Gutted Market for Recycled Plastics Hits Waste-Picker Communities Hard
Businesses that commit to incorporating more (and more) recycled plastic into their supply chains will be rewarded for putting the health of the oceans and the well-being of millions of informal waste workers around the world ahead of short-term profit, according to Plastics for Change CEO Andrew Almack.
In a recent opinion piece for Reuters, Almack warns businesses against tossing out their recycling goals as foundering oil markets make virgin plastics ever more temptingly cheaper.
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“Plastic waste is a concern for many businesses, especially in the packaging industry, where ‘branded litter’ flows into ocean-bound waterways at an unprecedented rate of almost a truckload per minute,” notes Almack. With pandemic-related plastic use skyrocketing, he urges businesses instead to “seize the moment and take measurable steps towards a circular economy.”
At the current pace of growth in plastic use and production, the products’ greenhouse gas emissions “could reach 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030, the same amount released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants,” writes Almack, referring to analysis released last year by the U.S. Center for International Environmental Law and five other organizations.
And the waste is causing more immediate harms to human life, as well: some 15 million workers around the globe, who “serve as the backbone of the recycling sector in emerging economies,” are being exploited and “entrenched in poverty” as they provide this essential service. With the deep lack of transparency in the sector, “brands rarely have any insight into the activities at the base of their supply chains,” he adds.
Now, as the pandemic crushes the market for recycled content, those millions of utterly unprotected waste pickers have been largely thrown out of work, putting them and their families in yet more peril—this time from starvation.
“Even as there appears to be a relaxation in lockdown restrictions, their health and safety remains at risk as there is little infrastructure development in these systems,” Almack says.
While organizations like Plastics for Change are working to support these vulnerable communities through the pandemic and its immediate fallout, true success will depend on creating more demand for recycled plastic, and insisting on transparency throughout the supply chain.
Those businesses not motivated by humanitarian imperatives will soon find their ethical failure reflected in their bottom lines, Almack adds. “The UK recently revealed that the plastic packaging tax will see companies paying £200 per tonne of packaging made from less than 30% recycled plastic from April 2022.”