The disturbing truth about plastic recycling

Our oceans are now awash in at least 150 million tons of plastic, an amount that researchers say will soon surpass the weight of all the fish in the sea.

Plastic pollution fouls the land too, and the air we breathe.

Scientists now say plastic micro-particles literally rain down on us, introducing toxins into our bodies. And if you think recycling is the answer, you are sadly mistaken. You can be excused for believing that you’re doing your part for the environment by simply sorting your plastics from your trash.

This is the lie the plastics industry has sold the public for nearly 50 years, according to a National Public Radio and PBS investigation released last week.

In 1971, an organization called Keep America Beautiful Inc. created an ad campaign that captivated our collective consciences. The message: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

That slogan was powerful. It became one of the anthems for the early environmental movement, a call to action that said it is us — all of us — who are responsible for pollution, and it’s on all of us to solve it.

Which is all well and good, except that the ad wasn’t funded by environmentalists. Or activists. Or nonprofit foundations.

That ad was funded by packaging and beverage companies.

Its goal wasn’t to stop pollution. The goal was to make consumers believe that their plastic waste could be recycled, so that packaging manufacturers could keep making more. That turned out to be a lie that has led to a planetary disaster.

The world has been focused on mitigating around the margins, tiptoeing around the broader plastic crisis. Whether it be reusing plastic to pave roads, attempting to tax single-use plastics to reduce consumption, incinerating plastics to squeeze out a bit of energy (while also producing pollution) or skimming infinitesimally small patches of the ocean to clean out the plastic, the problem isn’t finding creative ways to curb or marginally reuse plastic. The problem is plastic.

Industry got us into this mess, and it can get us out. Many companies are working to replace plastic with biodegradable materials (mine is one of them). Governments have been moved to act, too.

More than 140 countries have implemented some sort of plastic ban or plastic tax. But it’s important to understand that governments cannot yet, for all practical purposes, ban all plastic. It’s one thing to ban plastic bags when you can replace them with paper bags. Or to ban plastic straws when you can replace them with paper straws.

In most cases, though, paper is not going to be a viable replacement material, either for manufacturers or consumers. And the entire consumer economy as we know it runs on single-use packaging, the vast majority of which is plastic.

As new plastic alternatives step into the arena along with reusable bottles and containers, expect a very tough fight from the plastics industry. It spent millions of dollars driving recycling into the culture. Polyethylene evangelists went, one by one, to cities and counties to persuade local officials to adopt recycling programs. By 1990,10,000 communities had some kind of local recycling protocol, and the trend took off around the world.

Recycling is ingrained in our culture. It became a virtue to signal. It became a way of life. But it is an empty symbol of personal environmental stewardship.

The truth is, plastic recycling has been broken since it began.

Globally, only 9% of the plastic we’ve ever produced has been recycled. The other 91% has ended up in landfills or incinerated or scattered throughout the environment, including in huge floating islands in the ocean partly composed or plastic byproducts from the manufacturing process.

But we’re not in this situation because you could have done a better job rinsing out your containers. When the plastic industry was going around helping set up recycling programs, it convinced local officials that they should accept every kind of plastic in their bins. Even the ones the plastic industry knew would never be recycled.

Plastic recycling is not economically viable in the US and hasn’t been for a long time. So, we shipped our plastic waste to China. At one point, China was buying 70% of the world’s plastic.

Then, three years ago, China shut down its foreign recycling operation. Since then, we’ve been burning around 14% of the plastic we produce, six times more than we recycle. As the search for new dumping grounds intensifies, plastics producers are training their sights on Africa.

Last month the New York Times reported that an industry group representing the world’s largest chemical and fossil fuel companies is lobbying for a US trade deal with Kenya to require the African nation to import more plastic. Such a shift would increase Kenya’s role as both a global plastics landfill and a distributor of new plastic products on the African continent.

We need to end this ruse. We have been fed the recycling myth to assuage our guilt over our consumption. And because people believe they can use plastic with impunity and without guilt, the problem continues to grow. Half of all plastics have been produced within the past 15 years, according to reporting in National Geographic.

The first step to driving down our reliance on plastic is for every concerned consumer to understand that more than 90% of the plastic we have ever produced is now near-permanently polluting our world. And that number is going up, not down, as is our overall production.

Innovation and investment in plastics alternatives will lead to totally biodegradable consumer goods packaging in grocery stores and markets soon. In the meantime, we all need to wake up to the fact that we cannot recycle our way out of our plastic problem.


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