We have all been sold a “story” by the plastics industry that is literally “piling up” on us and accumulating inside us. We all go to the store and order things online that are packaged, wrapped and covered in plastic that the plastics industry wants us to believe is safe and recyclable.
The reality is quite different, and the same industry that is influencing us to believe that the plastic container that yogurt comes in is going to be recycled to make another plastic container is doing everything in its power to make that actual recycling process almost impossible. Only 9% of the plastic that has ever been used has been recycled. The rest has and is being burned, put in landfills, dumped in the oceans and shipped to pollute other countries where it will take 400-plus years to decompose and, in the meantime, will create toxic gases and leachates that affect the air we breathe and the water we drink.
So, why aren’t more of the plastics that we are being told are not bad for the environment being recycled? Is it our fault that more plastics are not being recycled, or is the actual recyclability of most plastics a story we have been sold by the industry that profits from the prolific use of plastic? Let’s take a quick look at this question.
Over the years oil and chemical companies such as Dow, Exxon, Chevron, Dupont and many others have spent tens of millions of dollars telling us that plastic was a long-term recyclable product while full-well knowing that was not the case. They did this to convince us to buy more plastic. Unlike aluminum, metal and glass (that can be recycled indefinitely), the performance of plastic resin begins to degrade in the initial manufacturing process and continues to degrade in its performance each time it is handled. A plastic water bottle can, at best, be recycled two or three times (and even then, needs to have virgin plastic added to it) before it is unusable and must be disposed of, which means burned, buried and often sent to pollute another country. (A great documentary to help better understand this is “The Plastic Problem” — A PBS NewsHour documentary). When that plastic is disposed of it takes hundreds of years to breakdown. One hundred percent of the plastics ever produced are still in our bodies, and our air, water, land, animals and fish.
So, is there really a recyclable solution for plastics? Currently the Recycling Center in Enterprise, along with most recycling facilities around the country, can only accept No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, (excluding any No. 1 plastic containers such as clamshells, cookie/cake containers, fruit containers, etc.). Those plastics from our Recycling Center are sent to Canada where they are turned into another useable plastic product, (with the addition of up to 20% more virgin plastic), two to three times before it must be disposed of. This shows that there is a short-term recyclability of a small fraction of the plastics in our stores, (look at the numbers in the arrow triangle at the bottom of plastic containers and you will see most of them are not No. 1 or No. 2 and have virtually no ability to be recycled even for the short term). The work we all are doing to recycle the plastics that are currently able to be short-term recycled is making a difference, but it is not a solution to the plastics problem we have in the world.
Aluminum, metal and glass can be recycled forever, and cardboard and paper can be easily recycled four to five times before being unusable, then they naturally break down in a relatively short period of time. Plastic on the other hand can at best be recycled two to three times, (with the addition of virgin plastic), and then must be disposed of taking 400-plus years to breakdown.
When we look at these facts, we see the deep and disturbing challenge that plastic, and the industry that manufactures plastic, is presenting the world that we, our children and our children’s children live in. The ultimate solution is for us all to use as little plastic as possible. I know this can be challenging, but every coffee cup top you don’t get, or straw you don’t use, or aluminum can you get rather than a plastic bottle does make a difference.
I close this column by encouraging all of us, regardless of our social or political beliefs, to learn more about the challenges we each are being faced with because of plastic, and the small (use less plastic) and big (petition industry and the politicians you connect with) steps we can each take to make a difference.
Plastic is not going away during the lifetimes of our future families unless we individually and collectively do something about it.
Thank you for all the reducing, reusing and recycling you are doing and the little steps you are taking to make a difference.