Steve Thairu Mbaki

Plastic Recycling and Closure


From generation to generation, young people are less and less exposed to nature. We live more and more in urban spaces. It’ll be difficult to explain to future generations how it used to be: a diverse nature with a variety of birds, insects, fish, and other species. Most children today only know of mostly plastic-built games; think Legos. Plastic is everywhere, in the snow, fused with rocks (Plastiglomerate, a new kind of geological material created by agglomerates of plastics), in the food we eat, it is also found in babies because plastic can pass through the placenta. Is it safe to say that the first ‘transhuman’ babies are already here? We consume 5g of plastic every week; to put it into perspective this amounts to a credit card a week. This is no new knowledge, peer-reviewed publications on plastic impacts date back to the 1980s. 

With the Anthropocene, we are facing complexity. Is it possible to deal with this complexity? The fact that there’s so much plastic waste in the world is worrying. Most people think that recycling is the biggest thing they can do to fight climate change. Plastic tends to have a lower environmental impact for most metrics with the exception of its non-degradability and marine pollution. Nonetheless, despite many documented cases, it’s widely acknowledged that the full extent of impacts on ecosystems is not yet known.

Packaging, our subject of focus, plays an important role in safely and hygienically distributing products in today’s modern society’s supply chains with the aid of plastic. The packaging sector is a large user of plastic materials. Plastic packaging has a lot of environmental impacts, it is the biggest contributor to plastic pollution. The Western world is the biggest emitter of plastic waste where they ship most of their trash to overseas countries. Research shows there is a  sense of reward one gets knowing that the products can be made into new shoes, bags or other products. This has led to there being a  feeling of recycling is better than reusing resulting in an increase in waste. 

Before we embark on this journey, I had to ask myself what people’s relation to plastic is. I took to questioning a few people in different parts of the world. What I gathered helped me to see that everyone has a different association with plastic. It is so intertwined in our lives that it is practically impossible to see the great stride that human beings have made over the past 100 years without it. If we consider it to be our everyday life with all the positive attributes it comes with; is it wrong to try and get rid of it?

There have been many documented incidents of the impact of plastic on ecosystems and wildlife. Packaging is now a primary user of virgin materials, because of the needed material quality. The amount of packaging material has been growing in past years, as a consequence of retail developments, including its increased convenience.

Timothy Morton defines hyperobject as entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place. A hyperobject could be a very long-lasting product of direct human manufacturers, such as plastic packaging, or the sum of all plastic made.

What happens to the plastic fuels extracted from the earth after they have been used and discarded? They are never lost. Their constituent atoms are rearranged and eventually dispersed in a diluted and unusable form into the air, the soil, and the waters of the earth. The natural ecological systems can absorb many of the effluents of human activity and reprocess them into substances that are usable by, or at least harmless to, other forms of life. When any waste is released on a large enough scale, however, the natural absorptive mechanisms can become too  saturated. The plastic waste of human civilization can build up in the environment until they become visible, harmful and downright annoying.

Unsustainable systems occur when current progress is at the expense of future generations. According to Dana Meadows from a systems perspective, we have to ask ourselves, why are these unsustainable behaviours justifiable and rational? As elements of this system, we cooperate with the rules and avoid defecting from these rules. Therefore, as she states, people act in specific perverse ways; these unsustainable actions are not usually the fault of the individuals, with some exceptions. Rather, there is something wrong with the system that causes us to act unsustainably.

The impact of plastic production and handling is lower than the impacts which would result from food waste without packaging. Around 4 percent of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics and a similar amount is used as energy in the process. Yet over a third of current production is used to make items of packaging, which are then rapidly discarded. Reducing packaging where it is used in excess is useful, however, abandoning packaging completely would have serious implications for food security, safety, and would ultimately lead to large increases in the environmental impact of food. This is our first lock-in. The question is, therefore: Is plastic the best material to use for packaging? Which material is ‘best’ for the environment? There is no universal consensus on ‘best’ or ‘worst’ materials. Materials have different relative impacts across different environmental metrics. This ultimately leads to trade-offs. It starts from the concept of a hyperobject and turns it into a feedback loop. 

When a new innovation is being adopted, one is not just adopting the object, but the idea and the vision of the innovation. My goal is to paint the issue that is plastic and practices arising from the systems in plastic packaging. This comes from the position that recycling is insufficient as we do not recycle 1/2 of the plastic waste.

Is plastic a zombie technology? A quick search on the internet will show that; in 2018, packaging accounted for 46% of global plastic waste generation. This was considerably higher than any other sector, with synthetic textiles making up the second highest share with approximately 15%. This is due to poor infrastructure and a lack of recycling options, products often end up in landfill sites (especially in the global south), and our oceans, causing significant environmental pollution. In the past decades, the focus has been on reducing the amount of packaging material per unit of packed volume. Typically, this includes light-weighting and other marginal improvements.

In the past years, we have observed a trend away from reusable packaging towards single-use in all countries without strict legislation on reuse. This development has resulted in increased materials use, a rapidly increasing waste volume and environmental impacts related to materials use. The response strategies to reduce the volume and impact of materials used have mostly been focused on light-weighting and recycling. However, switching to reusable packaging can also have negative impacts, if not carefully managed e.g. increased use of unrecyclable plastic materials, increased transport movements, complex logistics, cleaning, food safety, and other impacts on the societal level. Hence, a reusable system is not necessarily a feasible or sustainable alternative for all supply chains and packaging.

The challenge of a circular economy is to close material loops. In practice, this means that the circle has to be as small as possible to retain the material qualities needed to serve its original function; but in this magnitude, it is hard to keep up. Reusing products and materials for as long as possible reduces the need for virgin materials and reduces the environmental footprint of materials used if the loops are closed in sustainable ways. 

Even when you shut down something, something else remains mostly considered as waste. The functioning can stop but the shell remains. The nature of the commons has shifted, now we need to take care of the decommission. Will the movement have an impact on industrial practices? You have a trajectory: the function is no longer operating but then the shell remains and has a new trajectory. What do we do with it? Who takes care of it? You are interrupting a trajectory but that does not mean it stops entirely. 

We complexify the model of shutting down: leave things behind it, be aware of that, and make sure they are taken care of, and that it doesn’t open counterproductive possibilities. Plastic packaging is omnipresent. We will look at it as things that we shut down, the things that remain and the things that remain and could be reused in a counterproductive fashion. How do we live without plastic packaging on a village, metropolitan, state, or international level? Draft paths to give up plastic in different fields. 

If we redirect the packaging industry it still means we have the previously made packages and as we can see not everything is recycled. What does this mean? We will see an increase in alternative packaging and product prices as a whole because all other packaging compared to plastic is more expensive. This then will have a rebound effect of scarcity of the newly adopted finite packaging options. This new normal might lead to a mass uprising and civil unrest because the cost will skyrocket all over the world and affect life. A new possibility of monopolies will arise and people in the plastic manufacturing industry will definitely lose their jobs.

With the loss of employment new challenges might arise; making sure everyone has an acceptable offer solution will be nearly impossible, and most won’t agree to go elsewhere to work as many won’t have the skills to do so. An increase in the crime rate will be noticeable. Then what next? If we take time and do one-to-one interviews with all employees to find an appropriate solution for everyone it will cost a lot of money. Who will bear the cost?

If we look at the industries, specific machines cannot be redirected. What can we do with them? Most of the food that requires plastic packaging will go bad as current alternatives are temporary. This might lead to food shortage and the consequent mass starvation. We might see a rise in fishing practices as there won’t be plastic to harm the fish in the oceans.

The recycling plants heavily depend on plastic packaging as it is the most convenient plastic to recycle. The plants might be declared irrelevant in a few years. This might lead us down the path of the same problem of building and machinery that has no duality in its function.

We cannot forget to mention some advantages we can derive from this closure. New packaging solutions; we are turning to bamboo materials for packaging and other biodegradable options which have already been released into the market. Growth in research on how to get rid of plastic packaging pollution. Gjenge, a company in Kenya, has recycled over 100 tonnes of plastic waste by turning plastic waste into affordable beautiful building materials. It is a slang word that comes from the Swahili verb “Jenga” which means to build. They have managed to recycle waste into paving bricks that come in an array of colours.

Researchers are also looking at the plastic that cannot be recycled by breaking it down using plastic-eating enzymes that turn it into a simpler form to turn it into CO2 (that can be captured) and water. This will in turn lead to cleaner oceans and there won’t be landfills that increase the CO2 and methane in the earth’s atmosphere.

This will lead to a positive change in the environment where biodiversity will gain from this and the most affected people (south of the Anthropocene) might once again have blue oceans and clear rivers that they will benefit from. This will improve health (especially infertility caused by plastic pollution) and better lifestyles.

The probable solution would be to complexify the model of shutting down: make the first step, be aware of that, and make sure they are taken care of, and that it doesn’t open counterproductive possibilities. The transformational changes of the immediate future will challenge many packaging players. Nevertheless, these changes will also offer real growth opportunities for organisations pursuing the right focus and actions. With the different scenarios drafted, we can see that this change will mean different things to individuals, communities, livelihoods, states and countries.