Is Recycling Broken?

Recently a combination of whistle blowing and investigative journalism has revealed that the whole concept of plastic recycling was created by the oil and gas industry to counter a growing resistance against plastic waste several decades ago. “NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.”
When China began to refuse shipments of plastic waste the result was that most supposedly “recycled” plastic is now burned or buried in landfills.
Recycling plastic has many problems. There are too few companies in the United States that recycle it. Recycled plastic is inferior in quality to “virgin” plastic. Plastic can only be recycled a few times before it is useless. It is more expensive to recycle plastic than to produce new plastic from oil and gas. The result, especially in this time of COVID-19, is a glut of discarded plastic that can never be recycled, only buried or burned.
So what is the solution? First, we can just stop buying single-use plastic. There are plenty of alternatives to plastic wrap, plastic tableware, plastic straws, plastic dishes, cups and glasses, even to plastic food containers. Second, we can support the reusable movement. More and more stores, restaurants and delivery services are offering refillable containers that the customer can use again and again. Third, we can act politically. We can encourage efforts to ban single-use plastic. We can oppose proposals to build more petrochemical factories.
We also need to remember that this is a problem particular to plastics, not to all recycling. Recycled aluminum, cardboard, newsprint, steel and glass are still in demand. You just need to be careful how you recycle it. Rinse bottle and cans. Be sure the surfaces of foil and cardboard are free of food. Crush aluminum cans and the plastic bottles that you do recycle, ball up foil, break down boxes. All this improves the efficiency of recycling centers and the chances that what you put in the recycling bin actually will be recycled.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Susan Burghes

    Thank you Elliott. I have tried very hard to take a stand on single use plastics.
    I am very upset about the ethylene cracking plant that is supposed to be built on the Ohio River near Portsmouth. There must be a better way of supporting the economy of small rural communities.

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