End Plastic Pollution
The recycling problem: A feel-good story that’s too good to be true
August 7, 2019
Recycling feels good. It seemingly gives us power to control our own habits for the benefit of our planet. We can even call people out for not recycling (shame!), reinforcing our own green behavior.
But that feel-good sentiment might just be a placebo effect.
Sure, recycling beats throwing something right in the trash, but tons of our recyclables still end up in landfills or oceans (literally, tons), making a mess of ecosystems. A recent study suggests only 9 percent of the world’s plastic is even recycled.
In other words, recycling is often just another word for a long, expensive detour that a plastic bottle takes on its way to a landfill, where it slowly breaks down over hundreds of years. If we’re lucky, that plastic won’t be ingested by a bird, fish or any other mammal that we end up eating.
So why does recycling make us feel so damn good? Part of the problem, and persuasion, of recycling is the narrative developed to support it.
If our answer to plastics has always been to recycle, why do we still have such a big plastics pollution problem? Maybe it’s because we’re focusing on recycling instead of the source of the problem: the industries making all that plastic.
“Industry advocacy groups push recycling as a be-all-end-all process,” says Earth Day Network End Plastics Pollution Campaign Manager David Ayer. “They’re putting all their money into waste management, advocating recycling and teaching people how to recycle better.”
This narrative of recycling is an industry sleight of hand, shifting the blame of plastics pollution onto the consumer. Plastics manufacturers can continue to produce single-use plastics, and businesses can package products in plastics, without retribution. Afterall, if a Sprite bottle washes up on the beach, no one’s fining The Coca-Cola Company. Instead, they’re asking, “Why wasn’t that recycled?”
Recycling forces consumers to take responsibility for managing this plastic waste, rather than question why we need single-use plastics in the first place — especially when alternatives exist. For example, both aluminum and glass have smaller carbon footprints and don’t leak dangerous contaminants found in plastics.
Contrary to the popular narrative, the real solution shouldn’t be recycling. It’s time to focus on the other two Rs in the trinity of waste management: reducing and reusing.
The recycling line
We all know that triangle icon, the one that represents a utopian world where reduce, reuse and recycle are all treated equally, free to coexist in a world where waste doesn’t exist, and if it does, is recyclable.
That triangle should really be a line, one where “reduce” is at the far left. “Reuse” should follow. At the far right of that line — nearly off the page — should be “recycling,” a last resort. Certainly not a first-order action that should make us happy or proud.
It doesn’t help that we don’t really know how to recycle. We often wish our recycling habits are working, the basis of wishful recycling, when we optimistically put nonrecyclable objects in recycling bins. Unfortunately, hope and optimism doesn’t sort our materials, and when we contaminate our recycling bins with food waste and other nonrecyclables, everything in the recycling bin is wasted and sent to the landfill.
“It’s hard to balance the two sides of the seesaw,” says Ayer. “We really need to recycle better, but also recycling is one of the last steps you should be taking.”
How did we get here?
When recycling first hit the scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s, things were different. America’s recycling system was multi-stream, meaning different recyclable materials went into different containers. People spent more time sorting recyclables, washing glass bottles, removing labels and ensuring their blue bins were free of food waste.
At the turn of the century, that all changed. China was a booming manufacturing market and needed all the raw materials it could get, so the country took all our recyclables, regardless of quality. This
demand, combined with China’s lax environmental regulations, shifted global recycling from multi-stream to single-stream. People put all their recyclables — glass, paper, plastics, food scraps, pizza boxes, Styrofoam, whatever — into one bin, which waste companies collected and sent to China for a hefty sum.
With all this plastic coming into China, trash islands popped up, waterways and oceans filled with plastics and animals made snacks out of bottlecaps and bags. Meanwhile, countries like the U.S. ignored it. They kept collecting whatever passed as recycling and shipping it to the other side of the world. Out of sight, out of mind.
That all stopped in 2018, when China, eager to address its environmental problems and improve its public image, abruptly banned plastic imports of anything with more than 0.5 percent contamination. America’s current recycling contamination levels are 25 percent, meaning one of four items in our recycling bins shouldn’t be there.
In other words, when China stopped accepting our poor recycling habits, we were left holding the trash bag.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve forgotten how to recycle. China’s decision to refuse our plastics corresponded with a public outcry over plastic pollution, forcing us to question recycling and the very existence of plastics in our lives.
So, where do we go from here?
At the individual level, we can always get better at recycling, relearning what we knew 30-plus years ago. Self-educate, compost what you can, sort your plastics, learn what your local municipality recycles and swallow your pride by putting your trash in the trash.
But we must go bigger. Despite what the old recycling narrative has taught us, plastics is a top-down problem. Unless we stop producing single-use plastics at our current rate, we will never end plastic pollution.
With recent public outrage over the state of plastics, some companies and venues have pledged to reduce their plastic use in the next decade. Cities have banned straws outright and more cities are charging for plastic bags at grocery stores. San Francisco airport just banned the sale of disposable plastic water bottles.
These are good, small steps toward what is hopefully a full-on plastics purge.
“It comes down to determining which types of plastic are absolutely necessary — medical supplies, a few types of food packaging — and making those out of the most highly recyclable plastics we have,” says Ayer. “Everything else we have to cut off.”
Ayer grounds his point with a helpful analogy: If you came home and your sink was overflowing, you wouldn’t grab a mop — you’d turn off the water. To end plastic pollution, we need to get to the source of the problem.
Tell local leaders to pass plastic ban legislation. Organize plastic cleanups and take photos of what you find. Above all, hold plastics producers accountable. Tell them you’re serious about ending plastic pollution.
Find additional ways to reduce your plastic waste, make a pledge to reduce your use of plastic and stay updated on news about the fight to end plastic pollution. April 22, 2020 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Now is the time to mobilize to protect our planet for future generations.