Recycling isn’t the answer to the single-use plastic problem: here’s why
Single-use plastic has become a bit of a taboo since the pandemic. Suddenly, we all can’t talk about it, because it’s essential for public health. Yet, the plastic problem isn’t going away. With the rise of mask-wearing, takeouts, and deliveries, the use of single-use plastic has become all but ubiquitous. But what if we told you that consumer use of plastic wasn’t exactly the problem? And what if we told you that individual recycling isn’t the solution?
Don’t throw in the towel and give up on figuring out how your local recycling facilities work. (We’re right there with you, by the way.) Allow us to explain. It’s not that individual recycling doesn’t matter at all. In fact, recycling, like every other individual action out there, is something that most activists are more than happy to get behind. What we’re getting at today is this. The fact that recycling isn’t the perfect solution we may think it is. And a recent major report provides even more proof that this is the case. But before we dig into that, let’s talk plastic.
The plastic problem, and how it’s framed
For most of us who care about the environmental crisis, we’ve heard the facts rattled off to us before. But if you haven’t, here’s a snippet of what often makes people moved to want to do something about plastic. The numbers alone are terrifying. Since the early 1950s, we’ve generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic materials. We’re expecting global plastic production to more than triple by 2050 (who knows what the estimates are post-COVID) and this expanded production would account for a projected 56 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions or approximately 10%-13% of the entire carbon budget. But what really gets people going isn’t the production, it’s the waste.
What happens to the plastic?
A 2019 global study revealed that we’ve only recycled 9% of the 8.3 billion metric tons produced. The rest? Landfilled, burnt, or somewhere on land or in water. This 2019 review of the public and environmental health effects of plastic wastes disposal lays down the facts.
Landfilled? There are concerns of toxic chemicals leaching, contaminating soil and groundwater in the long term. Methane, which contributes significantly to global warming, is also released during biodegradation of plastics at landfill sites. Burnt? Burning releases hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere instead. Burning adds to air pollution, which has serious health risks. And the soot, ashes, and various powders end up in our water cycle and soil. These also end up affecting the functioning of our aquatic ecosystems.
And what if it’s just disposed of badly? Plastic ends up in our waters, entangling or killing our marine life. (By 2050, there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish… by weight. And the plastic doesn’t just disappear. It at most becomes—the dreaded—microplastics.) Or, in towns and cities, it chokes sewage systems. Thereby giving rise to prime conditions for breeding mosquitoes and other disease-causing vectors, on top of producing foul smells. It also disrupts agricultural soil aeration and reduces productivity in such lands.
Where does it all go?
As the authors of the 2019 study emphasise, there are disproportionate effects on developing and poor countries of the world. The reason why this is the case is that, as various studies have found—see this one of the UK, this one of the US, and this one of China—rich countries export their waste to these poorer countries. Not only do they export their waste, but they also export the problems, listed above, caused by the waste. (Waste colonialism is a critical concept in this regard.)
And then, not only do these countries lack the infrastructure to manage this exported waste, but they also don’t produce that much waste, to begin with. Which makes the situation even more unjust. What often ends up happening in these countries is informal waste picking. Many rely on landfills to make a living. But the job is dangerous, possesses major health risks over time, and produces low returns. All this is out of sight, out of mind, for richer countries that simply pay to export their waste. Or, at least, the waste they don’t recycle in their own countries.
So the plastic problem is more or less framed as a waste problem. The issue with this framing, though, is that it allows us to forget who really caused this problem.
Are the “plastic polluters” behind the problem?
You probably think the so-called “plastic polluters” are the culprits. Because you might’ve seen the annual Break Free From Plastic audit, that calls out big corporations for using single-use plastic packaging. Last year, the top plastic polluter, according to them, was Coca-Cola, followed by PepsiCo and Nestlé. To be fair, the audit is not exactly wrong. They are big offenders and our fingers should be pointing at them. Let’s unpack why first.
Branded single-use plastic waste found everywhere…
The global movement Break Free From Plastic’s work over the past few years allowed them to say last year that these three plastic polluters have made “zero progress” on reducing their plastic waste. That is, they’ve remained in the top spots of the list for three years in a row. The list is a ranking of corporations whose branded waste is found most regularly in the nations they survey (that’s 55 in 2020). So Coca-Cola came out on top. Because they found Coca-Cola bottles the most in the beaches, rivers, parks, and other litter sites of 55 nations.
… and they’re not doing much to fix it.
“The world’s top polluting corporations claim to be working hard to solve plastic pollution, but instead they are continuing to pump out harmful single-use plastic packaging,” said Emma Priestland, the movement’s global campaign coordinator. While all three corporations, of course, made statements that they were working towards addressing the waste problem, the truth is they’re saying a lot, without saying much at all.
Coca-Cola said that it has a commitment to get every bottle back by 2030, in hopes of recycling it into new bottles. It also mentioned that it’s produced bottles with 100% recycled plastic. And noted that over 20% of its portfolio comes in refillable or fountain packaging. PepsiCo said that it’s set targets to decrease virgin plastic in its beverage business by 35% by 2025. And that it’s working on growing refill and reuse through partnerships and investing in recycling solutions too. Nestlé said that it was going to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. And reduce its use of virgin plastics by a third in the same period.
PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, in 2018, in fact, joined a broader commitment towards a circular economy for plastic. They pledged to, among other things, make all their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. This commitment included governments too, who pledged to improve recycling infrastructure and related policies. The point was to catalyse a whole system change towards making recycling easier.
Clearly, the common thread running through these statements is this: recycling is the way forward. But why do they harp on recycling so much? The answer, it seems, lies in the plastic industry’s dark agenda.
Plastic polluters wanted to make you the problem
This exposé published in The Intercept titled “How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World”, written by the publication’s Investigative Reporter Sharon Lerner, provides a fascinatingly disturbing context to the recycling narrative pushed by the top plastic polluters.
Lerner explains that on the first-ever Earth Day, in 1970, activists wanted to push for bottle bills to “put the onus for cleaning up the waste on manufacturers”. In response, “not only did [the manufacturers] tar supporters of the bottle bills as radicals, but they also launched a massive PR campaign”. In 1971, an anti-litter organisation formed by beverage and packaging companies—PepsiCo and Coca-Cola included—called Keep America Beautiful, and the Ad Council teamed up to create the now-infamous “Crying Indian” ad. It showed an “Indian” tearing up after seeing a bag of litter thrown on the ground.
This did a few things, as Lerner points out. First: make viewers feel guilty for spreading trash, by not recycling. Second: allow these companies to position themselves as being concerned about this problem even though they were the cause of the problem. Third—and this is the cherry on top—begin the shielding of corporate polluters from blame by shifting responsibility onto individuals. “Future Earth Days”, Lerner explains, “would continue to emphasize consumers’ personal responsibility for recycling.”
So these are the origins of the recycling narrative that these corporations are pushing today, and this is why we should be tackling these plastic polluters.
But it’s not just these plastic polluters…
The origins of the recycling narrative should get us to think about something else. If we’re thinking about the fact that these plastic polluters are the real reasons why we have all these branded single-use plastic waste to deal with… we need to take it a step further and think about the materials involved in the production of these single-use plastics. Indeed, there’s another piece to the puzzle. This is where we’re finally getting into the new study that was just published. (The authors of whom would probably also agree that we might be missing the forest for the trees.)
Who are the real culprits?
Now, plastic polluters do produce plastic. But as it turns out, the firms that are responsible for most of the plastic being produced aren’t actually the corporations we’ve talked about above. New research by Minderoo Foundation, launched under the campaign “No Plastic Waste”, offering one of the most robust accounting to date, presents us with the real facts. You heard it here first: only twenty firms produce a shocking 55% of the world’s plastic waste. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé are not on the list. What firms are these, then?
“Two integrated oil and gas companies, US-based ExxonMobil and China-owned Sinopec, rank first and third, respectively, with the largest chemicals company in the world, US-based Dow, at number two. Together,” the report writes, “we estimate these three companies alone generate around 16 per cent of global single-use plastic waste.” So the problem, as this campaign seeks to point out, is this: in the fight against single-use plastics—which account for the majority of plastic thrown away and for over a third of plastics produced every year—we’ve completely missed targeting the source.
The plastics industry has been let off the hook for decades
As the report points out: “Government policies, where they exist, tend to focus on the vast number of companies that sell finished plastic products. Relatively little attention has been paid to the smaller number of businesses at the base of the supply chain that make “polymers” – the building blocks of all plastics – almost exclusively from fossil fuels.”
“These companies are the source of the single-use plastic crisis: their production of new “virgin” polymers from oil, gas and coal feedstocks perpetuates the take-make-waste dynamic of the plastics economy. The economies of scale for fossil-fuel-based production are undermining transition to a “circular” plastic economy, with negative impacts on waste collection rates, on end-of-life management and on rates of plastic pollution. The focus needs to be on producing recycled polymers from plastic waste, on re-use model and on alternative substitute materials.”
In other words, the report is asking us to go straight to the source. The source that’s, like the “plastic polluters”, made almost zero progress on doing their part: reducing the making of virgin polymers and reducing their outsized single-use plastic footprint.
What have they been doing instead?
The report presents the analysis that “not a single company among the largest 100 polymer producers procures more than two per cent of its feedstock from recycled or bio-based materials. These overwhelmingly disappointing results demonstrate that the industry is barely at the start of its journey to circularity.” And in fact, these companies are not just not reducing how much virgin polymers they’re making—they’re actually increasing it. The report highlights that these plastic producers have plans to expand “virgin” polymer capacity, and the three companies projected to create the most additional capacity by 2025 are Sinopec, ExxonMobil and PetroChina.
These companies, of course, say that they need to make more because developing economies will demand more. But the truth is, as we explained earlier, these developing countries don’t even have sufficient infrastructure to deal with this single-use plastic waste. So why is it that they want to produce more plastic? A big part of the reason is because of the nature of these companies that are at the top of this capacity expansion list. If you realised, they’re all oil and gas corporations.
Plastic as a fossil fuel corporation’s side-hustle
And of course, with the tide turning against oil and gas—just recently, the International Energy Agency released what some are calling a “bombshell” report that states plainly: “there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required”, aka “there’s no need to invest in fossil fuels anymore”—these oil and gas executives have to find another way to make money. And petrochemicals, which make up 99% of all plastics, are helping these corporations offset downturns in oil and gas prices.
It’s a pretty lucrative side-hustle, as it turns out. They need to make plastic, and they need to turn public attention away from the production. This explains why ExxonMobil, for example, is part of the Flexible Packaging Association, which has doubled its spending in the US the lobby against plastic bans. More insidiously, this also explains why (like the plastic polluters) oil and gas corporations are getting onboard efforts like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which works towards improving recycling.
Focusing on recycling for them, as this explainer from Fast Company makes clear, is a way for them to push the blame onto consumers while they can continue to produce plastic. As in, push the blame on you, who’s consuming the plastic.
So what do we do about this? Do we stop recycling?
We’ll return to the report in a bit, but let’s talk about recycling. If recycling has become a solution steeped in such controversy because of the way these companies have co-opted the narrative, and if the companies that produce more than half of single-use plastic waste are going to produce more plastic, is it worth recycling? Should we just stop recycling entirely? Let’s consider the reasons why, or why not.
Recycling is kind of a scam
Yes, recycling is kind of a scam as it is now. For one, plastic products are apparently “recyclable” even though their recyclability is dependent on a ton of factors outside of consumer control. For example, the Starbucks “recyclable lid” is made from polypropylene, so while it is technically recyclable, there’s actually very little market for recycled polypropylene. This means that recyclability depends on whether the market actually wants to recycle it. Here’s another example: in the US, labelling system How2Recycle slaps its symbols on products that are made from plastic types that are virtually impossible to recycle, because How2Recycle took advantage of loopholes in regulations.
Not to mention, the plastics industry is today putting forth a new type of recycling, “chemical recycling” that’s supposed to be able to magically turn recycled plastics into fuel… even though this isn’t actually proven efficient, nor economically viable. And in some cases, there are also big questions on safety. But the plastics industry still promotes chemical recycling as a sustainable fix for the plastic problem. Again, we come back to recycling being an excuse for the plastics industry to keep doing what it’s doing—making more plastic.
Recycling, more than letting the real culprits off the hook, makes us victim-blame and victim-shame
Beyond the practical issues that make recycling kind of a scam, there are perhaps other more concerning issues around recycling. Or, more specifically, individual recycling. As climate justice essayist and expert Mary Annaise Heglar explains in this viral essay “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle”, the way individual recycling has been touted as an important lifestyle adjustment to fix the plastic problem and/or the climate crisis, is “dangerous”.
“It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics. When you consider that the same IPCC report outlined that the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions come from just a handful of corporations — aided and abetted by the world’s most powerful governments, including the US — it’s victim-blaming, plain and simple.”
The individual, who is the victim because we didn’t ask to have to deal with this crisis that these corporations created, is blamed. Worse, individuals end up victim-shaming each other too, shaming those who recycle less, or—God forbid—don’t recycle at all. (All while, as Heglar writes, “we let the government and industries […] off the hook completely.”)
We need to recycle, but we need to—and can—do more
All this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t recycle. Heglar herself writes in her essay: “The worst thing you can do about climate change is nothing.” Just because the recycling infrastructure isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean that we should throw in the towel. Indeed, we need to figure out how to perfect recycling infrastructure, because waste is still out there, and that waste isn’t going to magically disappear. We still need to figure out how to recycle the most efficiently, most affordably, and we need to find a solution that integrates the global informal waste pickers too.
But to focus on recycling is to forget that we simply will not recycle our way out of this crisis. We won’t recycle our way out of the climate crisis: that’s why Project Drawdown doesn’t have recycling in its top recommendations. We won’t recycle our way out of the plastic problem either, because corporations are continuing to produce more virgin polymers (and propping up the fossil fuel industry while doing so), and aren’t actually trying to make better plastic (or aren’t trying fast enough) for when we actually do need plastic.
So what’s the merit of recycling then? Just like every other individual action, it helps but is not the be-all-and-end-all. As Heglar explains, “while personal actions can be meaningful starting points, they can also be dangerous stopping points. We need to broaden our definition of personal action beyond what we buy or use.”
What we can do
How do we apply what Heglar explains to the report that just came out? Well, thankfully, the report lists out the actions that main stakeholders can take. For our purposes, as consumers—and more importantly, as citizens—that’s our cue to use our voices to demand that these stakeholders take these actions.
What are the actions stakeholders need to take?
The first set of actions, of course, concerns the polymer producers. The plastic producers, the real plastic polluters. Polymer producers should: Disclose levels of virgin versus recycled polymer production and their associated single-use plastic waste “footprint”. Quit paying lip service to sustainability and seize the opportunity to re-tool. Commit to using circularity measurement and reporting tools.
Next up: investors and banks. We didn’t elaborate much on this, but the report emphasises that major global investors and banks are enabling the single-use plastic crisis. It identifies twenty institutional asset managers that hold shares worth almost US$300 billion in the parent companies of the polymer producers identified. Specifically, 20 of the world’s largest banks have apparently lent more than US$30 billion for the production of these polymers. More than 500 lent US$50 billion.
What can investors and banks do? They should: Disclose the level of lending and investment in virgin versus recycled polymer production and the associated generation of single-use plastic waste. Commit to funding a circular plastics economy. Use measures of circularity to inform capital allocation decisions and shareholder action.
Then we have policymakers. We can’t leave it up to the plastics industry and the market to do its job. The invisible hand, quite obviously, has failed us. So we need policymakers to step up, show their political will and take practical action. They should: Target policies at polymer producers. Accelerate a global treaty on plastic pollution. Require full disclosure from producers and users of single-use plastics in order to better monitor the supply chain.
And finally: other companies in the supply chain. These include converters of plastic polymers, packaged goods brands (our “fake” plastic polluters), and retailers should: Convert voluntary commitments to use more recycled single-use plastics into firm market signals. Design for recyclability. Reducing unnecessary single-use plastics.
Where do you come in?
Here’s where we come in. For one, as the tide is turning on oil and gas, we can keep pushing on that front. (Because, as we’ve explained, oil and gas corporations are big offenders in this story.) Join your local advocacy or activist community to push back against these corporations. Or, if you have the skills, support climate litigation. As evidenced by a recent historic win against Shell, this method is promising too.
And in the same way that everyday people are turning the tide on such massive corporations, we can turn the tide on Big Plastic too. There are many ways to take Big Plastic down: just think of all the problems that they’ve caused. Then think about groups that are advocating for awareness of and action on these problems. Join those groups and communities. Or, as this report alludes to, try the policymaker route. We’re all citizens of governments, which means we hold our policymakers accountable. Write to them, call them, tweet at them, anything. Let them know this is something you want them to act on. Let them know you want them to hold polymer producers and companies in the supply chain accountable.
And if you think the list ends there, you’re wrong. We can get policymakers to hold investors and banks accountable too. We can even personally hold these financial institutions accountable. And it’s especially important, and doable, if you’re someone with significant privilege and wealth. (This statement, of course, applies to getting policymakers to hold plastic producers accountable too.)
So no, individual recycling isn’t the (only) solution. Because there’s so much more we can do. And we owe it to each other, in this climate fight, to do more than just put our plastic bottles in a recycling bin.
About The Author: Tammy Gan
Tammy is an environmentalist and social media advocate who believes in thinking bigger and deeper about climate change. She hopes that with her actions, we will all grow to become environmentally conscious citizens (not consumers) with hearts for this beautiful planet we call home. Visit her Instagram page.
This blog also appears in Green is the New Black. Their goal is to create a conscious world where everyone is aware of their own actions. They believe it’s time to wake up, take control, and be empowered to take positive action so that we can all leave the world in a better place than how we’ve found it.