Even recycling plastics is an issue. Here's why

It’s a 21st century malady - what was once dubbed as a ‘miracle’ material that gave us convenience, durability (and let’s not forget - cheap) has been rapidly encroaching upon every aspect of our planet - landfills, oceans, and even in our bodies, and is a large contributor to climate change. 

Plastic as a threat is an existential one, be it towards the environment, wildlife, or public health. There can perhaps can be no greater example than with microplastics, which have been found near our drinking water supply - that's right, we may just very well be drinking plastic. 
Of course, plastics are just about rampant in every industry, but make no mistake about it, product packaging contributes to a significant amount of waste that ends up in our landfills.


How does the beauty industry contribute to plastic waste?

By now, we’re well aware of the pervasiveness of plastics - single-use plastics such as disposables, shopping bags, packaging of personal care products, and even in sanitary pads, as they are cheap, light and durable.
And within the beauty and personal care industry itself , 61% of product packaging reported in 2018 is plastic, which comes in the form of bottles, compacts, tubes, and tubs. These non-biodegradable waste will likely end up in landfills and in our natural environments.
Packaged products are often used for promotional and branding purposes, which create even more unnecessary waste. A jar of moisturizer might be wrapped in additional decorative plastics or cardboard boxes to appeal to consumers. While packaging looks great, they often end up in the trash immediately after opening.

So, just how large is this plastic issue?

An alarming amount of 949,300 tonnes - that's 949,300,000 kg - of plastic were generated last year in Singapore alone (source: NEA). Out of which, only 6% were recycled, and the rest, disposed of. Unfortunately, the amount of plastic generated in Singapore has increased by 40.5% since 2003, while the proportion of plastic recycled has fallen.

Globally, 9.1 billion tonnes of plastic have been generated since 1950, which can bury the whole of Singapore by 260 meters. Sadly, the majority of plastic generated are not recycled and often end up in landfills or the incinerators, both of which come with consequences.

If that’s the case, what actually happens to the empty plastic shampoo bottle that I threw into the recycling bin?

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), recyclables in the blue recycling bin are sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), sorted into different waste streams, baled or compacted before being sent to local or overseas recycling plants.

Image source: NEA


Check out this video by Eco Business about what happens to the items you dispose of in the blue recycling bins!

Along with many other countries, Singapore exports a huge proportion of its recyclable plastic overseas. However, since July 2017, China has stopped importing recyclable waste. Though Singapore still exports some of its plastic waste to neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia, it is very likely that remaining plastic waste ends up in the incinerator regardless of whether it was placed in the recycling bin. Even then, your best bet at recycling plastics is to dispose of them in the blue recycling bins for now.


What can we do?

Ideally, the best way to reduce plastic waste is to reduce usage - reducing and refusing should always come before recycling. It is practically impossible to avoid using plastic entirely, but you can definitely cut down on them.

Consider actively looking out for products that are minimally packaged and reusable. Also look out for materials that are sustainable. For instance, glass as a form of packaging is quickly gaining traction in the beauty industry.

And if you've ever felt like you've maximized the personal use of a particular product, consider gifting them away, or dropping them off at the Pantry. This helps to extend the life cycle of a product, prolonging its use before ending up in the landfills, for a practice that is more mindful of each other and the planet.