What happens when you toss your water bottle in the trash?
Think you’ve done enough by making sure your waste plastic goes in the right recycling bin? Perhaps you imagine it floating off to a happy place, returning in a few months as a soda bottle or fibres in your newest sweater?
The fate of the items we throw out is far from certain. As of 2015, around 9% of all the plastic waste ever generated had been recycled, while 12% was incinerated and 79% was sitting in landfill or the natural environment, according to research published in Science Advances.
“There are essentially three different fates for plastic waste,” recycling, incineration or dumping, the authors of that report, including Roland Geyer and Jenna Jambeck, wrote. “Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal.”
The fate of plastic matters since we’ve become so dependent on it and its many benefits. Even so, our plastic habit has created some well-known challenges, with some items taking as long as 1,000 years to break down. Fostering a circular economy – a key plank of the World Economic Forum’s work – is one way to address this issue, and could represent a $4.5 trillion global growth opportunity by 2030.
While most policymakers support the idea of a circular economy – one that aims to minimise waste and make the most of resources – business leaders who backed a public-private initiative, supported by the World Economic Forum, expressed frustration at the slow pace and limited scope of progress.
Until recently, it’s been relatively easy for developed nations to offload their recycling burdens on to developing ones, with many tonnes of plastic exported to China and India. Now, those countries are clamping down, with India’s government banning imported solid plastic waste, after China led the way.
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