Plastic is the most flexible of products, used in nearly anything and not going anywhere for the far future. Plastic is truly ubiquitous; it is used in product containers, construction materials on aircraft and vehicles, cycling helmets, and the water bottles we carry on a daily basis.
For about as long as plastics have existed, the issue of what to do with them after they have been used has been debated. A topic that many people have struggled to address. Since the invention of plastic in the 1950s, global production of plastic has skyrocketed to three hundred and seventy million tons in 2019, with half of all plastics ever manufactured being produced since 2005, and despite all the hype around recycling, a very lower volume of plastic is recycled than you would expect. In the United States, just 8.7 per cent of plastics produced are recycled, with the vast majority winding up in landfills or the ocean. Before you start accusing yourself or your neighbor for not sorting out their trash, realize that it is not as easy as that. Many items we purchase at the store that use plastic with the expectation that they will be recycled, such as tubs of broccoli, are not recycled in many situations. The irony is that a large volume of plastic in our environment is not recycled because it is not recyclable, which means it ends up in landfills, in warehouses, or in the ocean, where it degrades into microplastic and is consumed by fish and can eventually end up within us. New research also suggested that the average consumer worldwide could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card's worth of plastic every week. Then how is it that loads of plastic that we think is recycled can end up inside of us? That is the subject of this post. It's about why very little plastic is recycled, the damage it can do, and how the plastics industry has tried to persuade us all that it's all our fault.
Let us begin with some background information. When plastic demand increased in the 1950s, so did plastic waste and, as a result, public outrage. By the 1960s and 1970s, groups were calling attention to the massive amount of packaging waste that was littering the environment. They used dramatic marketing campaigns to tell a tale about how some people have a profound abiding love for the natural beauty that was once all over the world, and how others do not. It even had a tagline that said, "Humans cause pollution, so people will avoid it." However, there are a few aspects about it that are deceptive. Keep America Beautiful, the company that created the commercial was financed in part by a plastics industry trade association and was comprised of major soda and packaging companies. This can be strange before you understand the underlying message, which is, "It is up to you, the customer, to avoid pollution," which has become a huge through-line in the recycling campaign. A campaign mostly backed by corporations who wished to send the message that it is your duty to live with the environmental effects of their goods, and nowhere is this co-opting of environmentalism more obvious than with the recycling sign used on plastic products you purchase.
The popular chasing arrows are everywhere, and the numbers within them are extremely significant. These numbers indicate the form of plastic. PET is represented by the number one. This can be seen in heavy water bottles and soda bottles. HDPE is ranked second. Frequently used as detergent and shampoo packaging. Then there are the numbers 3,4,5,6 and the wildcard number 7, which stands for "other."
This "other" refers to everything else. This figure is essentially a catch-all for all else.
Importantly, only a handful of these seven varieties of plastic are widely recyclable. Certain forms of level one and level two plastics, such as soda and laundry detergent tubes, are recycled. However, depending on where you live, some other forms that we usually purchase might not be available.
When it comes to plastics numbers three through seven, which can be plastic bags, cups, or pouches, we can recycle less than 5% of it. So only two of the seven numbers are right. Certain plastics are not recycled for a variety of purposes. Some are complex mixtures of various resins, making recycling impossible. Often there are logistical challenges, such as dirty plastic or difficult-to-sort materials. There are also financial considerations. Other kinds of plastic do not always have a niche. Despite recognizing that most plastics cannot be recycled, the industry has persuaded state legislatures in the United States to pass legislation requiring the chasing-arrows symbol to be displayed on any of their packagings, regardless of whether they can potentially be recycled or not. Manufacturers and corporations such as Coca-Cola have urged municipal councils in the United States to participate in curbside recycling systems, despite the fact that one business insider admitted as early as 1974 that "there is significant scepticism that recycling plastic will ever be made feasible on an economic basis." If we like to believe that, it wasn't tough for these firms to persuade us that much of their waste is recyclable. Lies are easier to swallow because you expect them to be real. In reality, our appetite for items to be recycled is so intense that business professionals have a name for it: wish-cycling. Wish-cycling can have serious consequences. Non-recyclable objects can be difficult to get rid of. Plants frequently have to shut down equipment in order to remove all of the plastic bags that consumers desperately continue to believe they can accommodate. In the worst-case scenario, they will contaminate tons of plastics that should otherwise be recycled. As a result, the mistaken belief that we've all been given that all of the plastics we bring in recycling are recycled is very much false. For many decades, many of the countries, including the United States, were unconcerned with this because they easily exported most of the lower-quality plastic waste that couldn't be used in bulk to China. At one time, China received approximately 70% of the world's plastic waste, but that ended in 2018 when China barred the import of most plastics. Since then, much of our waste has been left to accumulate in domestic recycling plants with no one to purchase it, or it has been exported to other Asian countries, where it will end up in landfills. Malaysia is an excellent example. The concern is that these countries do not always have the capacity to cope with their own plastic waste, let alone the millions of tons generated by other countries, which can have significant implications for the health and welfare of the people who live there. Some activities in Malaysia are unlawfully incinerating large amounts of plastic waste. In an interview, a Malaysian community leader explained what it's like to live nearby, saying, "The air pollution gets very bad in my village." The burning causes a lot of respiratory disease problems for our people, especially our children and the elderly, who have disease problems with repeating asthma and coughing". That is dreadful. The people in charge of burning the waste must be aware that the gases are poisonous.
The good news is that more than 180 countries decided last year to impose stringent quotas on plastic waste emissions from richer to poorer countries; but, the bad news is that the United States is one of the few countries in the world that has not ratified the global moratorium. Plastic that is not burnt will end up in landfills or the atmosphere. Per year, more than eight million tons of waste wind up in our waters around the world. There is also a popular spinning garbage patch of microplastic waste in the Pacific Ocean that covers a region larger than France, Germany, and Spain combined. Plastics are estimated to outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050. Frustratingly, the plastic industry's solution to all of the harm you've seen has been to make a large show of little changes, then return to what they've always done, which is that if we customers just worked hard enough, we might solve our plastic issues. With advertisements depicting the transformation of a plastic water bottle into a plastic table. At the very least, the bottle becomes a bench and then nothing more, for the fact is that just about 2% of all plastic ends up in a closed-loop scheme. That is when it reverts to its original form. In other words, glass is recycled and reborn as a bottle. Instead, the majority of discarded material is downcycled into a carpet, a fleece sweatshirt, or even a desk. After that, it can't be recycled again.
Consider Coca-Cola: brand audits of plastic waste gathered at a clean-up have regularly revealed Coke products as the number one global polluter, which is disheartening and perhaps explains why Coke has become so eager to make splashy claims that we all desperately want to hear. For example, committing to use at least 50% recycled content in their packaging by 2030. This sounds great, but the truth is that Coke has been making and breaking promises like this for decades. Over the years, they've regularly and loudly launched large-scale recycled plastic campaigns, only to secretly abandon them with no one knowing. They announced plans in 2009 to import 25% of their plastic from recycled material by 2015, but you'll find that it's now six years later, and their actual proportion is 9.7 per cent.
All of this may be disheartening and it can seem that recycling is futile, but it is important to understand that it is not. We can continue to recycle paper, packaging, and even plastic because, though it might be 90 per cent less useful than you once thought, it may also have minor environmental benefits if done properly. You should, for example, check with the local authority and see what kinds of plastic they tolerate and then recycle only those. Otherwise, keep in mind that you could end up contaminating available goods.
More specifically, considering what the plastics industry has spent decades and millions of dollars attempting to persuade us, our personal actions are not the culprit here. I believe that single-use plastics such as shopping bags and take-out containers can be avoided. Reducing that would make a HUGE difference because plastic packaging accounted for approximately half of all plastic waste produced globally in 2015, with a considerable portion of it being single-use.
So, what exactly can we do here? The actual behaviour improvement must come from the plastic makers themselves. Nothing major would occur in the absence of this. We must force them to internalize the costs of the emissions they cause, and there is a way to do so by a philosophy known as Extended Producer Responsibility, also known as the polluter pays theory. The aim is to enact legislation that shifts collection duties and expenses away from the government and toward the individual sources of plastic waste. EPR laws could, among other things, compel corporations to either build the infrastructure and markets for recycling their goods or avoid producing them entirely. The United States is one of the few developing nations that does not have EPR legislation addressing packaging.
Plastic demand is projected to triple by 2050, and it is clear that real reform can only be possible if we can persuade this very strong industry to do something it has shown for half a century it has almost little interest in doing. We must persuade them to adjust, if not for our sake or the sake of future generations, then for the sake of all the fish that will soon be outnumbered by plastic in the ocea