Country and material type are drivers of plastic pollution

Country vs. Material Type: What’s the Bigger Driver of Plastic Pollution?

For this data story, we analyzed countries and material types as a driver of plastic pollution. As you'll learn, a conscious choice of materials can have as much of a positive impact as the engagement for better waste management systems in your sales regions.

Earlier this month, the environmental analytics platform PLASTEAX shared some of their datasets for public use. Critical thinking is in my DNA – I have always enjoyed discovering insights from data to accelerate environmental action. That’s why I took the time to analyze their data and share the most important insights with you. 

What really struck me was their finding that “the difference in recycling rates is highest amongst different polymers rather than amongst countries”. I wanted to analyze this in more detail and sat down to work with the data. You can find my commented insights below and access the interactive charts here

Data Speak Louder Than Words

Insight 1: Mismanagement Rates Vary Substantially by Country and Material Type

This chart shows the Mismanaged Waste Index (MWI) on the x-axis and the respective country and material type on the y-axis. PLASTEAX defined the MWI  as the sum of uncollected and improperly managed plastic waste, divided by the total plastic waste generated. The other (“more proper”) types of plastic waste management are recycling, export for recycling, and disposal in a waste management system where no leakage is expected to occur (e.g., incineration facility or sanitary landfill).

Insight 2: Mismanagement Rates Differ More by Country Than Material Type

The boxplots illustrate the spread of the mismanaged waste index (MWI) by country and material type. Starting with the focus on countries at the top, we find an interquartile range (IQR) of 32 percentage points and a median MWI of 69%. For material types, we find an IQR of 7 percentage points and a median MWI of 70%.

In conclusion, the spread of MWI tends to be wider for countries than material types. At the same time, the median values are relatively similar. Although the analyzed sample contains higher mismanagement rates for countries, the variance around the median makes it risky to confirm the statistical significance of this finding.

Insight 3: Recycling Rates Differ More by Material Type Than Country

The boxplots illustrate the spread of the recycling rate by country and material type. Starting with the focus on countries at the top, we find an interquartile range (IQR) of 11 percentage points and a median recycling rate of 5%. For material types, we find an IQR of 7 percentage points and a median recycling rate of 4%. However, two material types (HDPE and PET) are outliers that increase the spread of recycling rates. 

In conclusion, when including the outliers, the spread of recycling rates tends to be wider for material types than for countries. This is in alignment with the findings made by PLASTEAX. At the same time, the median recycling rates are relatively similar for countries and material types. Unfortunately, as with Insight 2, the variance around the median makes it risky to confirm the statistical significance of this finding.

Let's Connect the Dots

How Does This All Fit Together?

As we’ve seen, the country is a determining factor when it comes to the risk of plastics ending up in nature. Countries with better waste management systems are less likely to mismanage plastics. However, such countries still face the challenge of recycling certain material types. While HDPE and PET are more likely to be recycled, composite (or multi-layered) materials, LDPE, and PS usually undergo non-circular treatment even in the more advanced countries.

It turns out that a conscious choice of materials can have as much of a positive impact as the engagement for better waste management systems in your sales regions.

Dominic Santschi, Co-Founder of Ampliphi Tweet

Unfortunately, there’s a caveat – the sole focus on material types omits another important explanatory variable for mismanagement and recycling rates: the application level. The application level (e.g., rigid bottle as primary packaging, flexible film used in logistics) often has a considerable impact on the end of life processing opportunities. 

Although PLASTEAX is working on achieving this next level of granularity, the data for in-depth analysis on a material type by application level remains to be optimized. 

This limitation poses a challenge to consumer brands as they cannot just switch from let’s say an LDPE pouch for their food packaging to a PET pouch to increase the recycling rate. The chemical properties and manufacturing methods used to optimize the material performance restrict the degree of circularity. 

Sounds Complicated? We’re Happy to Help

Let’s close with the good news: Consumer brands can take informed environmental action by switching from composite (or multi-layered) materials to mono-materials. While this won’t lead to a massive increase of recycling rates in the short run, our waste management systems will appreciate it as this switch can lead to a substantial decrease in end of life processing costs, which ultimately drives the incentives for recycling.

Are you ready to accelerate a circular economy? Reach out today to kickstart your plastic action journey.

Disclaimer

My analyses follow the methodology developed by PLASTEAX. My sample includes publicly available data from six countries: Cyprus, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, and Vietnam. The sample is limited to the most frequently used plastic material types for packaging. Further research is needed to confirm the statistical significance of the insights discussed in this post.

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