A Polemic on Plastic

Leo Mahe ’26 in Opinions | September 29, 2023

          Plastics are a staple of humanity, but they are not a harmless convenience. Through advertising campaigns, front organizations, and faulty education, the plastics industry hides the detrimental impacts plastics wreak on humanity. This is by design. Decades of advertising campaigns have made it so when people see a Sprite bottle on a beach, they don’t attack Coca-Cola for making it; they attack people for littering. It is frightening how well the plastics industry has lied to the world.

          To understand the scheme of the plastics industry, we first must establish the hazards of plastics. Plastics are synthetic polymers made from petroleum or oil; they come from labs, not the natural environment. Every type of plastic is horrible for the environment. Global plastic production emits 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gasses each year, almost 80 percent more emissions than the United States transportation sector.. Moreover, plastics are far more insidious than other emitters because almost nothing can chemically decompose plastics. Instead, broken down through oxidation, sunlight, or friction, plastics in nature slowly become smaller and smaller particles. Plastics remain in our environment forever, gradually turning into dangerous microplastics.

          These microplastics travel everywhere, including to your dinner plate. The average person globally ingests about 52,000 microplastic particles every year. That’s 5 grams a week, which is the weight of a credit card. Humans also breathe in around 7,000 microplastic particles a day, according to one University of Portsmouth study. Microplastics latch onto deadly chemicals around them before making their way into food. Once in the body, microplastics can cause cancer and damage human cells. There are likely dozens of other issues still undiscovered because of the complexity of microplastics. As was the case with DDT, a now-banned substance, it is hard to compare people with and without microplastics in their bodies because it is nearly impossible to find someone without them. Plastics are in the soil, the air, beaches, oceans, and even Antarctic ice.

          But today, most people would simply disregard the problem of plastics because of a novel invention: recycling. After all, recycling turns used plastics into new plastics, a solution that protects the environment and lets companies continue to manufacture their products. We live happier than ever without the plastic problem and can use the convenient material as much as we want. We put plastics in the recycling bin, tell kids to reduce, reuse, and recycle, and plastics are no longer a problem.

          But those microplastic rates aren’t from 1972; although recycling gets advertised as the ultimate solution to the plastic problem, statistics show that it is an abject failure. In the United States, just 5 percent of plastics produced get recycled. Instead, half of all plastics end up in landfills, a fifth gets incinerated, and the rest is left unmanaged in streets, forests, and oceans.

          Often, low recycling rates are attributed to a common disinterest in recycling. But laziness is not the main problem. Most plastics that make it to material recovery facilities (MRF) are not recycled. Directly after plastics get put in recycling bins or taken off of beaches, MRFs collect, separate, and prepare recycling materials for recycling facilities. However, the US recycles just 22 percent of PET-type plastics that reach materials recovery facilities, and PET is the most recyclable type of plastic. Outside of HDPE, which has a recycling rate of 12 percent, all other plastics get recycled less than 5 percent of the time. As a whole, plastics in America are not recycled, regardless of whether or not someone puts them into a recycling bin.

          One cause of low recycling rates is the lack of recycling capacity. The United States has so little recycling infrastructure that it used to export plastics to be recycled elsewhere. However, China, previously the largest importer of plastics, closed its doors on our trash in 2018 and most other countries have done the same. These export bans have decreased the U.S. recycling rate from nine to five percent, revealing that the US only has the infrastructure to recycle about five percent of its plastic.

          But the biggest flaw of recycling is the process itself. Plastics must be sorted and cleaned extensively and are often discarded for being too dirty. There are two options for recycling plastics which are clean enough: mechanical and chemical. Both are overwhelmingly unsustainable.

          Mechanical recycling, the most common form of recycling, only delays plastics’ inevitable journey into landfills. Plastics are either ground into flakes or formed into pellets which are melted down and turned into new plastics. This process destroys the quality of plastics—on their own, most can be recycled just once before becoming unusable. Thus, during mechanical recycling, new plastics are injected into the old. Still, plastics can only get recycled two to three times before becoming worthless. Although mechanical recycling is relatively accessible and inexpensive, all plastic produced still ends up in landfills or the environment.
While chemical recycling can retain the quality of plastics, this comes at a cost. Only 1 to 14 percent of the plastic material is recycled into new products, and the process could be up to a 100 times worse for the environment than simply producing new plastics. 

          There are numerous other issues with recycling. 25 percent of plastics are thermoset plastics—unrecyclable mechanically and only theoretically recyclable chemically. Recycling likely also contributes to microplastic pollution. For instance, a study found that 6 percent of plastics admitted to a recycling facility were released as microplastics into wastewater; without proper safety precautions, the statistic jumped to 13 percent released into the environment. Plastic recycling is also not economical: most private recyclers can only afford to recycle PET and HDPE. All other types of plastics cost more money to recycle than the recycled material sells for.

          Ultimately, all this shows that people are not the reason recycling rates are low. Limited recycling infrastructure, continued increases in plastic production, and inherent flaws with the recycling process are the real culprits. Recycling, at its heart, is an impractical mitigation tactic. It cannot halt oil drilling for plastic production, nor can it even recycle most plastics. It is not just America with abysmal recycling rates; Germany, the world’s leading recycler, only recycled 5.38 million tonnes of plastic in 2020, even though they produced more than 18.5 million tonnes. Globally, the plastic recycling rate is 9%. Even a 100% recycling rate would be ineffective; it just means that all plastics are recycled, on average, once, doubling their life cycle before they end up in a landfill.

          So why do people love recycling so much? Much of the information I have presented so far is supported by major news outlets; NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more have published articles condemning plastic recycling. But no one goes out of their way to learn about recycling. Most “common knowledge” on the subject comes from the U.S. education system, which heavily favors recycling. Starting in kindergarten, I learned to “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” While my school gave no way to reuse or reduce, there was always an easily accessible blue bin to recycle plastics. The convenience of recycling has allowed it to gain a foothold among Americans, 94 percent of whom support recycling.

          But why did the U.S. support recycling in the first place? As with a lot of things, it starts with the oil industry. Plastics make up 10 percent of annual oil use, making them a vital source of income for oil companies. These large oil corporations founded the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), which became one of the strongest advocates for recycling. The organization has a long history of advocating for plastic production against public interests, and its members include many large corporations reliant on oil and plastics like Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, and Toyota. In 1988, SPI created the “Council for Solid Waste Solutions” to promote plastic recycling to the public and lobby American municipalities to expand plastic waste collection programs. The council attempted to increase plastic acceptance, and popularizing recycling was the most effective avenue for their goals. Instead of building recycling facilities, they funded ad campaigns to raise awareness about recycling and reduce concern about plastic production. Larry Thomas, former president of SPI, even told NPR that “if the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment.” 

          As stated by the Science History Institute, “It was the plastics industry that offered recycling as a solution.” Environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and Earth Day, consider plastic recycling nothing more than oil propaganda. Companies like Coca-Cola have taken the wheel, spending millions on blue bins and the occasional recycling plant. Coca-Cola’s personal recycling goal is to use recycled plastics for half of plastic products by 2030. Today, Coca-Cola produces 3 million tons of plastics annually. Even if Coca-Cola were to halt growth, which is unlikely, it would still produce 1.5 million tons of new plastic waste a year. Plastic producers popularized and continue to utilize recycling to ensure they do not receive the public outcry against oil companies, even though the two groups are deeply intertwined.

          But recycling is just one of many campaigns fueled by the oil industry that undermine systemic change. An older example is “The Crying Indian” advertisement campaign run by Keep America Beautiful, an environmentalist organization backed by Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, and, once again, the Society of the Plastics Industry—now renamed the Plastics Industry Association. The 1971 ad, with its motto that “People Start Pollution. People can stop it.” promoted anti-littering efforts, and its message is still popular today. Unfortunately, picking up plastic trash, while a nice concept, doesn’t solve anything, nor would it come close to “stopping pollution”. Picking up plastic only moves the environmental damage out of people’s sight; it does not create any environmental action and focuses attention on personal change instead of systemic action. Launched on the second Earth Day, the award winning advertisement turned public discourse away from plastic producers and onto consumers, helping oil corporations avoid the full force of the Earth Day movement.

          A modern example of oil companies pushing for consumer action is “carbon footprints”. Coined by a major oil corporation, British Petroleum (BP), carbon footprints are a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a particular person. By showing people that they contribute to carbon emissions, the campaign encourages individuals to “reduce their carbon footprint”. It sounds great in concept—some personal reduction is better than nothing. But BP did not coin the term to go against their bottom line. As with littering and recycling, carbon footprints are another attempt to turn an oil production problem into a consumer waste problem. These measures make people think that their consumer actions, such as their lack of recycling or massive carbon footprint, are the problem instead of the corporations actively trying to increase plastic production. People don’t make significant changes due to these personal pleas and blame themselves for a lack of action instead of the companies producing the plastic.

          Although most companies supporting these activities are glorified by the public, these glorified ad campaigns have successfully helped increase plastic production without public pushback. Currently, plastics make up 10 percent of global oil use. While renewables and electric cars are slowly killing the oil industry, one of the few remaining areas of growth is plastics, and the oil industry is going all in. Plastic production is estimated to quadruple by 2050 and won’t peak until 2100.

          Plastics are bad for the world. They emit carbon dioxide, cause cancer, destroy cells, and kill millions of animals every year. Recycling, the supposed solution to plastics, doesn’t work. Plastics, as vital as they are to modern society, need to go. 

          Because plastics are so vital, it is necessary to first change the culture surrounding plastic. One way to do this is by attacking companies’ profit motive. In 2022, an EU “plastic tax” was levied on non-recycled plastics to make using recycled plastics more reasonable. While the EU still isn’t prepared to renounce recycled plastics, it is willing to tax recycled plastics to encourage other options. 

          Further, plastic taxes will make the cost of plastics equivalent to the cost of sustainable materials. For example, a 30 percent tax on PET plastic would make the material the same price as aluminum. Unlike plastics, aluminum can get recycled indefinitely, making it much more sustainable; around 75 percent of aluminum ever produced is still used today. Glass can also make a comeback, particularly in replacing single-use plastics. From the 1920s to the 1950s, when glass was commonplace, bottle companies implemented deposit-return systems: every beverage sale included a deposit for the bottle itself, which would be paid back when one returned the bottle to the company. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and other bottlers could implement similar systems with high deposit fees incentivizing bottle returns. These bottles could be reused without recycling, reducing costs and reducing waste.

          New materials have also been proposed. Bioplastics made from alternatives such as bamboo or cacti could become mass-marketable. Along with taxes, subsidies for eco-friendly materials can be implemented, increasing their market share. And while bamboo straws currently cost 40 cents each, mass production could significantly decrease their prices. Subsidies would incentivize plastic producers to research plastic-like materials, and plastic taxes would force them to switch to those alternatives.

          However, to completely eradicate plastics, plastic bans are necessary. These bans would be scheduled years in advance and would not immediately encompass all plastics. Plastic bans can be placed on items like bottles, labels, and containers, forcing industries producing plastics to switch to alternative materials. Although corporations might fearmonger about going out of business, plastic producers like Coca-Cola will not just let themselves die; they will figure out a way to work within the new system to maintain profits and increase the value of their stock. Whether that means bioplastics, glass, or other materials, is up to the free market. In a positive cycle of innovation, banning certain plastics threatens manufacturers and would strongly incentivize further development of plastic alternatives. Funding from the government would further these actions.

          The current method of first inventing alternatives, then banning plastics, has proven unsuccessful. An unrestricted free market (with heavy government subsidies and funding) worked somewhat for renewable energy and electric vehicles, which have rapidly become economical alternatives, but these methods cannot reduce plastics. Plastics are far too cheap and accessible to compete against. Instead, taxes and eventual bans are necessary. Most plastics are used to increase profits, at the expense of the environment and public health. Plastic bans will lead to more reusable containers, plastic alternatives at larger scales, and a much healthier and more sustainable society.

          But what can you do to help? It took 20 million people on the first Earth Day to create climate action, but just talking about plastics with friends and family could help a lot. Conversations raise awareness, and if Earth Day can be revitalized, it could force the government’s hand. Also, most plastic misinformation comes from ad campaigns and schools which promote recycling over reusable materials and using sustainable options. Advocating for curriculum changes in your local community could help future generations break out of the continuous cycle of recycling myths. When possible, support environmental groups asking for legislative change financially or by volunteering.

          But realistically, most people aren’t going to try and stop plastic consumption. In that case, just remember that plastics suck. If financially reasonable, choose the environmentally-friendly option.
Finally, don’t stop recycling. If no one recycled, the percentage of plastics recycled would be zero, not five. While not very significant, it still helps. Just like reducing your carbon footprint or picking up garbage, recycling does help the environment, even if it is used to protect oil companies.