The biggest chunk of today’s plastics are in disposable packaging, like the ubiquitous water bottle. They make up about 40 percent of non-fiber plastics, Geyer said.
“It’s by far the largest consuming sector, which of course means that packaging then becomes plastic waste rather quickly,” he said. And while recycling rates have improved in recent years, it’s “still disappointingly low” at around 15 percent.
“Plastics recycling is very challenging economically and technically,” Geyer said. Since plastics are produced largely from petroleum, they get cheaper when oil prices are down, making recycled plastic less competitive.
“Whenever fossil fuels are cheap, recycled plastics have a hard time competing economically,” he said. “It’s also a challenge because in order to get high-quality secondary plastics, you need to separate all the different polymers and make sure it doesn’t get contaminated.”
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While plastics are durable and lightweight, nearly all commercial plastics are non-biodegradable — meaning they remain in the environment for decades before breaking down. Plastic waste is everywhere, collecting on roadsides and in ocean gyres. Fish and birds are eating the stuff, and one 2016 study projected the seas may hold more plastic than fish by mid-century.
Geyer said the findings “tell me that we need all tools in the sustainable materials management toolbox” to get a handle on the problem.
“We do need to recycle. We need to consider waste-to-energy technologies, like is done quite a lot in Europe and China,” he said. “But it also points to an opportunity to just use less plastic. Any plastic that never gets produced does not need to be discarded.”