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What You Need to Know About the Recycling Lie

 

Photo by Lara Jameson

Recycling Facts 

We've talked about recycling lately, and it's still a big part of being environmentally conscious. Recycling is viewed as the last option in the 5 R's: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, and recycle.

But more and more research has been suggesting that recycling is a big lie. In fact, it is argued that plastic corporations themselves have sold the idea to us general public. Recycling is a way to keep existing and manufactured products functional so there's no need to create new products from raw materials. But experts are now saying that it's just a ploy to keep consumption going.

How so? Well, if consumers think that there's something being done about waste, we'll be less guilty and continue using plastic products.

According to ecologist Matt Wilkins, recycling is a lie. It's a way to gloss over the problem of massive production (and use) of single-use plastic, "that should have been avoided in the first place.

But in order to make sense of all these new findings, we have to go back to the roots of recycling - specifically, how recycling as a concept became what it is now.

What Is Recycling?

The term recycling was first documented in 1924 in the field of oil-refining and similar industries. It's a word combining the prefix, 're-' which means going back to the original place, and 'cycle' which means a whole series of events in the same order.

Recycling can be categorized in several processing aspects, which include:

  • Product recycling - the process of keeping the chemical and physical properties of a discarded product but using it in another way apart from its usual function (e.g., using plastic as bricks, or tires as building material
  • Material recycling - the process of changing the chemical composition of the product (e.g., melting of metals, composting of food waste
  • Chemical recycling - any process of changing the physical as well as the chemical composition of a discarded product (e.g., depolymerization)

But recycling has been an activity long before the industrial age. And it makes sense. Goods back then weren't made to be disposable, and products aren't made in a mass-produced, quick fashion as they are now. Households practiced recycling, although cities didn't yet establish large-scale recycling centers. For instance, women bought well-made dresses and had them altered to get some more use (e.g., adding collars, stitching new sleeves) rather than purchasing an entirely new dress. Metal, a scarce material, was recycled in scrap-metal yards. 

Industrialization paved the way for products to be manufactured and bought cheaply. Consumers were better off discarding old items for brand-new ones. While the economic depression in the 1930s and the war in the 1940s made rationing and recycling crucial again, there was more waste and more of the disposable mindset brought on by the modern era.

Recycling has become a mainstream, societal idea. It's this last step that can deal with existing products, instead of manufacturing new ones entirely from raw materials.

Recycling Lie: Lobbying and Plastic Issues

Photo by SHVETS production

Recycling as we know it today started in the post-WWII. It was initiated to address the significant economic growth and the tremendous waste and pollution that occurred. But is that really why recycling was revived?

Some experts argue that recycling is only a marketing tactic. And the more awful truth: recycling came from the very corporations that benefit from consumption and mass-production!

The best example of this? One of the most famous non-profits called Keep America Beautiful. This program began in the 1950s to encourage regular people to be active stewards of the environment. It's all well and good until you learn that corporations like Coca-Cola, Phillip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, and more started the non-profit.

So, you might ask, what will these companies gain if they emphasize recycling? Wouldn't it hurt their business?

Critics believe Keep America Beautiful is among the first greenwashing tactics implemented. Recycling helped pivot the responsibility onto the consumer instead of keeping the pressure on corporations. It's about what we should do (e.g., stop littering!) instead of what change can multinational corporations can effect. 

Coca-Cola's products nearly universally use plastic. Now, we're not experts here. But if there were a serious drive to environmentally sound practices, at the very least, the plastic bottles and caps should go.

And the recycling tactic is quite successful, too. In a recent survey, as much as 36% of respondents consider Keep America Beautiful as an organization that is most believable - winning over the Nature Conservancy (29%), the Sierra Club (17%), Greenpeace (15%), and Environmental Defense Fund (3%).

What's even more disheartening is that such groups actually lobby AGAINST recycling and reusing programs. For instance, in 1971 Oregon enacted a "bottle bill", which required a five-cent deposit on beverage bottles. The refund was a decent incentive to reuse bottles. In fact, the containers recovered was higher in the state (60%) compared to other states without the program (24%). Unfortunately, lobbying groups, and Keep America Beautiful - are still opposing the law. This is largely to protect their bottom line. After all, the systems in place make it cheaper to produce new materials than go back to the old days of collecting glass bottles and reusing them.

Plastic Isn't Made to Be Recycled 

We should include something about plastic types here.

Plastic is the undisputed choice for packaging and many other products. With regards to its classification, you may have noticed the different plastic symbols, which as presented as they are, suggest they are all recyclable. Here is a quick summary of what each number represents, and their characteristics:

#1 PET or PETE - Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

  • Clear, hard plastic commonly used in food and drink containers
  • The most recycled plastic out of all types
  • Recycled PET, termed RPET is used for carpet fibers, jackets, comforter fillers, bags, containers, sheeting, etc.

#2 HDPE - High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

  • Hard, opaque plastic often used in shampoo bottles, household cleaning supplies, and food containers (e.g., yogurt)
  • Like PET, it is a type of plastic that is easy to recycle
  • Recycled HDPE is used in non-food packaging, floor tiles, buckets, garden pots and edging, etc. 

#3 PVC - Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

  • Sturdy, but not as hard as PET and HDPE. PVC is a common material in pipes, fences, panels, and bottles.
  • PVC is also highly recyclable, but it contains high levels of chlorine which is considered hazardous. So recycling PVC requires a separate collection and treatment batch from other plastics.
  • Recycled PVC is used in mud flaps, tires, flooring, garden hose, pipes, and decks, to name a few 

#4 LDPE - Low Density Polyethylene

  • Clear, flimsy type of plastic that is frequently used in food packaging, plastic shopping bags, and sandwich bags
  • LDPE is complicated to recycle, as the plastic film must be separated into HDPE film and LDPE film. Also, clear films cannot be recycled alongside any colored plastic films. Combining the films can affect the recycled batch. 
  • Recycled LDPE is used in some furniture, garbage bin lining, film and sheeting, floor tiles, envelopes, etc.  

#5 PP - Polypropylene 

  • Hard type of plastic usually found in caps, medicine bottles, and straws
  • PP is among the toughest to recycle, involving five steps. The last is removing residual contaminants by melting the PP at about 25 degrees Celsius. This plastic has less than 1% recycling rate.
  • Recycled PP can be found in car batteries, battery cables, storage bins, bike racks, etc. 

#6 PS - Polystyrene 

  • Softer, insulated type of plastic used in single-use coffee cups, packaging, and some take-out food containers - trademarked as Styrofoam
  • Costly and tough to recycle, as it is low density with about 98% of its composition being air
  • Recycled PS is used in insulation, protective packaging, eggshell cartons, license plate frame, etc. 

#7 Other Plastics (e.g. PC - Polycarbonates)

  • Mixed plastics that are used in water coolers, large containers, and other materials
  • Plastic composed of multiple resins and mixed plastic items, making them very difficult to process. In addition, recycled material (e.g., recycled Polycarbonates) tend to show lesser resilience compared to newly manufactured PC plastic. The industry considers these as impossible to recycle conventionally and highly uneconomical
  • Recycled plastic in this category is used in bottles and lumber  

 

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch

These categories are generally used to guide consumers to how recyclable a plastic product is. At least, that’s what we’re made to think, right?

In actuality, these symbols are not created for recycling. These symbols on plastic products are meant to be codes that guide manufacturers and buyers what type of plastic the material is made of. It’s basically an identifier - not an indication of recyclability, and most certainly not a guarantee that these materials will be universally collected and recycled.

These plastic types aren’t made equal when it comes to recyclability. In fact, only #1 (PET / PETE) and #2 (HDPE) are commonly recycled. This could be the main reason why only a dismal 9% of plastic waste is recycled per year. Another 12% is incinerated, and the rest of plastic waste end up in landfills or marine systems.  

Plastic has steadily been the material of choice for most industries. Whether it's medical, electronics, food and beverage, aviation - you name it. It stands true to its nature "the material of a thousand uses," which is how Bakelite plastic was described as.

We’re now aware of the ugly side to such an innovative product. Plastic is mainly sourced through petrochemical products - fossil fuels. It's an unsustainable material in itself, and the hazard doesn't stop there. Plastic takes thousands of years to decompose, which is a glaring problem we see in our landfills and oceans. And we can't forget how microplastics can negatively impact human health and wildlife.

But the con isn't in plastic, it's how it interplays with recycling efforts. The plastic industry has been aware from the start that recycling wouldn't solve the plastic waste problem. There's simply not enough profit in recycling it, as opposed to, say, glass and metal.

In a 1974 speech, one industry insider wrote, "There is serious doubt that [plastic recycling] can ever be made viable on an economic basis."

Documents from Syracuse University stated findings back in 1973 that plastic is unsuited for recycling:

"A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial fabrication, through aging, and in any reclamation process." The experts were clear about how recycling plastic is "costly" and the sorting is "infeasible", as reported by NPR

Such findings are consistent in different analyses. But what's shocking is that plastic or petrochemical industry's top executives - in companies like Exxon, DuPont, Dow, and Chevron - are aware of the facts. And all the while marketing the opposite about plastic!

The industry has misled consumers into thinking that recycling can help do something to fix the problem.

It makes sense to the industry. As long as people think there's something being done to address the plastic pollution, they can continue using plastic. The participative nature of recycling also strengthens the idea that "I am doing something" for the environment.

Larry Thomas, former president of the Plastics Industry Association, said it frankly, in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), "If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment."

Recycling Uses Energy

Recycling is familiar to everyone worldwide, but not all people are sold on the idea. And aside from its muddled history, recycling is criticized for its impact on the environment.

Yes, you heard it. Large-scale recycling can actually harm the environment in some cases. For example, recycling plastic consumes more energy than is necessary for producing new materials. Research suggests that for mixed plastics especially, which are based on petroleum, you'd need additional energy consumption to process the material. Add to that how different chemicals are released into the atmosphere from these recycling facilities.

With recycling, there are certain materials and recycling methods that can offer clear benefits in terms of energy use, landfill space cleared, and fewer pollutants released. But there's always a trade-off because it's a manufacturing process. Recycling will still use energy and resources.

Recycling Lie: What Now?

After finding out all of this, what can we do now? First of all, we must take it upon ourselves to see the real picture. Plastic pollution isn't the consumers' fault, as it is the giant corporations' profiting from it. People are not to blame for littering and buying plastic packaging, especially when there are no (or very few) viable alternatives.

Recycling is also too hard - even in first world countries - and lacks the proper economic incentives to make it sustainable. We know that economy is a powerful factor in pushing people to act. But there are also legal factors and ecological factors into the mix.

In most recycling initiatives now, there's an imbalance among the three factors to create lasting impact. And it shows on data: only 9% of plastic is recycled. We recently found out that thin, single-use plastic bags aren't even recyclable! Paper has a high recycling rate, but at 68.2% there's still massive waste left in landfills. 

Second, even if there seems to be no point to it, talking about the problem of plastic waste, food waste, and such can generate the noise required. Initiatives that lean on reusing (bottle bill!) higher taxes on certain materials, banning certain materials - it's a fact that there can be SYSTEMIC change with enough public clamor. Consumer opinions matter because we are the purchasing power.

And to that point of purchasing power, lastly, now's the time to be more mindful of purchases. Yes, the onus is on companies to balance profit with environmental responsibility. But we can always choose a more sustainable approach with fewer purchases (without depriving ourselves of needs).

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