Plastic is everywhere: in homes, cars, packaging, personal products, clothes. It’s an incredibly useful substance that can be molded and mixed into endless varieties of products, many of which (medical devices, to name one) are essential. Despite its permanent presence, myths about plastic abound. Here are a few, debunked.
Table of Contents
- Myths About Plastic Debunked
- Recycling is the Best Solution to Curtailing Plastic Waste
- New Technologies Will Tackle the Plastic Waste Crisis
- Biodegradable Plastics Are the Answer to Conventional Plastics
- Consumers Are the Main Cause of the Plastic Pollution Crisis
- The ‘War on Plastic’ is Causing a Decline in Plastic Production
- We NEED Plastic!
Myths About Plastic Debunked
Recycling is the Best Solution to Curtailing Plastic Waste
For decades, we’ve been led to believe that recycling is the best solution to managing plastic litter and waste. Sure… the reasoning goes, there’s a lot of packaging and single-use plastic, but toss it all in the recycling bin and–Presto!–all that stuff is transformed into recycled items, ready to be used again.
The reality is vastly different from this recycling-is-the-solution narrative cooked up by industry-related forces. The bulk (79%) of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced has ended up in landfills or scattered as litter across the globe. The U.S. is the world’s biggest plastic polluter and producer of plastic, but its recycling rates are among the worst. Recent recycling rates for all materials in the U.S. hover around 34%; for plastics, the rate is under 10%. That means that over 90% of plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated or worse, pollutes our environment.
Debunking Myths About Plastic: The Reality
There are a number of factors undermining the efficiency and effectiveness of recycling:
Remember the 8.3 billion metric tons? The sheer volume of plastic that must be recovered and then recycled is staggering. Even if the recycling infrastructure expanded and functioned without its current glitches, it would be impossible to recover, process, and sell the boatload of plastic currently blanketing the earth. Added to this insurmountable task is the relentless chug, chug, chug of more plastic spewing forth — 380 million tons produced each year — a weight equal to all the people on Earth. This number is projected to only increase in the coming years.
Remember, recycling is a business and plastic recyclables are a commodity. When prices dip, as they have in recent years, demand drops, exacerbating the ability to manage an ever-growing supply of plastic recyclables. As plastic continues to be manufactured and produced at an increasing clip, recycling continues to be buffeted by the ups and downs of the market. In down markets, recycling programs are discontinued, bales of plastic sit, waiting for buyers, and excess recyclables end up in landfills or are incinerated.
Recently, the price of virgin plastic has been cheaper than recycled, making it more economical to use virgin rather than recycled plastics in manufacturing products. This disconnect between production and waste management only adds to the plastic colossus.
It would be one thing if recycling plastic was limited to easily recyclable items, such as plastic bottles or other rigid, clear plastics. But plastic items, particularly single-use plastic products and packaging, are now offered in a slew of composite materials, from plastic-lined paper to-go cups to flimsy plastic bags used for snacks and condiments. These hybrid materials (dubbed “horrible hybrids“) are notoriously difficult to separate into their component parts for recycling and have a tendency to jam processing machines at recycling facilities. As such, they’re rarely recycled, and instead, are diverted to the landfill or incinerator.
“Recyclable” Plastic Isn’t Really Recyclable
Most plastic can only be downcycled. Unlike glass or aluminum, plastic can’t be recycled in an infinite loop. In fact, due to their chemical composition, most plastics can only be recycled once or twice into lower quality items before they ultimately end up–you guessed it–in a landfill or are incinerated.
Industry Obfuscation and Consumer Confusion
Most of us don’t realize that just because something’s recyclable doesn’t mean that it’ll actually be recycled. Charting the lifecycle of recyclables is a murky and confusing exercise that even recyclers concede is “extremely difficult.” It’s also a function of concerted efforts to keep us in the dark.
Consumer confusion about recycling’s efficacy is something that industry forces are only too happy to perpetuate in order to churn out more plastic. According to an NPR and PBS Frontline investigation, as far back as 1974, key players in the plastics (aka, oil and gas) industry were well aware that recycling was an ineffective solution to curtailing plastic waste. Yet, “the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true.”
The Bottom Line
With improvements and expansion, along with consumer education and awareness-raising initiatives, recycling can play a part in tackling plastic waste, but it is by no means the best solution.
For more information about recycling and how you can help minimize contamination of your recyclables, see Green That Life’s Recycling Resources page.
New Technologies Will Tackle the Plastic Waste Crisis
With growing recognition of the inadequacy of plastic recycling, new technologies have stepped in to save the day. Or that’s what we’ve been told.
What We’re Being Told
Chemical (or “advanced”) recycling has been touted as the answer to recycling all forms of plastic, including horrible hybrids. Unlike traditional mechanical recycling, these processes alter the chemical structure of recyclable plastic and convert them into their original building blocks. The advantage (according to proponents) is that chemical recycling “dramatically [reduces] the amount of waste sent to landfills” and aids in building a circular economy for plastics where feedstocks are used to generate a diverse range of products.
Waste To Energy and other incineration options, such as refuse-derived fuels, have also been offered as effective and eco-friendly options for reducing plastic waste. Proponents of waste to energy solutions point to the co-benefits of diverting waste from landfills to create fuel for generating electricity. A win-win, right?
Super-Enzymes have been enlisted in the war on plastic waste. These organisms purportedly feast on plastic, their efficiency enhanced over the years through enhancements and improvements.
Chemical Recycling. As with traditional recycling, chemical recycling–a small, largely unproven set of technologies–faces the challenge of scaling its capacity to tackle the plastic waste monolith. In addition, the carbon footprint of these processes is questionable. Some environmental groups assert that when considering the full life cycle process, chemical recycling is simply a plastics-to-fuel technology where the environmental costs outweigh the waste recovery benefits. Lastly, chemical recycling doesn’t solve the problem of human error. Indeed, chemical recycling, as a “complement” to mechanical recycling, adds yet another layer of rules to the mix. The result is more wish-cycling, contamination, and ultimate rejection of recyclables that end up in landfills.
Waste-to-Energy is not such a win. Waste to energy processes are far more carbon-intensive than other plastic waste management approaches, by some studies, emitting more greenhouse gases than the energy sources that they displace through air pollution. One critic states that these facilities don’t solve the problem as much as they shift it, “like moving the landfill from the ground to the sky.” In the end, just like recycling, it justifies the continued production of plastic.
Super-Enzymes. These new super-enzymes sound promising, but again, these innovations remain in their infancy with only a fraction of plastics recycled in this manner. Should they be scaled up, they can only be part of the solution. As one researcher acknowledges: “we should not count on the enzymes to mop up all our plastic waste.”
The Bottom Line. The fact of the matter is that all these waste management processes don’t address the root of the problem: turning off the gushing plastic spigot.
Biodegradable Plastics Are the Answer to Conventional Plastics
A couple of months ago, a friend texted me a photo of a set of potato-based compostable plasticware that she’d picked up at a museum in LA. With a slogan, We’re the solution, not the pollution, and images of the planet and leaves on its packaging, it appeared to be an excellent eco-friendly alternative to disposable plastic cutlery derived from fossil fuels.
As both consumers and governments reject conventional plastic products in search of items with a minimal environmental impact, compostable plastic has apparently arrived to save the day. Made from plant-based, renewable resources, such as corn, cellulose, potato, soy, and tapioca starches, these products purport to decompose rapidly under the right conditions.
All this good news has translated itself into a rapidly growing market with entrepreneurs scrambling to introduce the latest compostable soup spoon or doggy poo bag.
The good news is that there’s a growing trend away from fossil-fuel-based plastics. The bad news is that these new products aren’t entirely as they seem.
Take a look at the potato-based plasticware that my friend suggested. It meets all the strict control standards set by various accreditation bodies, making its products BPI compostable, but this only means that its products are certified to degrade under a certain set of defined conditions found in commercial compost facilities. These facilities use high temperatures and concentrated bacteria blends to accelerate degradation.
What does all this mean? It means that if you don’t dispose of your certified compostable items in specifically designated receptacles to ensure they end up at these commercial compost facilities, these items will not degrade. And don’t think about putting them in the recycling bin or your backyard compost system. They won’t degrade. What’s worse is that with the increasing volume of compostable waste and all its attendant contamination issues, some commercial facilities won’t accept (and here) compostables, even certified products.
The solution? Avoid the use of any kind of single-use or convenience item and stick to reusable, durable products.
Consumers Are the Main Cause of the Plastic Pollution Crisis
This is one of those myths about plastic that we’ve heard for decades: The producers of plastic aren’t the problem. People are! People demand these products and they’re the litter bugs. Manufacturers have actually tried to solve the plastic pollution problem through anti-litter and recycling campaigns.
The truth, however, is that manufacturers actively promote and foster a culture that encourages excess consumption and the prioritization of convenience. As we’ve seen in the first Myths About Plastic, despite industry efforts to prove otherwise, recycling is an ineffective waste reduction strategy. While we can do our part to help reduce the buildup of plastic waste by refusing to purchase single-use plastic products and excessively packaged items, manufacturers must be held accountable for their primary role in causing this plastic crisis.
The best way to reduce plastic waste is to not generate it in the first place–producers must produce less and consumers must consume less. The most effective waste management practices involve curtailing production through restrictive policies, such as single-use plastic bans or extended producer responsibility laws at the state and federal levels.
The ‘War on Plastic’ is Causing a Decline in Plastic Production
As we’re bombarded by images of plastic-strewn tropical beaches and tragic photos of wildlife choking on bottle caps and plastic straws, coverage of the ravages of plastic pollution is at an all-time high. Community activists have taken up the banner of plastic bans while consumers are increasingly rejecting excess plastic in products and packaging. A quick look back at where we were just ten years ago reveals much progress in raising public awareness about plastic pollution and advancing legislation to curtail the sale of single-use plastic products.
With the heightened focus on plastic waste and pollution, it can appear that all’s well in the war on single-use plastic. The sad reality is that more plastic production is on the horizon. How can that be?
The answer lies with the fossil fuel industry. As this industry flees the oncoming assault on its legacy businesses, it has found a lifeline in plastic. Plastic’s building blocks are derived from petrochemicals, a by-product of petroleum and natural gas. Oil and gas companies have seized the opportunity to stay alive by redirecting cheap natural gas into plastic production.
To meet surging demand, construction of petrochemical plants is projected to boom with more than 300 projects planned across the U.S. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic production is expected to double in 20 years and quadruple by 2060. The International Energy Agency calls the petrochemical sector “one of the key blind spots in the global energy debate,” and based on the unchecked trajectory in production, I’d be inclined to agree.
We NEED Plastic!
This myth is the poor-me industry response to perceived injustices about plastic. Here’s how the story goes: All this plastic bashing is dangerous! Just think about how vital plastic is to humanity and the planet:
- Plastic saves lives! It’s used to make life-saving medical equipment.
- Plastic curbs gas-guzzling and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions! Its lightweight properties increase the efficiency of cars and trucks so that we burn less fuel.
- Plastic is part of the sustainable revolution! As the American Chemistry Council puts it: “The world needs plastic to live more sustainably, and America’s plastic makers are leading the development of solutions to end plastic waste.”
- Plastic keeps your money in your wallet! Plastic packaging is “notoriously inexpensive” and its “material resource efficiency … result in significant cost savings on your energy bill over other materials.”
- Plastic protects wildlife and the environment! If it weren’t for plastic, we’d be forced to harvest “horns or shells from elephants, rhinoceroses, tortoises, and other animals.”
This is one of the myths about plastic that reveals the industry and its allies’ level of desperation. That plastic is a “benefit” to wildlife and the environment is one of the more laughable myths when the sheer body of facts points to the contrary.
More importantly, don’t be lured by the argument that holding plastic producers accountable for the mess they’ve created means a return to the Dark Ages. The pushback against plastic isn’t an all-or-nothing view of the substance, nor a call for the eradication of plastic. To be sure, plastic is an essential component in many applications. Even plastic housewares, such as durable plastic storage containers or sturdy melamine plates, can be used for years before being replaced.
What the industry narrative conveniently is silent on is the glut of unnecessary single-use plastic products that comprise the main component of plastic pollution and waste. This is the plastic we’re talking about. This is the plastic that’s produced and pushed out at an alarming and accelerating pace. All this single-use stuff accounts for 40% of all plastic produced. Think about that. If we could drastically reduce or eliminate single-use plastic and packaging, it would take a chomp out of the plastic waste mountain.