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The insanity of plastic recycling

The insanity of plastic recycling
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It has been said that insanity can be defined as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Yet here we are, after decades of failures and broken promises, convinced that we’ll recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

This misguided approach was in full view on Wednesday, June 17, when the Senate Environment and Public Works committee gathered to discuss the topic of recycling, and, in particular, recycling plastic. Witnesses representing consumer brands and plastic initiatives promoted the same, tired narrative: With more time and more money, we can capture the mystical value of a material that has been discarded ever since it was created. We can recycle the non-recyclable.

Recycling as a concept is wonderful. It works for materials like glass and aluminum that retain value over time. Your glass bottle can be easily reused or re-molded into another glass bottle within days, ad infinitum. 

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Plastic, however, doesn’t retain value and therefore cannot participate in the same circular economy of infinite reuse. Most plastic items — bags, foam containers, straws and lids — are simply the beginning and end of the line. They have no aftermarket, nowhere to go. Best case, your plastic bottle is converted into a lower-value product, maybe a carpet, only to be replaced by another bottle made from virgin plastic. The carpet, of course, will eventually become trash after its value is exhausted. Best case, landfill. Worst case — ask a sea turtle, or any of the hundreds of marine creatures that have ingested or died from our plastic pollution.

A recent comprehensive survey of plastic waste collection confirms this. The vast majority of plastic used to make our disposable foodware and consumer packaging cannot be claimed as recyclable, as most of these items are not accepted by collection programs or local recovery facilities. This means the likelihood of them being converted into a new product is practically zero.

Yet, members of the plastics industry support federal legislation that defines "plastic" and "consumer packaging" as "recyclable materials." They advocate for millions of taxpayer dollars to be spent on plastic infrastructure to reinforce their business models, despite the inaccuracy of their claims.

This comes as no surprise to those who work on the issue. For decades, the plastic industry has been trying to convince the American public that their products are recyclable. But behind every magician’s disappearing act is a trap door, and behind every company’s insistence that plastic is recyclable is another trip to the landfill, or another scheme to use public funds to pursue harmful and unviable technologies.

As long as we allow the myth of recyclable plastic to persist, we will continue to produce more and pollute more. Eventually, the amount of ocean-bound plastic will eclipse marine life, unless we change.

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Our failure is simply a failure of imagination. By limiting our menu of options to “recycling,” we neglect to consider the simplest and most transformative solutions before us. We live in a world dominated by products entombed in layers of plastic film and delivered in bubble mailers and plastic bags. A different world is possible, a world in which the same products can be delivered in minimal, reusable, easily collectable containers. There is room for new economic opportunities, no more disposable plastic and no more greenwashing.

Thankfully, municipalities and states around the country have pursued this vision, opting to ban the most harmful and non-recyclable single-use plastics like shopping bags and foam containers. At least one current federal bill not only does the same, but also shifts the responsibility of collection, disposal and sustainable design onto the producers of our plastic products.

By continuing to reduce our disposable plastic and build innovative systems to collect and reuse instead, we can avoid having to order from the same old “recycling” menu. We just need to convince our leaders to reclaim their sanity and do the same. 

Alex Truelove is the director of U.S. PIRG’s organizational efforts to reduce waste in order to improve public health, protect the environment and conserve resources. Their work includes campaigns to eliminate the most harmful and least recyclable single-use plastics and to promote producer responsibility. Follow him on Twitter: @alexctruelove.