The Lie Behind Plastic Pollution Is That We’re Responsible

Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin, Getty
Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin, Getty

In the midst of a mounting plastic crisis, the biggest plastic polluters keep pushing better consumer recycling behaviours as the solution. The plastic waste problem is not going to be solved by doubling down on our efforts to educate the public to recycle better. It can be solved by policies that prevent hard-to-recycle items from ever being created and requiring producers to take responsibility for the waste their products become.

The amount of goods produced that we then consume and throw away is growing. Our waste system is inefficient and overburdened now, and it will only get worse if producers don’t become active participants in designing, managing, and financing the programs that process the goods they create and sell.

At this point, it’s easy to become numb to the overwhelming statistics of the plastic waste crisis: Plastic litter is killing marine life, impacting our health, choking rivers, and has even been found in Antarctica. Instead of responding to alarming new studies by producing fewer plastic goods or seeking less harmful alternatives, the biggest plastic producers have responded by pointing at consumers as the ones to blame.

These companies have been shifting responsibility for their waste onto consumers since the 1970s by publicly blaming litterbugs and emphasising personal responsibility to recycle while quietly squashing legislation that could actually help reduce waste, like bottle bills that would require companies to collect, reuse, or otherwise process the containers they sold. Public outcry over waste in public spaces is also not new. The mounting accumulation of packaging and disposable goods prompted more than 1,000 legislative attempts to ban, tax, or incentivise the return of disposable items in the 1970s. The beverage and packaging industry successfully spent millions of dollars fighting these regulatory efforts, saddling us with the problem of dealing with the waste their products inevitably become. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these companies have simply taken a line out of Big Tobacco and Big Oil’s playbook: addict, deny, obfuscate.

We’ve been trying to educate our way out of the problem for a long time without good return. Learning not to wishcycle and actually rinsing out that dirty peanut butter jar have done markedly little to help deal with plastic waste properly. Recycling bins, signs, messaging, and educational campaigns are ubiquitous, but recycling rates are abysmally low. Because U.S. recycling system is not standardised, even if you learn what can be recycled in one city, your knowledge might not transfer even a 15 minute car ride away.

As companies come out with new products all the time, what you learn has to be constantly updated, to say nothing of the recycling system that processes the waste. It’s not surprising that despite all that education and our best intentions, about one of every four items we put in the recycling bin is contamination, meaning it can’t actually be recycled. If enough of a recycling load is contaminated, the whole thing has to be dumped, ending up either in landfills or incinerators. Since companies don’t pay for the disposal of their waste, they have no impetus to design and make products that municipalities can actually recover and recycle.

Even if we all did learn to recycle perfectly, plastics can only be recycled a few times and usually require the addition of virgin materials. Recycling acts as a deferral to the ultimate waste destination rather than a long-term solution. After being recycled into a new product once or twice, most plastics will end up landfilled, burned, or in the environment.

Americans are facing that regulatory battle again, with multiple bills introduced over the last year focused on solving the waste problem. One of these bills, introduced by U.S. Senators Rob Portman and Debbie Stabenow, provides funding to educate the public to recycle better. The other holds large corporations responsible for the waste they produce. It was introduced by Tom Udall, Democratic Senator from New Mexico and son of renowned conservationist Stewart Udall. It’s not hard to guess which bill has broad support from organisations like the American Beverage Association, the Plastics Industry Association, and Proctor and Gamble, and which bill they are calling “harmful” and “misguided.”

If the plastic industry were held responsible in the U.S., what might that look like? First, the U.S. could join other countries in banning certain polluting and hard-to-recycle products like expanded polystyrene (commonly referred to by its trademarked name, Styrofoam), lightweight disposable bags, and single-use utensils. Second, it could standardise a national recycling program and require that items can’t be produced if users have to disassemble them in order to be recycled. In particle terms, that means you wouldn’t have to peel off a shrink sleeve or remove lids from an item before putting it in the bin.

The U.S. could also legislate tiered recycling quotas and most importantly, require plastic producers to fund and manage recycling programs. This ensures that they design and produce products that can easily be recycled within the program they oversee. Companies could also begin utilising variations of the milkman model, in which consumer goods are sold in sturdy reusable containers that are then returned, cleaned, and refilled. While all of these options might seem ambitious, policies like these have been implemented successfully elsewhere with great return.

Fifty years ago when people were first waking up to the problem of plastic waste, it was infinitesimal compared to its scale today. In 1977, the world produced 50 million tons of plastic compared to 322 million tons in 2015. And that problem is cumulative; the plastics produced in the 1970s haven’t miraculously gone away, we’ve just added to the growing pile every year.

Right now, the amount of plastic waste ending up in the ocean every year is equivalent to five grocery bags per every foot of coastline around the globe. If we continue business-as-usual, global plastic waste is predicted to triple. The industry is going to keep fighting to put the onus on the average person to deal with their waste and plastic pollution through futile solutions. But we don’t have another 50 years to try to recycle and educate our way out of the problem. We need legislation forcing producers to take responsibility for their waste, and we need it now.

Michaela Barnett is a PhD Fellow at the University of Virginia where she researches the perceptions and politics that drive waste management solutions.