we use them to make products intended to have a very short life span – maybe even single-use - we are creating an unsustainable cycle. Our indiscriminate use of plastic has created a global waste management crisis whose consequences are now evident. Mountains of plastics float in the oceans and harm marine life, microplastics end up in our food and drinks, and even in our bodies. Recycling is often touted as the solution – but is it a real and viable solution?

Recycling of materials such as glass, paper and aluminium is unquestionably a substantial step towards a more circular economy and sustainable lifestyle. Aluminium, for example, is an infinitely recyclable material - about 75% of all of the aluminium ever produced is still in use and can continue to be recycled and reused.

The same cannot be said for plastics. Unlike aluminium, a piece of plastic can be mechanically recycled only four or five times, on average (depending on the type, toxicity and quality), before its quality decreases to a point where it can no longer be kept safely in the loop. It then becomes non-usable waste, contributing to the accumulation of plastic waste. In addition, the recyclability of plastic decreases in the presence of mixed additives, such as plasticisers and other hormone-like molecules (e.g. Bisphenol A) and especially dyes. Every time plastic is recycled, virgin plastic resins are added to maintain characteristics such as integrity and elasticity. This means that when you buy a bottle made of recycled plastic, only part of it is really made from recycled plastic, with all the rest coming from brand-new plastic production. Paradoxically, even recycling plastic requires the production of new plastic!

Additional complications make plastic an unappealing material to recycle. Firstly, plastic waste needs to be completely clean if it is to be recycled, so there should be no trace of food, oil or any other type of pollutant. Secondly, the many different types of plastic must be sorted separately. This is why - unlike aluminium - only 9% of the 8+ billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s have actually been recycled. The remaining 91% are still in landfill, in our ocean and on our beaches, in our attics and cellars, provided, of course, it has not been burned, creating toxic residues in the process.

Recent data from the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and Scientific American show that plastic recycling alone is not the solution to the problem of plastic accumulation in the environment. Rather, strict waste avoidance is the only viable option. Where alternatives exist, plastic should be replaced by more degradable, ecological materials. In all other contexts, plastic products should be reused where possible, through Deposit Return Systems, for example. Today, we are finally confronted by the damage we have created and should now seriously question the drive to consume that has created our throw-away society.

In the coming months, all Member States will transpose the EU Directive on Single-Use Plastics. This is a major opportunity to tackle the plastic pollution crisis at source. Seas At Risk and its Portuguese member organisation, Sciaena, would like to remind governments that recycling has its limits. The future lies in waste prevention, reuse and developing alternatives to plastic products. Forward-thinking governments will set rules with an ambitious vision that moves society towards substantially less plastic waste, together with a truly sustainable consumption model and restored marine life in our ocean.

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