Planet vs. Plastics
Recycling is a Crying Shame
October 28, 2023
“The Crying Indian” is an infamous anti-littering campaign from the early 1970’s. The campaign was produced by Marsteller for Keep America Beautiful, an organization ironically founded and funded by plastic producers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in 1953. Keep America Beautiful’s commercial reached billions of eyes and is considered one of the most successful environmental ad campaigns of all time.
In a serene river scene, an indigenous-clad man glides through a heavily polluted stream, gently clearing debris as he heads to shore. He sees a passerby carelessly toss trash from a car window, and as the container lands at his feet, a tear slips down his cheek.
The narration plays in the background saying, “Some people have a deep abiding respect for natural beauty… And some people do not. People start pollution, and people can stop it.”
This ad — now retired because it appropriates indigenous culture — largely influenced the narrative surrounding plastic pollution by placing the blame squarely on us, the consumer, without addressing or critiquing the source of all this waste at all.
Petrochemical companies began producing plastic packaging as an additional use of oil and petroleum, and now it’s inescapable. Almost every product is packaged in this material – food, beverages, household essentials – you name it. No wonder people are addicted to plastic, we are surrounded by it!
“As awareness of the toll of plastic pollution has grown, the petrochemical industry has told us it’s our own fault and has directed attention toward behavior change from end-users of these products, rather than addressing the problem at its source,” said former Vice President Al Gore.
Food and drink manufacturers may have gotten us hooked on plastic, but they refuse to take responsibility for plastic pollution. Instead, they promote campaigns like “The Crying Indian” to convince consumers it’s our fault and urge us to clean up their mess. Let’s be clear – the goal of the campaign wasn’t to improve the environment, but to reduce the visible impact of their packaging without harming the bottom line.
So, let’s talk about the real sources of plastic pollution. Because it isn’t you or me. Consumers are simply middle men in the plastics industry. The true sources are the petrochemical companies producing plastics for manufacturing giants and the waste industry failing to properly dispose of them.
The Plastics Problem
The ad does get one thing right: Plastics are a global crisis. Besides the fact they disrupt the natural beauty of our waterways, plastics have devastating consequences on marine and human life.
Small pieces of colorful plastic in the ocean mimic food sources and marine life easily mistake these toxic materials for their next meal. Bodies of birds, whales, and fish have been discovered with plastic clogging their intestines. Microplastics soak up harmful chemicals present in our oceans and waterways like Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Endocrine disruptors (EDCs). When ingested, these chemicals can wreak havoc on an organism’s reproductive system.
Recent studies even suggest microplastics have the ability to strengthen viral infections in humans. This is because viruses can absorb into the material and use it as a home. Viruses thrive on microplastics because the plastic provides protection, and increases their overall survival rate and environmental range.
Plastic Pollution’s Pedigree
The fishing industry is responsible for 20% of the plastic in the ocean. Their nets often get lost in the process of catching fish or other marine food sources like clams, mussels, and lobsters.
The other 80% of plastics in our oceans are produced by petrochemical companies to sustain the ‘plastic dependent’ lifestyles they are responsible for getting us hooked on.
2019 data revealed 4% of U.S. plastic waste was littered or mismanaged during disposal, and 73% was landfilled. Such landfills are large sources of plastic pollution because they inadequately contain the trash, resulting in plastic release. Surface weathering from wind and rain also breaks down trash in landfills into microplastics.
Meanwhile, only 5% of our plastic waste in 2022 was recycled. But how can this be?
The Recycling Hoax
There are two main reasons this happens. The first reason is there are many different types of plastics and when they are all in the same stream of waste, it is expensive and difficult to sort through them. In fact, in one New Jersey county alone, the cost of a sorting facility amounted to $3 million one year. Different types of plastics cannot be recycled together so this arduous sorting process is necessary to move on to the next steps. Many plants or areas decide not to go through the effort, so they ditch recycling and instead landfill the waste.
Recycling different types of plastic all in one process is also virtually impossible. During the physical breaking up of the plastic and reassembling it into a new product, the plastic type needs to be consistent so the resulting product is one cohesive unit.
Some companies claim “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling,” which involves melting down the plastic, can be used with mixed plastics. However, this process is more energy intensive than traditional mechanical recycling – up to 73 MJ/kg versus 8.6 MJ/kg. The practice also emits fossil fuels, uses more water, and has the potential to release hazardous chemicals into the surrounding area.
The second reason most plastics get landfilled is because it is more expensive to recycle waste than to simply landfill or incinerate it. Recycled plastics costs more to produce than virgin plastics and cannot be utilized for some food packaging. Therefore, the market price of recycled plastics is higher and the customer base is smaller compared to their virgin plastic competitors, so the return on investment and production is small.
As a result, many chose to sell the waste to landfills rather than produce recycled plastic products.
The manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, Trent Carpenter, told NPR individuals need to realize their “[Plastic is not] going to a recycling facility and being recycled. It’s going to a recycling facility and being landfilled someplace else.”
This brings us to the crux of the issue. Even if all of the plastic being consumed is put in a recycling bin, a majority of it will be mismanaged or put in a landfill which further contributes to plastic waste in the environment, and a myriad of health-related issues impacting the human immune, respiratory, digestive, and hormonal systems.
Shutting Off the Plastic Tap
Not only are consumers fooled into thinking the plastic they put in the recycling bin is being reprocessed, they are also fooled into thinking the plastic pollution problem is their fault! While companies and organizations spend millions on ad campaigns promoting the idea consumers are responsible for pollution, it is evidently clear the pollution problem begins and ends with corporations. Ads similar to “The Crying Indian” are distractions, meant to direct our attention away from the true culprits of the plastic crisis and prevent us from taking action against them.
There is an urgent need for systemic change in plastic production and recycling, or else the plastic pollution problem, and its well documented health risks, will only build. With this in mind, our Planet vs. Plastics Earth Day theme this year demands we reduce plastic production by 60% by 2040.
Interestingly, there’s also potential for big changes in the next year. In 2024, 193 UN member nations will publish their legally binding plans to end plastic pollution. Their goal is to shift the iconic Reduce, Reuse, Recycle phrase to Reuse, Recycle, and Reorient and Diversify. This includes shifting towards a circular economy and increasing the use of alternative packaging.
Whether through littering or landfill runaways, plastic pollution ends up in our treasured waterways and threatens wildlife. Individuals are not the source of plastic pollution, but our collective action can make a meaningful impact on its presence in our ecosystems. Participate in beach, river, and lake clean ups through our world map. And, buy products utilizing paper or biodegradable packaging to shift the market demand towards more sustainable options.