Plastic recycling isn’t working. Only about 6% of plastic in the U.S. is recycled, and the vast majority of all the plastic ever produced on this planet still exists somewhere. In the ocean alone, it is estimated that tens of trillions of pieces of plastic lie on the sea floor — that is, what hasn’t been pulverized by currents into micro-particles or is floating brazenly on the surface. Ocean plastic is even finding its way into the human food chain. Despite all of this, the plastics industry is spending millions to convince us that recycling is the answer, even though, according to a recent joint NPR/PBS investigation, their own internal studies suggest otherwise.
Americans first began complaining about plastic in earnest in the 1970s, as Earth Day celebrations grew in popularity. Concerned about profits, oil and plastics executives gathered secretly to devise a strategy to confuse consumers. They came up with the brilliantly deceptive concept of “recycling,” thinking that if Americans believed there was a solution to the growing plastics problem, they would ignore the truth. Big Plastic invested heavily in persuasion campaigns designed to sell recycling as a viable way to repurpose used plastic despite knowing that the process might never catch on as long as it was cheaper to make new plastic than it was to recycle it.
While it may be technically true that many types of plastic can indeed be recycled, the process is far too expensive for it to happen in any economically viable way. Historically, the majority of plastic collected in the U.S. has been burned or dumped into a landfill or put on a boat to Asia, where, if waste management standards were deficient, as they often were, it ended up in a stream or a lake or a river, to find its way to the sea.
There is an island of floating plastic, twice the size of Texas, swirling in the gyre of sea currents between California and Hawaii — one of five such known islands around the globe. These islands receive a steady flow of plastic as improperly discarded trash on land ends up in a water source and, eventually, the ocean. Plastic that does not enter the ocean by a stream, lake, or river route will, over time, travel over land to accumulate on one of the world’s beaches, where it is ground by the surf into progressively smaller bits and carried out by the tide.
The common Starbucks cup is an illustration of why recycling is too expensive to work. The cup is constructed of paper, lined with a thin-coat of plastic, and topped with a sturdy plastic lid. Mixed plastics, such as this, must be physically sorted in order to be recycled. Even if you separate the lid from the cup, the cup would still need to have the plastic lining removed before the paper could be recycled — otherwise, the plastic would gum-up the machine. The lid poses its own set of challenges.
Starbucks lids are made of No. 5 plastic, one of the seven grades indicated by the small triangle-shaped symbol stamped into the bottom of most plastic products. The number denotes the grade but, interestingly, also presages the likelihood of that product ever being recycled. No. 1s and No. 2s, mostly water bottles and milk jugs, are recycled most often because they are comparatively easy to sort. On the other hand, No. 3s are deemed too toxic to even try to recycle outside of a lab. No. 4s, which are used to make cheap grocery bags, are avoided by recyclers because they can clog machines. No. 5s, used for pill bottles and coffee pods, have a limited recycling market and are not collected in many cities. No. 6s and 7s are plastic foam food containers and mixed plastic that are simply too costly to process.
America’s answer to the expense of recycling used to be to ship unwanted plastic to China, which used to take it in bulk. However, growing concerns that plastic was making its workers sick convinced Chinese leaders to close their borders to plastic in 2018. Countries like Malaysia and Thailand took up the slack for a while, but then changed their minds. Environmentalists think it was a mistake to send plastic to Asia — given the comparatively weaker environmental standards there. You have to wonder, is it a coincidence that the largest of the five plastic islands is in the Pacific? Now we send unwanted plastic to Mexico, where environmentalists say poor waste water treatment at recycling plants is flushing microplastics into streams.
Given the paucity of plastic recycling in this country, and the comparative environmental risks associated with sending it abroad, perhaps the smarter approach, until a real solution emerges, is to just not use the stuff. Or, if pressed, to recycle only No. 1s and 2s, and to throw the rest in the trash.
K. Ward Cummings (email@example.com) is a former senior congressional staffer and the author of “The Capitol Hill Playbook” (2nd Edition), written under the pen name Nicholas Balthazar.