When I was in elementary school, my closest friend was a classmate named Jonathan. He was quiet and stoic, but as we became close, I learned he was funny, unbelievably skilled at Atari, and very, very smart. He came from a well-educated family, and every time I came over to unsuccessfully challenge him at a video game, I found myself learning something new from him or his mother, an austere but warm woman who taught at a prestigious university in a neighboring city. On one of these occasions, we had raided the refrigerator for strawberries and vanilla yogurt. I moved to throw my yogurt cup into the recycling bin when I was interrupted by Jonathan’s stern voice: “You can’t put that in there.” Initially, I found it pretentious. What did Jonathan know? I was being environmentally responsible by recycling my plastic yogurt container. My profoundly moral sense of obligation was saving a sea turtle somewhere, and here Jonathan was, with his family of lofty professors and dead-eyed municipal government officers, telling me that I was wrong for it. While I rolled my eyes at the time, I would come to learn years later that he was right – that behind every third-grade ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ poster project and every heartwarming television ad about sentient hairbrushes made from recycled plastic lies a much darker truth. The fact is that the innumerable varieties of plastic and other materials that humanity has concocted to suit our ever-growing list of wants and needs, plus decades-long efforts by the oil and fuel industries to maintain and increase their wealth, have added up to disaster in recycling plants nationally and globally – and most people have no idea.
‘Not All Plastic’: Uncovering the Myth
The first and most essential variable involved in the recycling equation is the plastic we produce and consume. One of the most important yet understated truths about plastic in the context of environmentalism is that not all plastic can be recycled. Of the seven classes of plastics – PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS, and miscellaneous – only PET and HDPE are feasibly recyclable. In addition, contamination (e.g., the remnants of vanilla yogurt in a plastic container) renders many materials that are typically recyclable obsolete.
As a result, much of that material ends up in sanitary landfills, which is a hopeful best-case scenario; even more of it is simply left to the environment. To put into perspective how much, according to the OECD, less than 10% of all plastic consumed annually across the world is actually recycled. According to NPR, less than 10% of all plastic ever consumed has been recycled.
‘Infeasible’: Propagandizing Plastic
Beginning in the 1980s, a second, more sinister variable comes into play. By this time, oil and gas titans like Exxon and Chevron had realized the limitless potential of plastic to replace the vast majority of packaging materials on the market. These industries began funding massive advertisement campaigns. TV advertisements claimed that plastic was the future – old bags, bottles, and containers could be given new life after first use. In reality, investigative reporting has uncovered evidence that plastic industry insiders were thoroughly aware that they were misleading the general public – and that recycling on such a massive scale was ‘infeasible’ – well before early recycling PSAs hit the air.
The reality that transpired from this ubiquitous messaging was recycling on an unfathomable scale, which overwhelmed recycling plants everywhere. It is generally a more expensive process to sort plastic than to produce it; inundated with non-recyclable items, plastics too niche to recycle, and contaminated packaging, these plants were forced to discard the majority of materials they were receiving. As of today, the situation at recycling plants has only gotten worse. One ruthlessly propagated lie by the industry changed the fate of Earth as we know it, flooding our lands and seas with a material that is not sustainable but rather one of the most overall dangerous and destructive human inventions Earth has ever had to face.
‘Balance The Equation’: Sustainable Solutions
Recycling programs worldwide have existed perpetually on the verge of collapse for decades. While things may appear grim, humanity has the power to change the trajectory of its fate. By fixing our broken recycling systems and tapering our plastic production, we can lay the groundwork for a greener future.
The irony of oil and fossil fuel companies selling the public on environmentalism is hard to ignore. Federal response and accountability for these industries are demanded on a global scale. More importantly, a ban on the use of non-recyclable plastics has long been warranted in order to streamline the flow of plastic through recycling plants and reduce waste. Fewer varieties of plastic being produced means simpler, less expensive sorting, which would translate to more plastic actually being reused.
Reducing our overall production of plastic is the most direct way to protect our planet from the dangers it poses. Contrary to the common notion of ‘individual responsibility’ that has gained traction as a solution to the plastic problem in recent years, pollution begins when plastic is manufactured, not when it is bought. Plastic is completely inescapable in modern-day consumables, so much so that scientists discovered microplastics in placentas for the first time in 2020. If governments across the world crack down on the root of the problem – the industry itself – it could be possible that the production of plastic will be significantly reduced, and thus its consumption as well. The key is to replace it with sustainable alternatives, many of which are not obscure laboratory technologies but rather naturally derived materials, as well as substitutes that were used for centuries before plastic’s recent ascension.
In order to accomplish either of these goals, the general population must become educated on the matter. When awareness of such a pressing issue is cultivated, people are inclined to use their voices and resources to make a change. It is crucial that, where we can, we make efforts on an individual basis to contribute to a much greater cause; even simply taking the initiative to tell family members can influence their perspective and course of action in far greater ways than one might realize. (I found this to be surprisingly true after stumbling upon my mother researching Green Party candidates for the 2022 election.) Using the sum of these principles, we can cancel out the malignant cogs in our broken recycling system and find a balance between humanity’s wants and Mother Earth’s needs. We can make Jonathan proud, and most importantly of all, we can protect the planet we call home from a harrowing fate.
Essay by: Joseph Centurioni
University of Southern California