THE PLASTIC PROBLEM
Recycling plastic is not the solution – we must stop using it.
THE CARBON CYCLE
The pre-industrial carbon cycle, exchanging carbon between organisms and atmosphere, has evolved and established itself over millions of years.
Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic lifecycle.
This disrupts the balance of the carbon lifecycle and is one of the driving elements of the green house effect and climate change. (1)
Huge Methane emissions occur during fossil fuel extraction. A recent study (2) concludes, that todays Methane emissions are 30-120 times greater than pre-industrial era – half of which (82 Mt) resulting from oil and gas operations. (3)
This is especially relevant, as Methane is an 84 times more powerful green house gas than CO2. (4)
None of the mass-produced plastics biodegrade in any meaningful way. However, sunlight weakens the materials, causing fragmentation into particles known to reach millimeters or micrometers in size. (5) Microplastics can be found literally everywhere on our planet today – bringing with them all additives.
"Plastics never really go away. They just break down over and over and over again until they become smaller and smaller from sunlight and other environmental factors." – Dianna Parker, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (6)
PLASTIC IS WASTE
An estimated 29% of all plastics ever produced are currently in use. Between 1950 and 2015, cumulative waste generation of primary and secondary (recycled) plastic waste amounted to 6300 Mt.
Of this, approximately 12% have been incinerated and 9% have been recycled, only 10% of which (0.9%) have been recycled more than once. Around 59% of all plastics ever produced were discarded and are accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment. (5)
Plastic production is estimated to continually grow by 3.5%-4% annually in the coming decade. (1)
RECYCLING IS DOWNCYCLING
Before 1980, plastic recycling was negligible. Since then, only non-fibre plastics have been subject to significant recycling efforts – meaning in our field of textiles: it's not happening.
For non-fibre plastics, on the basis of limited available data, the highest recycling rates in 2014 were in Europe (30%) and China (25%), whereas in the United States, plastic recycling has remained steady at 9% since 2012.
To date, end-of-life textiles (fibre products) do not experience significant recycling rates and are thus incinerated or discarded together with other solid waste.
Recycling bottles to make textiles – which a lot of brands claim to be sustainable – is actually making the problem worse: in this case Polyester or Nylon is taken from an already incomplete loop, and the possibility of it being recycled is further prevented by making fiber products and adding other substances to it in the process.
In the best case it delays the waste – but directly results in even more new plastic having to be fed into the primary cycle. (1)
Unfortunately many consumer goods certificates, including the HIGG Index used by a lot of fashion brands, support greenwashing by not considering the total impact of plastics.
Plastic textile production is almost three times higher than that of all natural fibres combined – and this number is increasing. (7)
1. Beyond Plastics – The New Coal: Plastics & Climate Change (2021), https://www.beyondplastics.org...
2. Nature – Preindustrial Carbon-14 indicates greater anthropogenic fossil Methane emissions (2020), https://www.nature.com/article...
3. IEA - Methane and Gas, Methane Tracker 2020, https://www.iea.org/reports/me...
4. Nature, 'Methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production in Canada are underestimated' (2021), www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-87610-3
5. Science Advances – Production, Use and Fate of all plastics ever made (2017), https://www.science.org/doi/10...
7. Changing Markets Foundation, 'Fossil Fashion: A New Look at the Fashion Industry', Report (2022), www.changingmarkets.org/portfolio/fossil-fashion