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The American show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is known for tackling serious topics, balancing the informative with the comedic. Last month, Oliver addressed the waste produced by the plastics industry, as well as their attempts to shift the blame onto the consumer. In this commentary, I highlight some of his main points regarding plastic waste and recycling.

Is Recycling Plastic Really Viable?

Reduce, reuse, recycle. These “3Rs” have become ubiquitous in modern society since the 1990s. Recycling in particular has become a sustainability buzzword for industries looking to keep up with consumer trends. Yet the process isn’t as clear-cut and effective as the public is led to believe. In fact, internal documents and recent interviews reveal the plastics industry sold the idea of recyclable plastics- even as they knew the infrastructure for it wasn’t there.

The story goes like this: in the 1970s and 80s, plastic piled high within American landfills. They also spilled into the landscape, prompting fierce public backlash. The plastics industry panicked, knowing they had to do something and fast. After all, their viability within the marketplace stood on the line.

The consensus from internal specialists wasn’t promising either; reducing the waste through recycling just wouldn’t work. The process was simply too expensive, too time-consuming, and too chemically problematic. Plastic also degrades over time, meaning it is only feasible to recycle it once or twice. (Even then, an astonishing 98% of global plastic gets “downcycled” into less durable forms before becoming unusable.) And recycling simply didn’t make economic sense: not when plastic is made from a resource as cheap as oil.

The industry’s response? Advertising their way out of the problem. More precisely, the industry used various “greenwashing” marketing tactics to make plastic appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is. A recent episode from the comedy show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver details this chronicle well. Oliver used this episode to expose corporations such as Coca-Cola for deliberately choosing profitability over sustainability. He also revealed that the recycling process isn’t as simple as it’s made out to be.

Sorting Out the Details

Chasing Arrows

C Benjamin Gould

Take the famous “chasing-arrows” triangle symbol, like the one pictured above. If you see this symbol on a package, you may assume you are able to recycle it, right? This is not always true. The numbers located within the arrows do not always matter all that much in comparison to other attributes of the plastic item.

Plastics table

C Benjamin Gould

Here’s a quick rundown. Types #1 and #2 are usually recyclable, but since collection rules differ from region to region, it’s not a guarantee. Types #3-7 can have varying recyclability, but functionally less than 5% of these plastics are truly recyclable. More often, most plastics are sent to landfills or incinerators. In sum, less than 9% of total plastics generated can truly be recycled.

Effectively, number types found on plastics fulfill little purpose beyond resin identification. The symbol itself essentially became meaningless after the plastics industry lobbied for it to be included on all containers- regardless of recyclability. This may encourage people to leave in leftover “residue” that contaminates the whole batch. “Residues” can include food scraps, water, waste, and many other things that cannot be recycled. The tendency is so common that the industry has a name for it: “Wish-cycling”. At best, non-recyclables gum up the belt and take time and labor to remove. At worst (and most commonly), the whole load needs to be tossed as trash.

Plastic Pollution is Reaching a Tipping Point

This is a dangerous path we currently tread. Landfills both home and abroad are becoming overwhelmed with piles of plastic towering multiple stories. In countries such as Malaysia, local communities are facing a respiratory health crisis as these piles are illegally incinerated into toxic fumes. And putting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch aside, plastics in the ocean continue to multiply; it is predicted that plastics will outnumber fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

It’s easy to blame consumers for their lack of knowledge, or municipalities for their lack of recycling education. But even with this knowledge, the truth is that the technology to recycle is no more advanced than it was four decades ago. Meanwhile, the plastics industry spent hundreds of millions to convince people otherwise, and it worked. Technical fixes are nowhere in sight, and consumers can only do so much when their options are curated by corporations seeking mass profitability. Like other environmental problems, the issue of plastic waste cannot be solved by addressing the backend.

“The real behavioral change needs to come from plastics manufacturers themselves,” Oliver concluded in his segment. “We have to make them internalize the costs of the pollution that they are creating.”


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