Greg Walcher | November 11, 2022

Plastic is a relatively new product, though it is used everywhere and in almost everything. It started with Bakelite, invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907 and used for electric insulators like distributor caps and light switches, and in molded products like cigarette holders and the original black telephones. By about 1950 improvements in the chemical process made plastic cheaper to mass produce, and virtually every major industry, and consumers, fell in love with it. The growth has been phenomenal and has never slowed. By 1960, 390 thousand tons of plastic were being produced annually, and today 380 million tons. It is used in every corner of the world – usually only once.

Last month regular listeners of All Things Considered on National Public Radio were treated to an in-depth story about the tragedy of recycling, namely, that it isn’t working. The story reached the ominous conclusion that “Recycling plastic is practically impossible — and the problem is getting worse.”

That may sound astonishing, because the Internet is filled with hundreds of articles and videos asserting that “most plastics can be recycled and reused again and again.” Sadly, that just isn’t true. The vast majority is not recycled, and much of it cannot be. We have been told to recycle plastic for decades, and recycling has become a badge of good citizenship for millions. The EPA has simple advice on how to handle the explosion of plastics, “Reduce, Reuse, Recover, and Recycle.” Sounds great.

Almost every significant population center in America has recycling processes built into their waste disposal systems, many actually requiring it. That began in 1989 with a California law requiring waste management agencies to divert 25 percent of solid waste to recycling facilities by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. The goal has since been raised to 75 percent, though California has never come close to meeting the goal – nor has any other state. Twenty-five states now have mandatory recycling, as do dozens of cities. But what do their recycling facilities do with the mountains of plastic they receive? They send most of it to the landfills.

Officials estimate that plastic straws take 200 years to degrade and water bottles 450 years, and Solo cups over 500 years. These were all invented in my lifetime so I’m not sure how they know that, but either way plastics are obviously a disposal problem.

The main problem is that there are many kinds of plastics and because they have different chemical compositions, they cannot simply be melted together like aluminum or steel. Clear plastic water bottles (called PET) are different than opaque milk jugs (called HDPE). At least three types (PVC, polystyrene, and polycarbonate) are not recyclable at all. Polypropylene, from which much packaging is made, can be recycled, but at much higher cost than making it new. Plastic grocery bags are easy to recycle, but new ones are so cheap to make that there is no market for recycled bags, so most municipalities won’t accept them in recycle bins.

Plastic bags are now banned in California and Hawaii, and in cities from Seattle to Nantucket. In Colorado, Crested Butte, Avon, Nederland, Breckenridge, Boulder, Aspen, Carbondale, and Telluride either ban or tax plastic bags. Consumers are expected not only to sort out recyclables, but now to sort different kinds of plastic. Most consumers don’t. The result is an enormously expensive and labor intense sorting process at the recycle facility, which many jurisdictions just cannot afford. So, while consumers think they are recycling, much of the waste is headed to the same landfill as the regular trash.

A new Greenpeace paper scolds that the amount of plastic being turned into new products has fallen, now barely 5 percent nationwide. A Greenpeace activist says, “The crisis just gets worse and worse, and without drastic change will continue to worsen as the industry plans to triple plastic production by 2050.” How awful. “The industry” is a great boogey-man but could only contemplate such production if there is a good market for it. What must we do?

Much of the nation has followed California’s lead on this for years, so what is California doing? Blaming oil companies. Remember a couple years ago a group of state attorneys general tried to sue oil companies for climate change, claiming executives knew their products were destroying the planet but tried to cover it up. That legal theory, using racketeering laws, worked against tobacco companies in the 1980s, and now it has a new iteration. California Attorney General Rob Bonta is investigating oil companies, claiming they always knew plastics were not recyclable, and deceived the public into buying more by claiming it could be recycled.

“For more than half a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis,” Bonta said. “The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled.”

That is rich, since his State not only started a national recycling frenzy, but perpetuated it through strong laws, right up to this day. As the public is just beginning to realize how little plastic is recycled, even in California, no wonder officials there want someone else to blame.

Government officials never consider their own complicity in policies that make matters worse. For example, Denver area collectors will pick up leaves and grass clippings, which are 100 percent biodegradable – but only if they’re in plastic bags, which are not.

As the NPR story asked, after decades of supporting plastic recycling, must we just consider it trash like any other, or are there better choices? Personally, I don’t require government intervention. I just prefer glass, wood, paper, stone, leather, cotton, and wool. That’s my choice, not the mayor’s.

Reduce, Reuse, Recover, and Recycle