Experts on Camera

Dr. Kate O’Neill: Plastic recycling

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Many cities and states are changing their plastic recycling practices.

On Tuesday, September 13, 2022, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Kate O’Neill, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley. She discussed topics including: why some jurisdictions have suspended their recycling programs, or are sending recyclables to a dump or incinerator—and how these local decisions are impacted by global shifts in plastic recycling practices; what the research shows about effects, or potential future effects, of state legislation such as: California’s new law requiring that all packaging in the state must be recyclable or compostable within ten years, “Extended responsibility” (also called “polluter pay”) laws, and “Advanced recycling” (also called “chemical recycling”) requirements in 19 states; her research on the impacts of restrictions on single-use plastics; and common misconceptions about plastic recycling.

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KATE O’NEILL: I’m Kate O’Neill. I’m a professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, and I study the global and local politics of wastes and plastics.


Interview with SciLine

How big is the plastic waste problem?


KATE O’NEILL: Plastic wastes are a huge problem. And this is a problem that’s been under the radar for quite a long time, but we’ve become more and more aware of in recent years. So, plastics production has gone up from 21% around the world in the last 12 years, and that has helped drive the generation of more and more plastic waste. So, in 2020, globally, we produced around 350 million tons, and that’s a doubling since the year 2000. And one of the reasons why that waste production has doubled has been a growing use of single-use plastics, especially for consumers. So, we’re thinking about straws, plastic cups, plastic water bottles, plastic bags and all of those disposable forks, knives, foodware, plastic cups and so on that we pick up for takeout, that we pick up when we buy our coffee every morning, and just simply throw away immediately. So, those kinds of plastics are seen as one of the growing areas and one of the more problematic parts of the plastic waste stream.

Why is all this plastic such a problem?


KATE O’NEILL: It’s a big problem for a number of reasons, not just because there’s a whole pile of it­­—piles of it building up around the world. It is also hard to recycle. So, we think about plastic recycling­­—what we don’t realize is that only a small fraction of plastics are recycled­­—less than 10% in the U.S., for example, a figure that holds worldwide. And not only is less recycled, but it also can usually be recycled only once, unlike things like steel or paper, which can be continuously recycled. So, already we have a big problem of disposal. And when it does get disposed of­­—particularly if it falls into the ocean somehow or even dumped on land­­—we’re increasingly discovering, first of all, the dangers to marine life, both in terms of ingesting pieces of plastic, but also in terms of nanoparticles and microbeads of plastic that wind up being absorbed up through the food chain to the point that we are now seeing it appear in human blood and other tissues within our bodies.

So, that’s one problem­­—so ocean life, human health. And another thing we’re realizing is that plastics production overall, which is of course driving this massive increase in waste, is having huge climate impacts. The overuse and input of fossil fuels in plastics production­­—this increasing use, plus the failure to recycle and dispose properly of plastics over time actually are helping to contribute to the global warming crisis.

Why have some places stopped recycling plastics?


KATE O’NEILL: Well, I think the big reason why we’re seeing such a crisis in plastics recycling, especially in the last five years or so, is that we lost our biggest market. Now, recycling is a good thing. We do it because we want to. We have the technology to do it. But in fact, recycling­­—unless there is a market for the recycled product or for the scrap itself, then it will never get recycled. And until 2018, in fact, China was the world’s leading importer of plastic waste. It imported more than half of the U.S.’s waste, especially on the West Coast, and 42% globally. And in 2018, it just simply stopped for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it no longer wanted to be seen as the world’s dumping ground. So, this sent absolute shockwaves through the recycling markets in Europe, in the United States and other parts, particularly of the developed world. And as a result, the loss of this revenue for recycling authorities and recycling companies meant that they had to stop picking up all kinds of recyclables that became uneconomic. And as a result, a lot more trash has gone into landfills, into the oceans, or just simply lying around in the environment.

What can you tell us California’s new law, requiring that all packaging in the state be recyclable or compostable?


KATE O’NEILL: Well, in June of this year, 2022, the California State Assembly passed State Bill 54­­—SB 54­­—which has to do with plastic pollution and getting rid of plastics both in the environment, but also as it circulates through production, consumption, etc. And this rule, this new law has the potential to be revolutionary. It mandates all packaging in California to be recyclable or compostable within 10 years, so by 2032. And this is not just plastics that is produced in California, but it’s all plastics that enter the state or single-use plastic. It’s not just plastic. It’s also the single use of other materials. But California, as many people know, is one of the largest economies, not only in the United States, where it is the largest economy, but one of the largest economies in the world. And because of this, it is a major market. And therefore companies that produce packaging are much more likely to produce packaging to fit rules in California. And this will cause a ratcheting-up and improvement of recycling laws, if we’re lucky, across­­—and packaging production laws, as I should say­­—across the U.S. and maybe even beyond.

What are extended producer responsibility laws?


KATE O’NEILL: Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, as we call it, is a type of environmental regulation that has a long history in Europe, but also with certain products within the United States. What it means is essentially making producers of these goods responsible for what happens to them once the consumer has finished with them and throws them away. So, what this is doing is making producers pay­­—take these products back or pay for them to be disposed within­­—by local means and local recyclers and so on, and therefore kind of internalizing that cost. It used just to be able to, like, pass it on to local authorities, to the environment, but no longer.

And we’ve seen this quite effectively in the electronics world, but people often cite most effectively the mattress world. When you get rid of your mattresses, you throw out your old­­—you buy a new mattress. And the people who are selling it to you are going to take away the old one, take it apart, reuse certain components and dispose, presumably well, of the rest. So, we’re now seeing this as a potential solution for plastics and other kinds of single-use packaging­­—in particular maybe foodware in the future. And states like Maine and Oregon have already passed this legislation. It’s still being implemented, but they are mandating or will mandate plastic­­—the producers of plastic packaging in their states to pay into funds that can then be used to enhance recycling or to pay to take that plastic back themselves.

What are the impacts of restrictions on single-use plastics?


KATE O’NEILL: The restrictions on single-use plastics have become much more common in recent years as part of zero waste initiatives around cities and towns and states in the United States. This includes foodware­­—single-use foodware. It also includes plastic cups. And it includes plastic bags. In fact, plastic bags are the kind of single-use plastic­­—the kind of restriction­­—single-use plastic restrictions that we’ve seen for the longest time. Actually, the first ones were put in place in the early 2000s in Bangladesh to deal with flooding and the fact the plastic bags were clogging the drains through which the floods should be receding. Now it’s become more and more common in U.S. to have these restrictions. California is one state that restricts or bans plastic­­—single-use plastic grocery bags. And it’s been seen, especially in other parts of the world, as being quite effective. Anecdotally, we’re seeing many fewer plastic bags washing up on beaches when people do beach clean-ups. And then there are some studies to show that fewer plastic bags are accumulating on the ocean floor and the continental shelves around countries­­—borders around their landmasses.

What are some common misconceptions about plastic recycling?


KATE O’NEILL: Well, there’s misperceptions on, I’d say, either way. Some people have said, well, why bother recycling plastics at all? It’s all going to get thrown away. And others are like, we must keep recycling because recycling is so important. And in the first case, certainly we’ve learnt over time that certain kinds of plastics are more recyclable than others. So, the plastics to recycle are the hard plastics. They’ve got number one or number two stamped within the chasing arrows. Those actually do get easily reused, broken down and put into different kinds of packaging. And there’s a demand for them. There’s been an undersupply for a few years as the big companies are trying to use them to meet recycled packaging goals.

Now, other kinds of plastics are far less recyclable, and that is definitely a problem, and one that­­—one area in which plastics laws are really trying to address. So, plastic bags are a good example, that they are not really recyclable and can actually be dangerous in sorting lines as they tangle the machinery. So, on the other hand, people get­­—want to recycle and really feel like, you know, this is the way that we can sort of help the environment as households without having to totally cut down on what we buy or really pay attention to packaging. And this means­­—this sort of leads to a mentality of, well, if it’s­­—if I think it’s recyclable, it might be recyclable. Well, let me put it in the recycling bin just in case. This is the right thing to do. And that is actually the wrong thing to do. What people need to actually be able to think about is this product­­—what they don’t think about is that too many mixed products can actually contaminate the recycling and actually lead to a whole bunch being thrown out. So, the mantra that we’re trying to push as people who are pro-recycling in my group is when in doubt, throw it out, not put it in the recycling bin.