Jul 12 2022

Recycling Plastic Not The Answer

By now you have probably gotten the memo – the world is drowning in plastic, and yet we continue to produce and throw away prodigious amounts every year. The world produces over 400 million tonnes of plastic every year. Only about 9% gets recycled. About 10% ends up in the ocean. This plastic hangs around for along time. It does not biodegrade, but it down break down into smaller and smaller pieces, ending up as microplastics. Microplastic are everywhere, from the deepest ocean to the highest mountain, and in most living things, including people. This is simply not sustainable.

A recent UK study, The Big Plastic Count, reinforces these numbers. They found that the average UK household throws away 66 pieces of plastic each week. In total the UK throws out 100 billion pieces of plastic a year. Only 12% of plastic in the UK is recycled. One of the primary lessons of this study is that recycling plastic does not work. It’s essentially a failed strategy for dealing with the plastic waste problem, and many consider the entire idea of recycling plastic to be an industry deception, “greenwashing” the problem.

This is part of a larger trend. Industries have historically figured out ways of shifting the responsibility for the waste they produce (or other problems they create) onto the public. This is a method of externalizing costs. In fact, the entire anti-litter campaign was created by a consortium of industry groups in order to divert attention away from their waste streams and serious regulations to deal with it. Remember the crying American Indian? That was industry propaganda.

As a general rule it is difficult to address any problem by counting on high public compliance. It’s just really hard to get most people to do something consistently, especially something tedious. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we don’t try to get people to express personal responsibility, for themselves, their environment, and for their society. You should brush your teeth regularly, using fluoride toothpaste and a soft brush, but probably not right after drinking acidic juice because that weakens the enamel, and make sure that you do a thorough job and floss occasionally as well. But this doesn’t mean that everyone is going to do this, no matter how hard we try to make it happen, and it doesn’t mean we don’t need to regulate the amount of fluoride in the public water supply to further promote dental health.

The plan for plastic waste should not be to solely rely upon billions of individuals to responsibly sort and recycle their plastic. Even in wealthy countries, with recycling campaigns, and programs such as deposits to provide a financial incentive, recycling rates are low. Also, once plastic is put into the recycling bin, what happens to it? Many types of plastic cannot be recycled, or are not financially viable to recycle. Much of our plastic waste was exported to China, where cheaper labor did make it cost effective to recycle, but in 2018 China said, “Ah, nope.” They are no longer taking the world’s waste.

So now what do we do? We should do what we should have done from the start – fix the problem at the source. The ultimate goal is to create a circular manufacturing stream, where the entire lifecycle of products is accounted for from the start. This means not using plastic when it isn’t necessary or when another material will be better, even if there is a small sacrifice in utility. Sure, plastic straws are a little better than paper straws, but paper straws are just fine (especially some of the newer more rigid ones). Plastic is lighter than glass and not breakable, and I really like that, but glass is a lot easier to reuse. Aluminum is also more recyclable than plastic.┬áThere is also a lot of research into making plastic alternatives that are more biodegradable or more easily recycled.

But we cannot rely on individual people to be highly motivated and compliant, to educate themselves adequately, and painstakingly make purchasing decisions that prioritize the environment over all other concerns. Again, I’m not saying that we should not do this as individuals, just that this shouldn’t be the plan. What we need is what industry has been trying to avoid for decades – common sense regulations that require industry to use sustainable options. If something is important, it needs to happen automatically, baked into the system, without the need for massive compliance on an individual level.

Industry can adapt, and there are already lots of good options out there. This will also create an incentive to research newer options. This may increase the cost of some products, and the consumer will bear those costs, but we already are bearing those costs through other mechanisms. I pay a deposit on plastic products but don’t have the time to redeem them, and I also pay taxes that partly go for a town recycling program. I’m paying twice to have my waste recycled, and a lot of it isn’t even being recycled. Also, how much is being spent on the back end cleaning up the massive plastic waste in our streams and oceans? This is just another externalized cost.

Plastic also does not have to go away entirely. It is a really useful material. We are mostly talking about single use plastics, the kind that get used once and thrown away. We really have to stop single use plastics for most applications. There are some applications, however, where the benefits are necessary, like sterile medical applications. But I don’t really need every single product I buy to be individually wrapped in single-use plastic. This is just another problem we are dumping (literally) on our children, for our own personal short-term convenience.

By the end of this year there will be more than 8 billion people on the planet. Anything we do as a species has huge consequences. We now have to think about our industries from this perspective. The trend toward circular economies needs to not only continue, it needs to become a priority. Governments and industry need to partner in this process. Industry can no longer be allowed to just take the cheap option, dump the costs on everyone else, and pocket the profits.

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