#2: Recycling! Is it BS?
And the Story of Plastic
At first, you nod politely 'cause you're not that interested
Ask some abstract question like a bored psychiatrist
But then they get to talking 'bout the plastic in the sea
The nightmare of their childhood and reality TV - Conor Oberst
The mindset I was operating under before writing this post went like this: Plastic is recyclable. It’s up to me to not pollute.
My new mindset is: plastic pollution is a feature, not a bug, of the single-use plastics industry. Political action is needed to stop companies from making single-use plastics, similar to how we made slavery illegal or sanctioned Big Tobacco.
Metal, glass, and paper can be effectively recycled, but plastic recycling is a farce designed to misdirect our attention from the real problem (single use plastics production).
Only 2% of plastics are effectively recycled, and most plastics can’t be recycled.
The fossil fuel industry is pushing to increase single-use plastics because they are worried that demand for fossil fuels will go down with the rise of renewables. Analysts expect plastic production to triple by 2050.
Feeling individually guilty about plastic pollution is counter-productive because we didn’t create this situation. Being the best recycler in the world won’t fix the plastic pollution problem. We need to drastically reduce single-use plastic production and we need political will to change the system.
An aluminum can can be broken down and turned back into an aluminum can indefinitely. This is the ideal form of recycling, called closed loop recycling. Glass and metal recycling are closed loop.
Downcycling is turning a product into a lower quality version, for example:
water bottle —> fleece jacket
printer paper —> newsprint
Eventually, the materials can’t be recycled anymore. Paper and plastic are often downcycled.
Some stats on where plastic ends up, from The Story of Plastic:
32% as litter (which can end up in the ocean, in one of the infamous garbage patches)
40% in landfills
14% is incinerated (a terrible thing for climate change and respiratory health; this number will likely increase now that China has stopped accepting the world’s plastic. The US is now shipping its plastic to countries in Southeast Asia that don’t have as good recycling infrastructure as China)
12% is downcycled
Only 2% is closed loop recycled
In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, the editor of Modern Packaging Magazine, remarked at a conference that the “future of plastics is in the trash can.” Prior to this time, plastics were used for durable goods (e.g. piano keys, radios).
This is Stouffer, remarking on the success of his philosophy, several years after the conference:
"What I had said in the talk was it was time for the plastics industry to stop thinking about reuse packages and concentrate on single use. For the package that is used once and thrown away like a tin can or a paper carton represents not a one-shot market for a few thousand units, but an everyday recurring market measured by the billions of units. Your future in packaging, I said, does indeed lie in the trash can. It is a measure of your progress in packaging in the last seven years that this remark will no longer raise any eyebrows. You're filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps, and the incinerators with literally billions of plastic bottles, plastic jugs, plastic tubes, blisters and skin packs, plastic bags and films and cheap packages. And now, even plastic cans."
Stouffer is like one of the polluter characters from Captain Planet, with one distinction: it’s not that he want to pollute; he is just blindly pursuing money.
The plastics industry is very good at distracting us from the truth: there is no way to recycle ~90% of the products they produce. They are designed for landfill, ocean or incinerator.
As a PR stunt, the plastic/petroleum industries say they care about recycling and are putting money towards it. What they really care about is making more single-use plastic and minimizing their financial responsibility for dealing with plastic waste.
"You know, they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material," Larry Thomas [former lobbyist for the plastics industry] says. "Nobody that is producing a virgin product wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material — that's their business."
Here are some of the problems with plastics (source: The Story of Plastic):
The brunt of the problems are being paid for by the world’s poor. In the Philippines, a fisherman catches 60% fish and 40% plastic.
Recycling plastic is not benign: it releases toxic volatile organic compounds.
We are have lost a cultural sense of thrift.
There is a double standard. In first world countries, plastic packaging is often recyclable but the same product in poor countries is sold in sachets (composites of plastic, paper, metal), which are not recyclable. We cannot blame poor countries for pollution because companies are selling them products in non-recyclable packages.
The entire economy around recycling is possible because we have poverty. The most difficult part of waste sorting is done mostly by women, mostly marginalized. The rich countries of the world are shipping their garbage to poor countries.
Would you want to live near an oil refinery? People do, and it’s usually the poor. Children within two miles of the Houston ship channel have 56% greater chance of getting leukemia than children growing up elsewhere.
Plastics companies are making governments run taxpayer-funded recycling programs, raising taxes on everyone to deal with their problematic products.
In the Upper Ohio River Valley (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia) the mariner east pipeline will transport natural gas liquids to an industrial complex in Scotland to make plastics. Pipelines frequently explode. Around the US, land is being taken away from people for pipeline construction, and judges are upholding this practice.
Guilt and Blame
In my travels to India, I saw streets covered in disposed packaging, with cows chewing on plastic trash. In my time in Ghana, I swam in the ocean and was enveloped in countless plastic bags floating in the water. I blamed the governments of these countries for not doing enough to provide infrastructure to recycle / dispose of these materials.
After researching these topics, I see that the blame actually lies with multinational corporations that are producing products that can’t be recycled. These same companies are running disinformation campaigns.
Single-use plastics seem like magic. They seem to come from nowhere and go nowhere. But if you look beneath the hood, you see that their production is damaging (requiring oil extraction, fracking, pipelines, etc), and their disposal is damaging (polluting our air, earth and oceans).
I still feel individually responsible a lot; old circuits don’t go away that easy. I went for a run the other day and got thirsty. There was a stand giving away free samples of a melon-flavored beverage in tiny plastic cups. I saved my cup, hoping to recycle it. But no recycling containers could be found anywhere along my run.
I blamed myself for getting that sample instead of having the self-discipline to wait for a drinking fountain. I blamed New York City for not having enough recycling containers. But I didn’t blame ExxonMobile or Dow Chemical for making a product that was harmful to the earth in both its production and disposal.
As I reflect on this experience, I see that most of the responsibility lies with the company that made the cup. I am only human: my willpower is limited and I tend to go with convenience especially when low on energy. The plastics industry exploits our desire for convenience with a product that is harmful. Feeling guilty about plastic use saps my energy, and distracts me from the real solution: political action to sanction these products and incentivize alternatives.
It doesn’t have to be the way it is
“I think people have a hard time picturing what life would be like without plastic, and I think that’s where people are actually duped” — Elyse Gerhart.
In the essay “It Doesn’t have to be the way it is,” Ursula LeGuin argues that the function of fantasy and science fiction writing is to give us options in our imaginations, and by extension, our reality.
I now believe that the main answer to pollution is political action with teeth. In the same way that we ended slavery by outlawing it or placed taxes and sanctions on Big Tobacco, we need the political will to take down Big Plastic.
As a species, we somehow got to 1956 without single-use plastics. This graph was striking to me, in that it shows how new our plastic-based world really is:
Imagine taking a time-machine back to the 1940s and seeing nothing packaged in plastic. It would be a trip.
There are solutions, lots of solutions, to plastic pollution. They might be a bit more expensive and less convenient (everyone will be a little bit unhappy). But they are needed if our world is to avoid becoming a giant garbage dump like in Idiocracy. They are needed for all humans, but especially the world’s poor, to live full and healthy lives.
Calls to action
(Mostly cribbed from the Recycling! Is it BS? podcast)
Check out the Break Free from Plastic campaign
Contact your congress people and ask them to push for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act
If there’s a product or a brand that you love, reach out to that company and ask them to change their packaging
Check out Loop, a store that ships your favorite products to you in refillable containers that they take back, wash, and reuse
Reduce personal plastic use (e.g. use bamboo cutlery, reusable bags, bring tupperware to restaurants), but be careful not to fall into the guilt trap and beat yourself up for “not doing enough.” See this as a project of culture change: you are normalizing re-use. You may get the stink-eye from some, but will likely inspire many others.