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Can we recycle our way out of the plastic crisis?

Neil King | Natalie Muller
July 21, 2023

Globally only 9% of all plastic waste is recycled. But why are mechanical recycling rates so low? And could chemical recycling help achieve our targets or is this the wrong approach to the plastic waste problem?


Interviewees featured in this episode:

Janine Korduan, senior program officer for circular economy with Friends of the Earth Germany 

  • "Product design is the key. We should stop producing packaging material that consists of seven different layers of plastic and paper."

Virginia Janssens, managing director of the trade federation Plastics Europe

  • "Chemical recycling has an essential role to play because in many cases it's the only method available for recycling particular kinds of plastic waste."

Christian Schiller, co-founder and CEO of cirplus

  • "The core underlying fundamental problem to solve in the plastic world is that we live in a world where virgin plastic is cheaper than high quality recycled plastics."

Tamara Galloway, professor of ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter, UK

  • "Do you want to be the company whose plastic bottle we take out of the stomach of a seal? Do you want us to show that brand? Of course you don’t. So design things differently!"


Plastics are made from fossil fuels. They require energy, money, resources to produce. In theory, almost all plastic products could be recycled or turned into something new at the end of their life. But in most cases, this isn’t happening. Because the bulk of the plastic we use ends up in landfill, gets incinerated, or leaks into nature.

Since the production of plastic took off in the 1950s, there have been around 10 billions of tons of it produced worldwide – so more than one ton for every person alive on this earth today.

And the amount of plastic is only growing. Around 430 million tons is currently produced every year. By some estimates, that could triple by 2060-- with significant costs for the environment if we don’t change the way we deal with it once we’re done using it.

Recycling is seen as one way to get a handle on plastic pollution. But only 9% is recycled globally. Germany recycles a little over 40% of its plastic waste. In the US only 5 to 6% is recycled, according to Greenpeace. And in the UK, it’s around 12%.

So why are recycling rates so low?

Here’s the thing: It’s usually cheaper to make new plastic from scratch from oil, than it is to collect and sort used plastic and recycle it into another product. The reason many plastics are not recycled is that it often doesn’t make economic sense to do so. But it doesn't have to be this way.

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On the Green Fence

This award-winning podcast is for those who want more than just the green angle when it comes to the environment and climate change.