Plastic Recycling — The Long Con
Plastic recycling is largely a myth, a huge, decades-long public relations fairy tale, told by plastic producers to foist responsibility for plastic pollution onto individuals and society at large. It has been enormously successful. We dutifully put our plastic containers into little blue (plastic) bins. The trash haulers dutifully pick up the bins and take them to a transfer station which dutifully tries to sort the trash and send it somewhere out of sight.
We have been sold on a throw-away culture. Our trash has been hidden in landfills or burned or shipped thousands of miles across the globe for “recycling” or dumped in waterways or pushed on poorer communities here and abroad. Legislatures, local and national, have failed to either work with companies to reduce source pollution or to create legislation to hold them accountable. When people have noticed or complained, corporations have deflected accountability and sold us on the idea that if we just are better individuals and put our trash in the appropriate container, that it will magically be returned as a resource and that all will be well. All is not well.
While we have been “recycling,” plastics have increased in volume and toxicity to the point where they threaten the totality of life on Earth.
All the plastic ever made still exists. It never returns to its component parts. Less than 10 percent of plastic ever gets “recycled.” Even that is an inflated number. Plastic that we ship across the globe to other countries counts as “recycled” — when in fact much of it gets buried or burned or dumped into rivers and oceans at its destination. (1)
Our ability to hide our plastic trash is rapidly coming to an end as China, Malaysia and other countries are now refusing to take our plastic because it is cheaper to buy new plastic than to recycle it. With no outlet, many municipalities are ending their recycling programs entirely or are quietly taking all those carefully washed yogurt cartons and peanut butter jars and sticking them in the landfill because they have nowhere else to go with them.
Most types of plastics don’t ever get near a recycle bin in the first place. Of the seven different kinds of basic plastic resins, often only those marked with a 1 (PET or PETE) or a 2 (HDPE) have enough market value to warrant collection. (1)
Many types and uses of plastics were never designed to be recycled, such as mixed resin plastics or the plastics bonded to paper food wrap and bags.
Almost half of plastic is single-use; examples are plastic utensils, plastic bags, plastic drink cups and carry-out containers. These are used for a few minutes and stick around literally forever as they break down into microplastics. (2)
Whole Planet Contaminated
We hear daily more disturbing reports that plastics are everywhere in our air, in the rainwater, in our food, and in our bodies. A December 27, 2019, article in The Guardian says, “recent research shows the whole planet appears to be contaminated with microplastic pollution.” (3)
Water in the Salish Sea has been analyzed and found to have greater than 4,000 plastic particles per cubic meter, according to an Ocean Wise presentation on May 7, 2018, in Whatcom County. (4)
Plastic pollution is blocking out sunlight to the phytoplankton in the ocean that produce 10 percent or more of the world’s oxygen, just at a time when CO2 is also rising in the atmosphere. (5)
How do plastic producers respond to the disturbing news that plastic has already contaminated every inch of the planet from the Marianas Trench to the inside of our bodies?
Their response is to make more plastic. A lot more plastic. Alarmingly, plastic production, now at 330 metric tons annually, is poised to triple or quadruple by 2050 (Figure 1.1) — to use an estimated 50 million barrels of oil a day. Why? Many petrochemical companies see plastic as their savior as the world turns inexorably to more sustainable energy. Plastic is the backdoor, the get-out-of-jail-free card, that they plan to use as a reason to continue extraction as other markets decline. (6)
Exxon, Dow, Total, Shell, Chevron Phillips, and Procter & Gamble are forming the “Alliance to End Plastic Waste,” an organization that attempts once more to push the recycling theme while increasing plastic production. They are not the only ones. Petrochemical companies are talking green while spending $185 billion building 375 new refineries for making plastic. (7)
What are we doing in Whatcom County to address this critical issue?
In Whatcom County, it is business as usual. What we do with our plastic and, indeed, all our trash, is send it elsewhere to a variety of places. Our plastic is separated at the curb, which makes it cleaner than in many other communities, and is therefore still acceptable in some recycle markets. However, we pay these markets. They don’t pay us.
It is commendable that people from the public and private sector are working hard to buffer us from the worst effects of global recycling market meltdown. Nevertheless, we must realize that those markets are likely flawed and don’t go nearly far enough to solve the plastic problem.
We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic crisis. Business as usual will not suffice. The piles of waste we are facing are not a personal or individual problem. They are a systemic problem. Waste reduction is not about people being better consumers, although that can help. It is about making less waste in the first place, especially in packaging. We must turn off the tap. We must stop making and using plastic. This is a key battle in the larger campaign of reducing the use of fossil fuels. We cannot continue to use plastic and expect to reduce fossil fuels.
What actions can we take to start turning off the tap?
The fight to stop plastic pollution is a multilayered one. There are many actions we can and must take, but the simple answer is that we need relentless public pressure. Here are a few ideas.
Of the possible levers to stop plastic, legislation may provide the biggest bang for the buck. Some initiatives already proposed or enacted that we can support/adopt:
• The statewide plastic bag ban is up again during the coming legislative session. Contact your state reps and let them know you support it.
• Edmonds, Washington, has enacted a ban on single-use food service plastic. Contact your city/county councils and state reps and say we urgently need similar ordinances. (8)
• To really turn off the tap, we need a moratorium on new plastic facilities. A moratorium, with other reduction strategies, has been proposed by U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). This is currently in an investigation phase. If it becomes a bill, we need to let our senators and congress members know we support it. It probably wouldn’t hurt to email or call their offices to thank them and let them know that you hope they will drive the bill forward, even though we aren’t in their states. (9)
Use Your Voice
At the city/county/institution level:
• Ask for more water refill stations to avoid buying plastic bottles.
• Require that public events set an example and avoid single-use plastic.
• Require vendors to reduce plastic packaging.
Join with others already focused on driving corporate and government action:
• Greenpeace has a variety of actions specifically on plastic and plastic scorecard of grocery chains: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/take-action/.
• Sign petitions like the one at EarthJustice on removing phthalates from the plastic food containers or the one at change.org on plastic packaging at Amazon. Start one of your own.
• Protest! Go to climate protests or start one of your own.
• Band with friends and neighbors to pushback on plastic at your grocery store.
• Decline straws, plastic utensils, plastic take out and drink containers — bring your own.
• Thank establishments making an effort to eliminate plastic, either in person or in writing.
• Write to your favorite brands/companies. Tell them you love their product, but don’t love the plastic it comes in. Ask them to do something more sustainable.
Use Your Wallet
• If your bank funds petrochemical companies, change to a credit union or bank that does not.
• If your pension fund or 401K invests in petrochemical companies, urge them to divest.
• Shop for products in the least amount of packaging possible, preferring paper, glass, foil or no packaging at all.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try to recycle plastic? After all, some plastic is getting recycled, right? If we just recycle better or harder or smarter, it should make a difference. It does make a difference, but probably not the kind we want.
Plastic can only be downcycled into a lesser quality product. That’s because plastic degrades once used. Unlike other materials, such as metal or glass, which are infinitely recyclable, it can generally only be recycled once. That new product becomes trash at the end of its life. More disquieting, new plastic feedstock must be added to the degraded plastic to create “recycled” products. Plastic recycling locks us into the demand for new plastic feedstock. (10)
Do we even want “recycled” plastic products? According to the publication “Plastic and Health, the Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet” — “Use of plastic products leads to ingestion and/or inhalation of large amounts of both microplastic particles and hundreds of toxic substances with carcinogenic, developmental, or endocrine disrupting impacts.” Are recycled products safer? No. Recycled products are as toxic as the originals. (11)
We must turn away from our blue bins for salvation and instead demand effective action from our legislators and businesses to end the proliferation of plastics. We need sustainable alternatives. Now. This is a crisis. Plastic is toxic, incompatible with life. We cannot have a livable planet and plastic from fossil fuels. This is a battle we must fight and win.
Some inspiration for the fight ahead: a poem by Andrew Karpie.
If the feeling reminds you that it is late
And you are lost in chimes and loud voices
If you are dispossessed or without choices
Then listen to the silence between breaths
Consider the creaking of your closing gait
Think of all your passions and your deaths
Look toward the crowd of other weary faces
Feel in your own breast those fiery spaces
That will fuel and flame the force of fate.
The Story of Stuff Videos (at the bottom of the web page): https://www.storyofplastic.org/watch
Greenpeace — research of plastic use in grocery store chains: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/research/packaging-away-the-planet/
Plastic Pollution Coalition Video: Open Your Eyes: https://www.cdn.duzyiod.com/Go8Ig2I7ah.html.
1. “Waste Only: How the Plastic Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World,” Sharon Lerner, The Intercept: https://theintercept.com/2019/07/20/plastics-industry-plastic-recycling/
2. “Plastic’s Long Fight to Blame Pollution on You,” Video, The Intercept: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBjhSDQW9RI&feature=youtu.be
3. “Revealed: microplastic pollution is raining down on city dwellers,” The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/dec/27/revealed-microplastic-pollution-is-raining-down-on-city-dwellers
4. “Widespread distribution of microplastics in subsurface seawater in the NE Pacific Ocean,” Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 79, Issues 1-2, 15 February 2014, Page 94-99, Jean-Pierre W. Deforges, Moira Galbraith, Neil Dangerfield, Peter S. Ross: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X13007741?via%3Dihub
5. “Plastic poisons ocean bacteria that produce 10% of the world’s oxygen and prop up the marine food chain,” May 23, 2019, Petra Cameron, Phillipa Kearny, University of Bath: https://theconversation.com/plastic-poisons-ocean-bacteria-that-produce-10-of-the-worlds-oxygen-and-prop-up-the-marine-food-chain-117493
6. “Oil industry is spending billions on increasing plastics production,” Dec. 12, 2019, Lloyd Alter: https://www.treehugger.com/plastic/oil-industry-spending-billions-increasing-plastics-production-future.html
7. “How Plastic Production Pollutes Small Towns,” The Story of Plastic, Video: https://www.storyofplastic.org/watch
8. Edmonds’ Single-Use Plastic Ban, City of Edmonds, WA: http://www.edmondswa.gov/garbage-and-recycling-service/food-service-requirements.
9. Federal Legislation Under Investigation to Address the Global Plastic Waste Crisis: https://www.tomudall.senate.gov/news/press-releases/udall-lowenthal-seek-input-on-landmark-legislation-to-address-the-global-plastic-waste-crisis
10. “These Three Plastic Recycling Myths Will Blow Your Mind,” Laura Tenenbaum: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauratenenbaum/2019/05/15/these-three-plastic-recycling-myths-will-blow-your-mind/#47a16a675f03
11. “Plastic and Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” David Azoulay (CIEL), Priscilla Villa (Earthworks), Yvette Arellano (TEJAS), Miriam Gordon (UPSTREAM), Doun Moon (GAIA), and Kathryn Miller and Kristen Thompson (Exeter University): https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plastic-and-Health-The-Hidden-Costs-of-a-Plastic-Planet-February-2019.pdf
Vicki Thomas has a degree in political science from George Washington University. She retired as the Chief Operating Officer of a small California e-commerce company and moved to Bellingham in 2015. She is a current member of the League of Women Voters Climate Committee. Vicki was a team-lead volunteer for the Community Research Project, a county outreach project sponsored by the Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee. Her chapter on waste reduction and recycling can be read at http://www.whatcomcounty.us/2744/Climate-Impact-Advisory-Committee.