The Idea of Recycling Plastic is Mostly Greenwashing

Published: 2023-06-07

Like many millenials raised in a progressive city, I've been separating recyclables from trash for as long as I can remember. From 2009 through 2012 I became even more environmentally conscious while I attended Portland State, a university that prides itself on sustainability. I was proud that public transit and my bicycle were my only means of getting around the city, and the act of recycling was an almost religious ritual, to the point of snobbishness. Seeing someone throw a plastic bottle in the trash instead of recycling was sacrilege. I'd think "Wow, that person is a total piece of shit". To me recycling made sense, and it would annoy me to no end to see people throw their recycling in the trash and vice versa. Although it still absolutely annoys me more than a decade later, I've come to view most instances of recycling simply as greenwashing to make people feel better about their terrible consumption habits.

It wasn't until the last couple of years I was exposed to a few pieces of online content. First, I came across Laura Sullivan's article How Big Oil Misled the Public Into Believing Plastic Would be Recycled, and then later Frontline: Plastic Wars, where she shows how the oil industry intentionally misled (and continues to mislead) the public that plastics could be easily recycled and reused. Second, I came across the Climate Town's YouTube video Plastic Recycling is an Actual Scam where Rollie Williams describes the history of the plastics industry and how plastic recycling is more expensive and labor intensive, and that making new plastic from fossil fuels is almost always cheaper. Finally, I watched Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a documentary about just how much plastic has made it's way into our oceans and how it's essentially poisoning ocean wildlife. I started becoming aware that plastic recycling is the one of the biggest shams I've encountered in my life, as though I found out the Santa Claus isn't real.

A typical American lifestyle produces nearly a entire ton of garbage each year (which is 4.9 lbs per day). The reason why many don't perceive this to be a problem is that this garbage is conveniently transported out of sight so that we can continue to be good consumers, living in ignorant bliss on the impact our wasteful lifestyles have on the planet. We're told (and we tell ourselves) that it's okay because a lot of it is going to be recycled.

Unfortunately, most of what we think is being "recycled" actually just goes to the landfill. At best, 10% of the plastics we put in the recycling bin ends up being recycled, however latest reports show that it's likely closer to 5%. At worst, it ends up in the ocean or transported to another country where it's then burned/incinerated - a practice I've personally seen in Southeast Asia. The other 90-95% that ends up in the landfill where it just sits, taking up space, and taking hundreds of years to decompose (all way emitting methane and ethylene). We used to be able to transport our "recyclables" to poorer countries, but even now it's far to costly to the point where some countries are turning us (the United States) away. It's interesting to think that if exporting and burying trash wasn't an option, people might be a lot more cognizant when they purchased something. For example, if cars emitted a purple vapor instead of the invisible emission we're all too not familiar with, people would have a drastically different perception.

These facts nonetheless do not stop companies from essentially "greenwashing" their products as sustainable and environmentally friendly with terms like "green bottle", "all natural", and "ECO friendly". Hell, even using green or brown colors on a product packages is very likely an attempt at greenwashing. This behavior occurs in virtually every single market, from food packages to car sales, where companies push their "green" products to environmentally conscious consumers (like myself and sometimes fall for). This is similar to other forms of greenwashing like carbon offsetting where companies declare themselves as "carbon neutral", when really all they've done is paid some other organization that or may not have gone and planted some trees. It's all PR and marketing to persuade us to use their products. Companies engaging in this practice are playing into our desires to live a "green" and "sustainable" life, without creating an actual sustainable product.

42% of plastic that's produced is used for packaging. The "idea" of recycling encourages people to consume more and reduces the guilt of the impact our consumer lifestyle actually has, and enables some of the worst behaviors. If people think recycling is working, then they're not going to be concerned about it - and companies know this. For example, a very common mistake people make far too frequently is that they assume that the little chasing arrows label with a number inside that is on most plastic packaging means that it's recyclable. Sadly, this doesn't mean it's recyclable at all. It's simply an indicator of what type of plastic was used during the manufacturing process. It's obvious that the plastics logo looks was intentionally designed to look like the chasing arrows recycling symbol to trick consumers into feeling better about purchasing products with single use plastic and then mistakenly throw the un-recyclable plastics that into a recycling bin, where it will inevitably be sorted and end up elsewhere. Selling the idea of recycling sells more plastic.

Although society has been vaguely aware of this issue for a while, single-use plastic waste is only increasing. Every person will say they want a more sustainable and healthy world, but nobody wants to change their consumption habits, at least not anything more than using a reusable grocery bag sometimes. Nobody wants to give up their car, stop using plastic single-use produce bags, or buying packaged food.

This isn't to say we should all just quit recycling plastics. We should absolutely continue to recycle because 5-10% is better than nothing, but the reality is, is that the "greenest" thing you can is just simply buy fewer things, especially things with single-use plastics. The phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" is now "refuse, repair, reduce, reuse, recycle". The keyword that pertains to this post is "refuse". The best way to have a positive impact is to rethink our consumer lifestyles and drastically reduce our plastic consumption and refusing single use plastics if at all possible. Avoiding the creation of trash is part of the solution and should be our primary focus at an individual level.

I'm skeptical that this consumption-driven capitalist freight train will slow down anytime soon, at least not until the world's been irreparably damaged to such an extent and enough people have died that we've collectively done something about it. However, there are some simple solutions that will help, at least for the plastics problem. Simply avoid buying it, use reusable grocery bags, reusable produce bags, travel coffee cups, and your own containers. Zero waste stores have begun popping up in some US cities, and they're worth the visit.

None of this is going to solve the problem, only community action can, and I refuse to be a complete nihilist in this regard. Communities need to start pressuring companies to make more sustainable products and stop using so much packaging. Individually, we need to reduce our the items we buy with single use plastics in favor or something else. The healthier food choices are the ones in the produce and bulk foods sections anyway.

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