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Recycling isn’t the answer to the single-use plastic problem: here’s why

Tammy Gan

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.