Humans have irreversibly damaged the planet in the last couple of centuries. Science has shown us that the consequences will be catastrophic to the world we live in if we do not take major steps toward a global, sustainable green initiative. Since the 1980’s, recycling has developed into a movement and provided us with a false sense of security that we are doing our best to limit pollution. In practice, our efforts are not producing the desired effect. The recycling initiative is driven by market economic gain and the burden is placed on our individual moral principles. Government’s around the world rely on people’s good intentions and poor execution of recycling so they can continue to let the plastic industry profit. They make citizens feel that they are doing their part, thus continuing the cycle of overconsumption of plastic products.
It is no secret that the plastic industry supports recycling laws. Providing our society with the knowledge that we can recycle our plastics makes us feel better about the waste we produce individually, which leads us to purchase more without feeling guilty. These companies are determined to make us feel this way because it makes lobbyists less likely to cause a ruckus, therefore securing less mandates on their production levels. Companies such as, ExxonMobil and the American Chemistry Council are all large supporters of new legislation in a handful of states that will help progress toward more chemical recycling plants. Chemical recycling is a combination of different technologies used to break down used plastic. These laws, however, place loose regulation on said facilities. They are treated and regulated as if they are manufacturing companies rather than solid waste disposal sites. This is troublesome because they do not limit the carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, or greenhouse gases that are emitted from the chemical breakdown process. Plastic production companies support these ineffective efforts because it pushes the environmental responsibility on consumers rather than themselves, evading the consequences of manufacturing innumerable new or virgin plastics.
Many consumers do not realize the complex process of recycling. Numbers and recycle symbols are placed on almost every plastic product, signifying its ability to be recycled. This is a symbol that consumers do not understand; the symbols are untrademarked and unregulated. Many of us do not take the time to determine if a plastic is recyclable in the condition its in when we throw it in the bin, yet we feel good about ourselves when we do so. There are two different types of plastic, according to National Geographic: thermoset and thermoplastic. Thermoset plastics an irreversible chemical bond of cross-linked polymers which cannot be melted down, making them ideal for household and commercial use. Plastic companies will still place recycle labels on these products and others when they know it cannot be salvaged, so as to produce deceptive reassurance for consumers.
Stop the cycle and create a new one
Initiatives taken toward thinner plastics have shown reliable results. Single use water bottle thickness and cap sizes have decreased plastic waste drastically. This along with many other products and companies who are using their resources to contribute to a cleaner environment have yielded positive results. In our current climate crisis, reducing carbon emissions by manufacturing less plastic is essential. Consumers and corporations alike need to take responsibility and acquire a green approach to packaging production and purchase.
Our first step should be to switch from plastic to a more sustainable alternative. Aluminum and glass are infinitely recyclable. In fact, close to three quarters of aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Glass packaging is also a respectable approach to packaging some items, especially grocery items. Glass is easy to create and comes from an inexhaustible renewable resource: sand. According to the EPA, approximately 90% of glass is recycled and reused, creating a circular economy of goods. In contrast, plastic is refurbished at a rate of only 8.5%.
Another crucial approach is to act through legislation. Instead of feeling comfortable with current recycling laws, we need to hold plastic companies accountable for their carbon footprint. Law makers should create better, more intense regulations for plastic production and recycling facilities. Chemical recycling should be held to the same standards as solid waste disposal because they are introducing more harmful gases into our atmosphere as a result of lacking restriction. Alas, taxpayers are reluctant to vote for legislation that improves recycling initiatives, which is partially understandable now that we know the secrets behind these facilities. Perhaps instead of focusing on putting more money into these programs, considering the market value of recycled plastic has dwindled, we first need legislation enacted to reduce the number of new and unnecessarily detrimental plastics being made, otherwise known as “virgin” plastics.
Our carelessness as a species has led us into a hole that will be difficult to get out of. Our wasteful lifestyle has caused irrevocable harm to our planet, attributable to greed and a lack of foresight. Our society needs to take a step back and see what is really going on the recycling industry; how broken the system is. Lawmaking and regulation will save the Earth from even more immutable damage. For decades we have tried to recycle our plastics, but our efforts are becoming fruitless as corporations take the opportunity to produce exceptionally more plastic for profit. Consumers continue to guiltlessly buy, use, and toss this plastic into a recycling bin that has only an 8.5% chance of being salvaged. In order to take the step toward a more sustainable lifestyle in the future, we need to regulate the plastic industry and attempt to make the switch to more aluminum and glass packaging, which are, for all intents and purposes, infinitely recyclable.
Essay by: Haydan Drake
Arizona State University