If We’re Going to Save the Planet, Recycling Plastic is Not the Solution
The rhetoric that has been adopted in many parts of our world — that recycling is combating the massive plastic pollution problem we face in any kind of meaningful way — has lulled us into the dangerous false belief that because we are recycling, we are doing significant work to promote sustainability.
But this isn’t necessarily true.
The intention behind wanting to recycle is admirable, and I’m not suggesting we should stop recycling, but it should be the supplemental last resort and not the be-all-end-all of our everyday sustainable practices.
A paper published by Science Advances in 2017 reported that of the estimated 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste generated as of 2015, only 9% had been recycled. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much of the plastic in your recycling bin actually ends up being successfully recycled, it is probably not as much as you think.
In some cities in the United States, recycling systems are operated by non-profit organizations and have reasonably high rates of recycling (around 70%), but in other cities, this is not the case. In 2017, the percentage of plastics being recycled in Washington, D.C. was much lower than the national average of 35%, and because 1) D.C.’s recycling system was contracted out to a private waste hauler instead of a government department or non-profit, and 2) it was significantly cheaper to incinerate waste than it was to recycle it, profits were being prioritized over sustainability.
There is no shortage of reasons why we drastically need to reduce the amount of plastic waste we are producing. More plastic is being produced than ever before, and it is ending up in landfills, in our oceans, and even in our bodies (non-biodegradable microplastic particles have been discovered in human organs, and a person is estimated to ingest upward of 50,000 particles of microplastic a year).
Are we at fault as the consumer?
Putting all of the onus on the consumer to address this issue is unfair — yes, we are purchasing the products, but it is multinational corporations that are profiting from plastic pollution, and are largely not being held accountable for it — yet. The argument for a long time has been to blame the consumer for failing to dispose of plastic waste properly, but there have never really been adequate systems of waste management for it.
So, recycling solutions are failing us. The demand for recycled plastics is low (around 6% in Europe). Some scholars even think we should do away with recycling plastic altogether.
This is in part because plastic recycling in the United States is expensive, and doesn’t do a lot to counter the plastic pollution problem. Ignoring the fact that most plastic gets incinerated or landfilled, the small amount of plastic that is effectively recycled eventually gets downcycled into something worse and is destined to end up in our landfills anyway.
Placing restrictions on corporations and stopping the production of plastic before it gets to the consumer is the only way to dig the world out of its plastic waste grave.
What can we do?
Beyond lobbying corporations and city councils to enact change, sometimes the best thing we can do is change our habits. The mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle has always emphasized three parts of the sustainability trifecta — but due to heavily-funded recycling initiatives proposed by governments and city councils, we’ve grown complacent about our plastic consumption, believing recycling is enough — but it never was.
We are part of a throw-away culture that has become accustomed to single-use plastic, attracted by its convenience and simplicity, but this convenience comes with a heavy price tag that future generations are going to have to pay. Adopting small lifestyle changes, wherever possible, to reduce our plastic footprint is a meaningful change we can make, right now.
There are some fantastic resources on the web for how consumers can shop more sustainably and reduce their footprint. Buying in bulk, buying more whole foods (and fewer processed foods), as well as supporting locally-grown and locally-made produce are a few great sustainability habits to adopt. Avoid purchasing products with plastic wrappers/packaging.
Shopping at bulk food stores means you can buy package-free (by reusing bags or storage containers instead of buying produce that is packaged in plastic). This Eco Warrior Princess article makes some great points about ditching traditional grocery stores in favor of alternative markets.
In terms of looking toward the future, many cities have already done away with plastic bags, and have begun scaling back single-use plastic in fast food and takeout restaurants. The urgency of our plastic waste crisis can be witnessed on the occasional college campus, with both the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA having set targets to phase out single-use plastics on campus.
The #breakfreefromplastic global movement spearheads brand audits all over the world, calling on volunteers to help gather data to determine which companies are producing the most single-use plastic waste. This data is then published in a BFFP annual report, applying pressure to corporations to change how they produce or package their products.
BFFP also offer advice on how you can take action against plastic pollution in your local area — check out some of their ideas here.
A reminder to end on:
Don’t get overwhelmed and feel like you need to change everything about your lifestyle right away. Set yourself a small, achievable goal and work towards it. For example, my first two goals were to reduce unnecessary waste in the kitchen and to transition the bathroom to plastic-free toiletries.
Check out the resources below for more ideas on how to reduce your plastic footprint.
And if you’re feeling motivated, try your hand at lobbying your local government department/city council to implement a ban on single-use plastic in your community.
The road is long, and it is slow. But we forge on.
Sustainable Shopping in New Zealand:
Sustainable Shopping in the United States: