In the modern world, plastic waste recycling has become one of the more crucial activities to combat environmental degradation. The plastic pollution portal from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights that every year around 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced globally. Historically, 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled and 12% incinerated, with the remaining 79% going to landfills. Plastic is now truly found worldwide, including within our very food and water, and it is already negatively impacting both wildlife and human wellbeing. Due to a projected increase in plastic production and consumption, and its extensive lifespan, the picture is expected to turn bleaker still. In an effort to reverse – or at least slow – this trend, several countries, and regions are planning to increase their rate of recycling. For example, the EU target is to reach 55% plastic recycling by 2030, up from the current 41%.
Plastic waste management is certainly a challenge for Georgia too. Based on statistics from the Caucasus Environmental Knowledge Portal, the Georgian population on average produces around 29,000 tons of plastic waste every year, which represents 14.9% of all waste. Most plastic is currently sent to landfills, where – without action – it could remain for hundreds if not thousands of years, ever polluting the environment. The Georgian government, however, does seem willing to take this challenge head-on. According to the 2016-2030 National Strategy and Activity Plan of Waste Management, the government aims to reach 50% plastic recycling by 2025 (the same target set by the EU) and 80% plastic recycling by 2030. Regardless, it is unclear how this extremely ambitious target can be achieved when the Georgian plastic recycling industry is still underdeveloped.
One feature that could play in favor of such aspirational recycling plans is the value of plastic waste. Recycling plastic not only frees space in landfills (thus maintaining a healthier environment and keeping land available for other purposes), but it also allows for the production of valuable byproducts (plastic, gas, synthetic oils), while also saving energy and non-renewable resources like petroleum and other fossil fuels. For instance, Stanford University estimates that recycling a single ton of plastic saves 5,774 Kwh of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTU's of energy, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space. During the process, plastic recycling can moreover create new jobs and investment opportunities; according to the Caucasus Environmental Knowledge Portal, between 2011-2015 the plastic waste market potential in Georgia was valued at 534 million GEL.
There are currently around 15 domestic companies operating plastic recycling, though Georgia also seems to be an interesting investment opportunity for foreign companies. For example, in July 2020 the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development announced that Chinese investors are planning to move a mechanical plastic recycling plant from Southeast Asia to Khobi (these investors registered the Global Risaikling LTD company on 20 January 2020).
Were these companies able to operate at full capacity using locally generated waste they could help reduce plastic disposal in landfills, as well as plastic imports, therefore creating economic value while reducing potential environmental damage?
ARE WE REALLY GOING TO USE OUR OWN PLASTIC WASTE?
This is currently not the case. The Imereti Scientists’ Union, Spectri, highlights that many domestic plastic recycling companies are themselves dependent on imports; largely due to the lack of availability and poor quality of locally granulated plastic material, in turn, derived from the limited diffusion of differentiated waste collection and the lack of modern sorting techniques and technologies. Even the upcoming Chinese recycling plant, based on the investment project, is not solely aiming to use Georgian plastic waste.
As competition for domestically “produced” – processable – plastic waste increases, more and more companies (both national and international) operating in Georgia will likely follow the same path. Ultimately, the profitability of plastic recycling plants crucially depends on the capacity to operate at an optimal scale. This raises important questions about the quality of imported materials and the expected contribution of such a business model towards national plastic waste management and its environmental impact.
Consequently, it is important to ask whether companies would only import previously sorted and prepared material, or mixed plastic waste, part of which can be recycled mechanically, while the remainder is disposed of. This is hardly a trivial issue. In the best-case scenario, where all imported plastic is recycled, mixed with local plastic extracted from landfills, companies would contribute only marginally to a reduction of the plastic accumulated in Georgian landfills. Whereas in the worst-case scenario, the quantity of plastic in Georgian landfills might even increase.
Unfortunately, mechanical recycling – the technology currently utilized in Georgia, including in the forthcoming Chinese plant – cannot process every form of plastic waste. While it is effective for recycling PET (polyethylene), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and PP (polypropylene), mechanical recycling cannot be used to recover certain products, such as plastic films or multilayered and laminated plastics. Consequently, in the absence of alternate methods, such materials either remain in landfills or are incinerated.
CAN CHEMICAL RECYCLING HELP?
For several decades, globally, companies in the plastic recycling business, policymakers, and even chemical companies, have been looking towards chemical recycling as a possible solution. Chemical recycling – which is theoretically capable of dealing with mixed and contaminated plastics – is typically described as an ideal complement to mechanical recycling, and as a potential alternative to landfills and incineration. If properly developed, chemical recycling can be expected to lead to a dramatic increase in plastic reprocessing, and can even help transform waste into valuable resources by breaking down plastic into molecules that can be recombined into virgin plastic, as well as synthetic oil, and gas.
Unfortunately, despite its promise to substantially reduce plastic waste while generating economic value, chemical recycling does not yet appear to be fully established. Several international sources emphasize that chemical recycling technologies are still risky for the environment and human health, that they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and are quite energy-intensive. Based on expert GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) assessment, chemical recycling technologies are not expected to be a viable solution, fitting into a circular economy strategy, for at least another decade.
In summary, although plastic recycling can be a key tool in the fight against plastic waste and environmental degradation, it is far from the silver bullet that many hope for. Most plastic produced and consumed can still be expected to accumulate in landfills over, at least, the next ten years.
Until then, what can be done in Georgia to minimize the accumulation of plastic waste and slow the process of environmental degradation?
Firstly: go back to the basics. Recycling is just one of the four R’s of green living: reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurpose. Both public and private actors must thus be aware that recycling cannot fully substitute the other three core principles. Individuals and companies should each attempt to reduce the amount of plastic they consume and dispose of – by substituting plastic with other materials, whenever possible, and by opting for reusable products over mono-use. Reusing and repurposing plastic products would also help reduce the quantity of plastic dumped into the environment. As such, the government could encourage virtuous behavior and discourage undesirable traits, utilizing all available instruments, from awareness campaigns to the introduction of producer responsibility, and the imposition of standards, including smart taxes and subsidies.
Secondly: avoid doing harm while trying to do good. Encouraging investment in the plastic recycling sector, thus generating jobs and value-added, while cleaning the environment, sounds ideal. However, as we have seen, this is still more a hope than a reality, especially in a small developing country like Georgia. Proceeding too quickly in this direction risks a backfire, not only failing to deliver the expected benefits, but also triggering substantial and long-lasting damage. It is the responsibility of the government to actively monitor existing plastic recycling companies and prospective investors and to ensure that their activities are profitable both for the companies and the country as a whole.
Thirdly: develop a well-organized waste management system, supported by informed private citizens and companies. With the proper separation of waste at the household and firm-level; widespread recycling bins; a well-functioning differentiated waste collection system; and an active plastic waste market, the government’s ambitious targets might be achievable and could contribute to economic development and protection of the environment.
In conclusion, the battle against accumulated plastic waste in Georgian landfills, and the environment, can still be won, while also potentially supporting development in the country. However, this will not happen quickly, and everyone will have to play their part.