By now, many of my friends and family are aware of the promises our recycling industry has failed to keep. Most facilities lack the technology, labor or funding to process recycled materials while turning a profit–and so the industry continues to incinerate and bury leftover plastic waste. More than one million metric tons of plastics are produced worldwide daily1, while only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled.2 Coca-Cola, a massive corporation who significantly profits from the convenience of producing and distributing plastic material, claims to “have longstanding support for recycling programs in partnership with environmental organizations” and yet, fail to mention such staggering statistics which paint a more realistic picture of efforts made to address the plastic crisis. Ironically, a quick search for a company statement from Coca-Cola offers some assurance though: they have donated over one million recycling bins to universities and local governments around America.
The recycling bins in question are, of course, made of plastic.
Is anyone really buying this?
Canada recently set an excellent example for developed nations around the world, announcing its intention to ban six single-use plastic items, including straws and plastic checkout bags, and promised legislation will be finalized by 2021, pending comments from citizens and stakeholders in the Canadian economy. After the previous four years, I can no longer imagine what living under a government that puts trivial matters such as the well-being of our natural world and the health of its citizens above corporate profits might feel like.
It’s worth mentioning that newly researched chemical recycling processes show some promise in their ability to “add value” to recycled material, instead of downgrading material quality. Several projects, such as Agilyx, Plastic Energy and Carbios, are actively undergoing research and innovation in downstream solutions to the plastic crisis. One process under study breaks down traditionally unfriendly PET into raw materials that can be reused again and again to manufacture food-grade plastic materials. Investments and research into scientifically advanced depolymerization processes signal that the plastic industry is doubling down on chemical recycling as concern regarding plastic waste grows, while independent firms work quickly to profit from the new technologies. As Martin Stephan, deputy CEO of Carbios eloquently claims, “plastic is still fantastic.” However, critics like Neil Tangri, policy director for an international environmental group, maintains that “any downstream solution” will in “no way…scale and keep pace with [growing levels] of production,” which continue to rise at between 3% and 4% annually.
It’s about time to abandon the sentimentality surrounding plastic reuse and recycling. Small actions like picking up trash on the beach and bringing home groceries in reusable bags may feel like solutions, but citizen action can only do so much. Corporations who reap massive benefits from plastic usage – and from pretending to do all they can to address the issue – must be held responsible. In the United States, legislation is necessary if corporations are to be held genuinely accountable. One bill, referred to as the Break Free from Pollution Act of 2020, aims to do exactly that, requiring producers of plastics to accept financial responsibility for “collecting, managing, and recycling or composting” products after consumer use. The bill also “phases out” many single-use products and limits the export of plastic waste to other countries.6 With partisan support from only 91 representatives, it appears a long road awaits Americans ready to find solutions to our plastic crisis.
In the meantime, we may continue to ask: “Can I recycle this?”
The answer: probably not.
Essay by: Noah Glynn
Arizona State University