Why Recycling Isn’t the Answer to the Plastic Pollution Problem – Scientific American

Crushed (by Lisa Risager CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr).
Crushed (by Lisa Risager CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr).

Recycling can only get us so far to a sustainable plastic future. The real solution to transforming the plastic economy lies in making less in the first place

For many years, the transition to a circular plastic economy has been understood to require a combination of efforts, often summarized by the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. The principles are based on the top three levels of the waste hierarchy, whereby reducing is better than reusing, which is, in turn, more favourable than recycling. In practice, however, attention has primarily been focused on recycling, owing to an assumption that a massive improvement in recycling rates will be crucial for the circular transition.

A document published by the European Commission in 2018, outlining how the plastic economy should be transformed, serves as a good example of this tendency (see go.nature.com/3clrqdq). The word ‘recycle’ and its derivatives appear 144 times, whereas words rooted in ‘reuse’ and ‘reduce’ occur only 12 and 18 times (and most mentions of the latter relate to reducing environmental litter, not plastic consumption). Of the nine specific targets listed as part of the European Union’s ‘vision’ for a new plastics economy, seven relate exclusively to recycling…


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