The Troubling Truth About Plastic Recycling (Opinion)

Plastic pollution also pollutes the land and the air we breathe.

Scientists are now saying that plastic microparticles are literally raining down on us, bringing toxins into our bodies. And if you think recycling is the answer, you are unfortunately mistaken. You can be excused if you think you are doing your bit for the environment simply by sorting your plastics out of your trash.

This is the lie the plastics industry has been selling to the public for nearly 50 years, according to a survey by National Public Radio and PBS published last week. In 1971, an organization called Keep America Beautiful Inc. created an advertising campaign that engrossed 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 says we – all of us – are responsible for pollution and it is up to all of us to solve it.

That’s all well and good, except that the ad wasn’t funded by environmentalists. Or activists. Or charitable foundations.

This ad was funded by packaging and beverage manufacturers.

Their goal wasn’t to stop the pollution. The aim was to convince consumers that their plastic waste can be recycled so that packaging manufacturers can continue to produce. That turned out to be a lie that has led to a planetary catastrophe.

The world has focused on softening the margins and tiptoeing through the general plastic crisis. Whether it’s reusing plastic to pave roads, taxing single-use plastics to reduce consumption, burning plastics to squeeze out a little energy (and at the same time causing pollution), or skim over infinitely small patches of ocean to find the Cleaning Plastic The problem is not finding creative ways to contain or reuse plastic a little.

The problem is plastic.

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

More than 140 countries have introduced some kind of plastic ban or tax. However, it is important to understand that governments cannot yet practically ban all plastics. It is one thing to ban plastic bags if you can replace them with paper bags. Or to ban plastic straws when you can replace them with paper straws.

In most cases, however, paper will not be a viable substitute for either manufacturers or consumers. And the entire consumer economy as we know it runs on one-way packaging, the vast majority of which is made of plastic.

When new plastic alternatives hit the market along with reusable bottles and containers, expect a very tough battle from the plastics industry. There have been millions of dollars spent pushing recycling into culture. Polyethylene evangelists went to cities and counties one by one to persuade local officials to put recycling programs into place. By 1990 10,000 communities had some sort of local recycling protocol and the trend was increasing worldwide.

Recycling is anchored in our culture. It became a virtue to signal. It became a way of life. But it’s a blank symbol of personal environmental responsibility.

The truth is that plastic recycling has been broken from the very beginning.

Globally, only 9% of the plastic we’ve ever made is recycled. The other 91% ended up in landfills, or incinerated or scattered throughout the environment, including on giant floating islands in the ocean that are partially composed or plastic by-products from the manufacturing process.

But we’re not in this situation because you could have rinsed your containers better. When the plastics industry helped set up recycling programs, they convinced local authorities that they should accept any type of plastic in their containers. Even those that the plastics industry knew would never be recycled.

Plastic recycling is not economically viable in the USA and has not 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 closed its overseas recycling operations. Since then we have been burning around 14% of the plastic we produce, six times more than we recycle. As the search for new landfills increases, plastics manufacturers are training Africa.

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

We have to stop this trick. We got the recycling myth to ease our guilt for our consumption. And because people believe they can use plastic with impunity and guilt, the problem continues to grow. Half of all plastic was made in the past 15 years, according to National Geographic reports.

The first step in reducing our dependence on plastic is for every affected consumer to understand that more than 90% of the plastic we have ever made pollutes our world almost permanently. And that number doesn’t rise and fall, as does our total production.

Innovations and investments in plastic alternatives will soon lead to fully biodegradable consumer product packaging in grocery stores and markets. In the meantime, we all need to become aware of the fact that we cannot reuse our way out of our plastic problem.

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