garbage on body of water

Admit It, Plastic Isn’t Really Recycled

Recycling plastic is increasingly pointless. In this post I provide some resources to learn why and some suggestions about what to do.

I’ve been getting slowly more nihilistic about plastic recycling. I continually remind our family to cut the paper labels off plastic bags, especially those amazon blue and white padded bags; I collect ALL plastic bags in a large sack and along with other hard to recycle materials, drive them to our local Eco-Cycle/Charm center a couple of times per year.

I’ve seen the videos before. Picture the scene, on a dirty scrappy riverbank, with an oily, sediment laden river, small children sat in dirty clothes, behind them massive piles of plastic waste, you can [insert developing country here].

If you think about it, while plastic maybe essential for many things, most of the plastic we use is just waste.

It’s true[1]Where Is The Expiration Date On Bottled Water – Montalvospirit.

Plastic waste, especially bags has always been an issue. We cleaned up the creek near where I lived in Austin TX, this was my tweet at the time.

Ever since 2018 when the Chinese banned importing our plastic waste, the market for plastic recycling has tanked. Mostly, it’s a bribe to poor countries to accept our plastic waste, often with no ability to process it.

Single stream recycling[2]Pros and Cons of Single-Stream Recycling | in America is essentially a Hail-Mary pass[3]Hail Mary pass – Wikipedia. Regional and city governments have decided Americans are too lazy to carefully sort and clean their recycling, which would include removing tape from boxes, labels from packaging (of any sort), washing glass etc. Instead, just throw it all in large recycling container and hope someone else will do it for you.

Below is an extreme example, here we have our local grocery store, King Soopers, providing pesto-seasoned, raw chicken breasts in double plastic wrapped bags. Fortunately, they stopped selling it, it’s not clear that Perdue stopped packaging or making it.

Note how Perdue responded, “The majority of packaging materials for PERDUE® products are recyclable, but unfortunately, not all.”. These bags are NOT recyclable, not even close. Asides from all the adhesive labels the grocery store has stuck on them, the bags are made with a mixed plastic, one for the bag, another for the closure and a 3rd for the inner bag. Thats before you get into the issues around handling bags that have held raw chicken.

But the news that plastic recycling is mostly a scam is finally happening. Here are three recent ways it has been covered. This 8-minute video pretty much has it covered.

Here is an article from the Atlantic which says pretty much the same thing.

picture of the article entiteled "Plastic recycling Doesn't Work and Will Never Work". The picture links to the article.

This week the BBC documentary program looked at plastic recycling and plastic waste and the US company Terracycle. UK readers can find the documentary on iPlayer, everyone will have to use this YouTube version which will hopefully stay up, and has a brief audio issue around 26-minutes.

To be fair to Terracycle[4]TerraCycle, much of the complaint about the UK scheme in this video is about accessibility. What is interesting is at least the British are doing something, with, and without Terracycle. In the film people are complaining about Terracycle sites being 2-hours away.

What Can We Do?

The United States in 2021 had a dismal recycling rate of about 5 percent for post-consumer plastic waste, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014, when the U.S. exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled—even though much of it wasn’t[5]Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work — Beyond Plastics – Working To End Single-Use Plastic Pollution

  • Mandate any plastic use must be reusable.
  • Plastic products should have a lifespan of more than 5-years.
  • Eliminate single-use plastics.
  • End single-stream recycling.
  • Massively increase sorted plastic recycling locally.
  • No exporting plastic waste. If it can’t be recycled in country, products can’t use it – this is the key provision, no inventing new plastics or uses without paying for lifecycle planning and investment.
  • “rent”able packaging per the Terracycle CEO becomes useful.

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