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.
Besides our previously discussed issue of microbeads that end up in our oceans, plastics used in product packaging contribute 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 is plastic, which comes in the form of bottles, compacts, tubes, and tubs. Given its portability and sturdiness, plastic cosmetic product packaging is expected to further increase by 12% by 2019. That means even more non-biodegradable waste that 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 moisturiser 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 815, 200 tonnes - that's 739,537,000 kg - of plastic were generated last year in Singapore alone. 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.
Check out this video by Eco Business about what happens to the items you dispose of in the blue recycling bins! (Unfortunately, this video cannot be embedded, but we really do encourage you guys to watch it.)
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, especially on disposables. Taking small steps to bring your own lunchboxes and bags, and actively looking out for products that are minimally packaged, reusable and recyclable can go a long way. Let’s do this one step at a time!