It all starts with the story of a plastic bottle.
It’s a beautiful, sunny day on Muhlenberg college’s campus, and you decide to run to General’s Quarters to grab a refreshing bottle of lemonade. Once you sip down the very last drop, you chuck it in the recycling bin, feeling great because you know the plastic will end up being reused.
But according to the EPA, only 8.7% of plastic actually gets recycled. So where exactly is your lemonade bottle going?
A few days after you threw your bottle into the blue dumpster right outside your dorm, a truck comes by and picks up a load of plastics, papers, and cans. It then heads to Waste Management’s materials recovery facility in Allentown, where all of its contents, including your plastic lemonade bottle, are dumped onto the floor before making their way to a conveyor belt.
First stop on the journey through the facility: the picking station. Here, workers use their hands to pick out all of the “contaminants” they can find—the bowling balls, toys, and wrappers that consumers “wish-recycled” (a common term in the waste management industry used to describe consumers who threw trash into the recycling bin hoping that these products would get reused).
This is the first step of weeding out what can actually get recycled–a full truckload of plastics has now dwindled down to a small pile.
But thankfully, your plastic bottle made it through, as most thicker, larger plastic containers do. It chugs along on the conveyor belt next to cardboard, milk jugs, and aluminum cans, as flimsy, serving-size yogurt cups and greasy pizza boxes are picked out and sent to a landfill.
Slowly, your lemonade bottle makes its way down the conveyor belt, as paper and cardboard, glass, and aluminum cans are separated out by big, rotating machinery.
But suddenly, the gears grind to a halt. Wish-recycled plastic bags that weren’t picked out in time have made their way into the machinery, wrapping around the gears and making it impossible for the system to work. Your plastic bottle remains lying idly by as workers crawl into the machine, slowly cutting away the soft, flexible plastic with razor blades.
This happens in most recycling facilities multiple times a day, losing the facility so much time and money that plastic bags are derisively termed “the poison of the recycling system” by Dieter Scheel, the Manager of Business Development at Sustainable Waste Solutions, which handles Muhlenberg’s waste.
When the plastic bags are finally cut out and the facility can get back to business, your lemonade bottle is scanned by lasers to determine what type of plastic it is made of. Air jets then propel the bottle and the other plastics around it into separate bins. All of this plastic is then ground up and sold to manufacturers, who will melt the material down to make a new plastic product.
But there’s a problem—there aren’t actually that many manufacturers that want this raw plastic material. This means your shredded plastic lemonade bottle could just end up sitting around in the recycling facility. Or maybe it hasn’t even made it that far. Maybe the recycling facility was inundated with more plastic than it could sell, so your bottle went right back to the landfill.
This probably isn’t happening very much to items recycled at Muhlenberg. “Muhlenberg’s waste hauler is very proactive,” explained Kalyna Procyk, Muhlenberg’s Campus Sustainability Coordinator. “They aggressively try to find markets for our plastics.” But that isn’t the case in all areas, which means that your recyclables at home could end up in the same landfill as your trash.
“Recycling is actually really rare—there are very large areas of the country where it is easier to landfill than to recycle,” says Scheel.
This is largely due to industry influences that have changed the economic plausibility of companies making plastic products out of recycled material. Plastic, which is made out of petroleum, is influenced by the fluctuations in oil prices. Crude oil prices have gone down significantly since a spike in 2011, making it much easier for companies to make plastic at a low price.
It isn’t just low oil prices that are driving the increase in plastic production—marketing is making a difference too. As countries and consumers transition to renewable energy sources to power cars and electrical grids, more and more oil companies are turning to single use plastics as the primary market for their product. In fact, oil companies are pushing their product in this direction so much that a World Economic Forum report projects that by 2050, plastic will account for 20% of global annual oil consumption.
Oil and plastic corporations working in cahoots means that manufacturers can save a lot more money by producing new plastics instead of using the bundles of recycled materials bought from recycling facilities like Waste Management’s materials recovery facility in Allentown. This makes it a lot harder for recycling facilities to find a destination for used plastic goods.
Although companies might be saving money by making new plastics, it can be a drawback not only for the natural environment, but for the economy. According to a report published by the Ellen MacArthur foundation, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy when single-use plastic items aren’t recycled.
The report also shows that the environmental degradation caused by the greenhouse gasses emitted during the creation of virgin plastics and the litter from the finished products costs roughly $40 billion. This means that the cost to clean up the damage from making new plastics costs more than the profits the industry reaps each year.
Plastics aren’t just awful for our environment, they are causing harm to our governments, our communities, and our economies. But plastic companies don’t want us to know that. Instead, they keep us focused on recycling.
Recycling isn’t an absolute solution to our plastic problem. According to a research article published by Science Advances, plastics that do actually get recycled are almost always turned into lower value products that can’t be recycled again. Right now, recycling is just a temporary delay of the inevitable: the landfill.
But the plastic industry knows that if consumers were actually aware of all of this, their money would be at risk. To keep selling their product, these corporations keep the focus on what consumers can do on the backend of consumption, rather than what they can do on the frontend of production.
But here’s a shocking fact, the introduction of plastic recycling was actually funded by oil and plastic companies according to Lew Freeman, former Vice President of the Society of the Plastics Industry in the PBS documentary Plastic Wars. Amidst backlash in the 1980’s from consumers and environmentalists who were concerned about the overwhelming amount of plastic waste, top oil and plastic corporation executives decided that recycling was the perfect solution to their public image problem–it would distract consumers while allowing corporations to continue making plastics–and money.
It didn’t really matter to these corporations whether or not plastic actually got recycled. In fact, the less plastic that did get reused in products, the more money they would continue to make in the creation of new plastics. Recycling was just a tool to keep consumers ignorant.
This wasn’t just a problem in the ‘80s. The plastic industry is still actively keeping consumers blind to the impact of plastics by pretending that recycling is actually effective.
One way corporations keep us ignorant: the use of the triangular recycling sign on plastic items. “People turn the package over and think it’s recyclable,” says Scheel. “Unfortunately that’s not the truth.”
Those little recycling symbols don’t mean that a product is recyclable. They are just an indicator that will attract the eye to the little number housed within the triangle, the number that tells us what kind of plastic a product is made of.
The numbers themselves are so confusing that even waste management and sustainability experts disagree on how consumers should decide whether or not something should be thrown into the recycling bin.
“Ones and twos can still be recycled locally, but threes through sevens require shipping somewhere else. And right now there’s less of a market,” says Procyk. “My opinion is keep recycling until we receive official word that we have to totally change our recycling program. I’m gonna have faith that they are finding ways to recycle as much of our plastic as possible.”
Muhlenberg Plant Operations Manager Jim Bolton takes a different approach. “Right now, I think the (top number that can be recycled) is three? But I’m not 100% sure,” he says. “If you were to buy something and you’re not sure if it will really be recycled, err on the side of trash, especially at Muhlenberg because it goes into an incinerator. I hate to say those words out loud, but that’s the way to do it. We need to try to keep recycling cleaner.”
Keeping recycling “clean” means making sure everything in your bin is actually able to be recycled. Dumping in ‘maybe’ items could contaminate the rest of your perfectly recyclable waste—those items might clog up the machines in the recycling center, or get food waste all over everything and thus turn your recyclables into garbage.
When it comes to keeping your recycling bin truly clean, Scheel recommends ignoring recycling numbers all together. “What truly gets recycled? Bottles. That’s pretty much it. Tide bottles, milk jugs, soda bottles… You shouldn’t be looking at the number. Just recycle bottles and containers.”
All of the conflicting information we are getting from so many different sources—municipalities, social media, even plastic packaging itself—makes it difficult for consumers to figure out how to do the right thing. But the one thing that everyone (except for oil and plastic corporations) seems to agree on: reduce your plastic waste.
“I look for bulk so that I can buy the least amount of containers that I can, and I reuse my containers,” says Scheel. “When I do recycle, I’m picky about it, so nothing goes in that is going to be contaminated.”
Bolton also advocates for a more mindful approach when making purchases. “We’re such a disposable society. We don’t ever think to reuse something or come up with different purposes for stuff,” says Bolton. “Try to buy more durable goods, try to stay away from disposables. Take personal responsibility.”
Procyk agrees with Bolton’s claim about consumer responsibility. “Your first go-to is, do you really need this thing? The second is, if it has plastic around it, is there something else you can buy?”
Individuals have power, and our choices make a difference. All of our actions add up, whether we choose to purchase a product that is packaged in paper over one packaged in plastic or we spend the extra minute washing out empty jars or cans to reduce contamination.
But consumers face more and more issues every day when it comes to trying to reduce their plastic intake. Everything is packaged in plastic. And that plastic trend isn’t slowing down. An Ellen McArthur foundation report from 2016 projects that plastics production will almost quadruple by 2050.
We need to take the focus off of consumers and put it back onto the corporations that are creating these issues in the first place. There isn’t a one size fits all solution, but focusing the narrative back on the damage of plastics, rather than the benefits of recycling, is a good first step in the fight to combat the growing plastic industry and the problems that it creates. “Perpetuating the narrative of recycling led us (environmentalists) astray… we bought this myth that recycling will solve this problem and we don’t have to worry about the amount of plastic being produced,” explains Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, in Plastic Wars.
On an individual level, people can make a change by “voting with their dollars,” choosing products that are plastic free when possible and proving to corporations that going green is an economically profitable choice. But unfortunately, the large-scale changes that we need will probably take more than just a few consumers choosing to make the switch from single use to reusable water bottles or plastic to cardboard deodorant containers. That’s where policy change comes in.
Current plastic-related policies across the United States are mostly related to the backend–they focus on plastic waste, not plastic creation. In many locations citizens and constituents are mandated to recycle, but no one actually wants the recycled product. “The government is forcing supply, but not demand,” says Scheel.” It has nowhere to go but landfills.”
There are lots of ideas on the table that could help decrease the amount of new plastic being produced while increasing the effectiveness of the recycling system across the United States, including plastic bag bans, plastic taxes, and regulations that mandate a certain amount of recycled plastic in every new plastic product. Each of these policies make plastic a valuable commodity, rather than a cheap piece of trash.
“Plastic is both a blessing and a curse—it has made many things easy for us,” says Scheel. “People recognize the value in aluminum, they don’t recognize the value in plastic. If plastic was seen as more valuable than trash, then recycling might actually be effective.”