Stop wishing, take action: how wishcycling has led us to a world of waste

Jenny Wassenaar
12 June, 23

Misconceptions around recycling have allowed society to turn a blind eye to reality. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics have been generated. Despite the recyclability of some plastics, only 9% have been recycled, 12% have been incinerated and a staggering 79% or  6.3 Billion metric tonnes of plastic waste are in landfill and counting, according to a study from the University of Georgia.

We know that most consumers are eager to see their packaging properly recycled after use, and also consider recyclability to be the most important sustainability attribute for packaging. However, in reality, it’s not always recycled. Even if it is deemed recyclable, once it hits the bin it travels a long journey until it finds its fate. One that has less than a 50% chance of ending up being recycled.

Our planet cannot afford for us to continue looking in the other direction to our waste problem. It’s time to embrace the truth, recycling is not the golden answer that we once thought it was so, as a society, we need to change our attitudes toward waste altogether.

The global recycling dilemma

Generally, consumers check the packaging to see if something is recyclable. If it is, for many, throwing it in the recycling bin is perceived as the end of its journey. However, the reality is very different, as even if an item is labelled as recyclable, it might not be processed in the local facility.

Even if packaging is collected, there is no guarantee that it will be recycled.  The Food Packaging Forum, states that plastic only has limited recycling possibilities. From waste management processes to chemical safety, and its material properties, many types of plastic ultimately can’t be recycled even if labelled otherwise, and if they can, their lifecycle is limited. This means consumers have to know which substrates can be processed at their local recycling facility in order to shop sustainably.

Even when plastics can be recycled, a Times report found that recycling plants across the UK are overwhelmed, with thousands of tonnes of plastic packaging waste ending up in incinerators due to a lack of capacity. Similarly, in Europe, approximately half of all collected recyclable plastic is exported overseas due to capacity problems. The situation is echoed across the world, with a 2022 OECD Report finding that the bulk of plastic ends up in landfill, incinerated, or leaks into the environment. Increasingly, news outlets have reported on countries protesting against the illegal dumping of plastic waste. In the EU, the European Parliament is currently reviewing a potential law that will introduce tighter rules on export waste, whereas the UK Government recently rejected a recommended ban on the export of plastics. Change is, hopefully, on its way, but we must still minimise the number of plastics entering our ecosystem to reduce pressure.

Making better material choices

With consistently mixed messaging, trying to do the right thing is not always clear, but brands can make a difference. Rather than focusing on recycling as a solution, brands must change their messaging and focus on reducing overall waste as a clearer measure of environmental impact.

Nearly two-thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with a lifetime of under five years. In other words, instead of relying on single-use packaging, brands should opt for infinitely recyclable materials that can be reused again and again, such as glass and metal. 80% of aluminium ever produced, for instance, is still in use today, as opposed to plastic, which can only safely be recycled 2-3 times.  

There are other environmental benefits to a material like metal, too. Metal holds high value within the marketplace and has one of the longest-established recycling infrastructures globally, which means brands can be more confident that their products are genuinely being recycled. And while traditional branding is done on an adhesive label, resulting in additional waste, when using metal, you can print directly onto the item, minimising material consumption.

Adopting this approach shows sustainable-minded consumers that a brand puts the environment first while standing apart from the crowd with its innovative packaging designs.According to the 2023 Buying Green Report, 82% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, so the appetite for change such as this is there.

Opting for the refillable choice

Refillable options are also on the rise, with the 2023 Green Buying Report finding that 80% of people are interested in buying products in refillable packaging. Refillable solutions can be reused time and time again, keeping materials out of the waste process, especially if they are made of infinitely recyclable materials, and are in use for much longer than typical packaging. Additionally, this also means that while you opt for refills you are not rebuying more single-use packaging for repeat product purchases, further reducing the strain on waste services.

No amount of recycling can change our problems

Responsibility does not lie with one party alone, and as well as brands and consumers, legislation has a huge part to play in changing the trajectory of the packaging industry. For example, the proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) in Europe aims to incentivize the use of recyclable packaging, including by -among other measures- placing market restrictions and higher extended producer responsibility (EPR) fees on packaging materials that are inherently difficult to recycle at scale.

For now, though, the world has a plastic waste problem. No amount of recycling can change this. At least, not while recycling plants globally can’t cope with demand. As such, brands need to be sure packaging is genuinely recyclable, and infinitely so – wherever suitable. Otherwise, we risk reaching a point where plastic pollution interferes irreversibly with our ecosystems.

The environment can no longer afford for the term recycling to be a scapegoat for our poor practices. Understanding the truth behind the process is the first step in relearning our attitudes toward waste and creating a sustainable future.

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