Around the world, plastic bags – or film – are thrown out with the general trash. It is mostly
seen as “unrecyclable” waste, partly because in developed countries, it is difficult to separate
from other recyclables in materials recovery facilities (MRFs). This has long led councils and
municipalities to discourage their residents from putting film in the recycling bin.
In developing countries that lack MRFs and therefore rely heavily on their informal recycling
networks, plastic film is often overlooked as a viable commercial waste stream. Post-consumer
film is seen as holding little value and not worth the effort to collect and sell. In Myanmar,
plastic film is the most polluted plastic type according to recent drone surveys, and that is why
Myanmar Recycles’ work of collecting and recycling post-consumer film is so vital – yet rare.
Recycling dirty plastic film requires a high level of technical competency that few recyclers are
willing to learn and invest in. It can also be expensive to collect because much of discard film’s
weight is water and dirt, not plastic itself, and without proper compression vehicles, it becomes
expensive to transport to recycling facilities.
As a result of both these dynamics, plastic film is either sent to a landfill or, worryingly, leaked
into the environment and ultimately out to sea.
In the last ten years, the problem has become far more visual, and people are not shy to educate
others on social media. From plastic winding up on beaches thousands of miles from their
starting place to sea animals and birds perishing from plastic entanglement to plastic in our own
food chain, the global consumer call to action is deafening.
Unfortunately, the full cost of handling plastic film for the entirety of its lifespan has not been
factored into the overall cost to society. The recycling infrastructure available to properly handle
plastic film has not been built because the full cost of disposing and recycling of plastic film was
never factored into the original price of the plastic products to begin with – which is generally
close to free for most single-use plastic bags given to consumers.
Fortunately, governments and markets are reacting by placing a tax on plastic producers and
users that is redistributed to collection and recycling companies in need of additional capital to
expand their operations and build more infrastructure.
The first Extended Produce Responsibility (EPR) scheme began in 1990 and now, 23 countries
apply a mandatory tax on plastic producers and brands dependent on plastic packaging to
account for plastic’s long-lasting negative externalities.
Just as encouraging is the development of global, voluntary plastic credits markets, such as 3R
Initiative’s forthcoming Plastic Credit Scheme. A vital aspect of these markets is that they are
borderless. Fifty-one percent of the world’s plastic is manufactured in Asia and 60% of the
world’s mismanaged plastic comes from Asia and Asia Pacific, but most countries in the region
do not have EPR systems. One such country is Myanmar; as Myanmar Recycles earns its accreditation from 3RI, we will help bring EPR benefits to a country that manufactures and consumes plastic packaging from many of the world’s largest consumer brands.
What is further promising is that the market understands how difficult it is to recycle film and
how recycling rates lag considerably behind other plastic items, such as PET bottles. EPR and
voluntary credit schemes had smartly designed their systems to value one kilogram of plastic
film higher than one kilogram of PET, thereby allocating more finance to problematic plastics –
a win for the environment, our oceans, and beaches.
It goes without saying that the countries and recipients of plastic credits (recovery and recycling
companies) are more than willing advocates of the scheme, but the initiatives can only succeed
when plastic corporations and packaging companies participate.
Due to the immense practicality and convenience of plastic packaging, the plastic packaging
market is expected to grow at over 5% per year over the next five years. It is a material that is
not going away, but Myanmar Recycles is addressing the excessive leakage into our environment
through properly pricing the material to help pay for its collection and repurposing.
Additionally, there is a global shift among consumers, governments, financial investors, and
even brands in the importance and urgency of tackling hard-to-recycle plastic film waste streams.
Producers must take greater responsibility for single-use packaging. They must sprint toward
solutions to not only financially and operationally support collection but also incorporate
recycled packaging back into their products – a call to action that consumers and the recycling
industry are heartily voicing.
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: MIMI WU
Mimi Wu is the Co-Founder and CEO of Myanmar Recycles.
Myanmar Recycles is a part of our Batch 1 End Plastic Waste in Singapore.