What you don’t see: Shining a light on the dark side of plastic recycling

Tom Fisk

What you don’t see: Shining a light on the dark side of plastic recycling

Plastic consumption in high-income countries is on the rise despite increasing awareness of the plastic pollution problem. Recent research has revealed that consumers are driven to use more plastic because they don’t see the waste in their local environment. Instead, it is exported to low-income countries, conveniently taken out of sight and out of mind of the people most responsible.

Barnes, S. (2019). Out of sight, out of mind: Plastic waste exports, psychological distance and consumer plastic purchasing. Global Environmental Change 58.

Plastic is omnipresent in our lives, and “reduce, reuse, recycle” is the mantra we are taught to combat the plastic waste problem. Giving plastics a second life through the process of recycling sounds great in theory but can also cause unintended consequences that are difficult to manage. High-income countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, export plastic waste to developing countries to clean their local environment and reduce the perceptions of waste mismanagement in their own countries. A new study, however, finds that this practice influences consumers to use even more plastic.

In a study published in Global Environmental Change, Dr. Stuart Barnes developed and tested a research model that examined data on plastic consumption from 49 countries across the world. His analysis utilizes data from high-, middle- and low-income countries.

The study found that when plastic waste is exported from a country, residents’ perception of a lack of waste leads them to believe that their waste is well managed. This, in turn, drives up plastic consumption. Plastic waste becomes what Dr. Barnes calls an “out of sight, out of mind problem.”

The study examined the problem of plastic waste through the lens of the “construal level theory.” This theory proposes that the greater the distance between a person and an object in terms of space or time, the higher the chance that the person will think about it in more abstract terms. For example, the less plastic waste in a country, the fewer people that will see it as an issue. Despite producing more plastic waste, individuals in less-polluted, higher-income countries tend to be less involved with plastic waste and recycling than those in lower-income countries.

Dr. Barnes posits that while exporting plastic waste is viewed as an effective waste management solution, especially in high-income countries, it is not a viable, long-term solution. If the destination country cannot manage the waste effectively, either due to poor policies or limited capacity, it will still pollute the environment. Dr. Barnes suggests that more behavioral research, innovation in plastic substitutes, and recycling of other materials not currently being recycled is needed. He also proposes that more policy action should be taken to ban the export of plastic waste from developed countries. This could halt the “out of sight, out of mind” nature of the problem and avoid putting the onus of dealing with plastic waste on solely developing countries.

This study provides useful insight into the problem of plastic pollution and how the burden of waste management shifts as the waste is exported. Plastic waste exportation by high-income countries is not a sustainable option, and more rigorous governmental action is needed to develop alternative solutions. Maybe this is the wake-up call needed to advocate for better solutions so that the next time a plastic item goes into the recycling bin, it will actually be recycled.

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