Updated: Apr 24, 2021
“As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” ~ President Dwight Eisenhower, 1961 farewell address
For the past few years I have written about environmental issues and innovations in hopes to inspire change for the better. But increasingly, I have felt powerless, especially in wake of the ever increasing waste generated by our throw-away society. “In 2015, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day.” Per National Geographic, over 36 billion disposable knives, forks, and spoons are used annually in the United States. Costs of disposal are also increasing as landfill space is diminishing and trash has to be trucked further.
Recycling has been touted as the solution to our waste. Per the EPA however, only 30% of waste is recycled, and less than 5% plastic was recycled in 2018. Worldwide only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. The National Waste & Recycling Association has also found that approximately 25 percent of our recyclables is contaminated, and thus, landfilled.
When China stopped accepting the U.S.’s recyclables in 2018, the plastic waste crisis was further exacerbated. Several municipal curbside recycling programs shut down because the Chinese markets for recyclables disappeared and few existed stateside. Meanwhile, in response to several city bans on plastic bags and plastic straws, several states enacted laws preventing municipalities from restricting plastic products. As many Americans, I have felt that recycling was the greenest act that I partake on a daily basis, but recently, I learned that recycling plastic as a viable solution to all the waste was a lie told by the fossil fuels industry.
In 1945, the production of plastics quadrupled to 818 million pounds. When WWII ended, industry began creating new uses for plastic to consumer markets. They began running anti-littering ads in the 1960’s as disposable products increased on the market. Eventually, the petroleum industry began spinning the idea that plastics could be recycled in the 1970’s. Even then, oil and gas executives knew that recycling plastic wasn’t economically viable, for the process of collecting, sorting, and melting plastics is expensive. Plastics can only be recycled at the most twice and always into a lower quality material. Moreover, recycled plastic competes with the industry’s primary product of new plastic made from oil and gas - cheaper raw materials.
The plastic industry continued its PR machine by running an extensive marketing campaign promoting the advantages of plastic in the 1990’s. Making over $400 billion a year from plastic production, the oil industry is now focusing more on plastics as a growth sector as fossil fuels for automobiles drops. With plastic production to triple by 2050, the industry is making capital investments by building new chemical plants along the Gulf Coast. The industry is also pushing chemical recycling and plastic-to-fuel (PTF) to portray itself as green, closed loop systems. Unfortunately, these technologies have proven to be more greenwashing because incineration of plastics releases more toxins into the air per unit of energy than do coal plants.
The coronavirus pandemic has expounded the plastic problem. During the pandemic, single-use plastic has expanded through the use of personal protective equipment and medical devices. Plastic packaging waste from expanded food delivery services, such as take out and meal kits, has skyrocketed as well. At the same time, reusable, communal or secondhand items have been banned in fear of spreading the coronavirus. “According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, U.S. cities saw a 20% average increase in municipal solid waste and recycling collection from March into April 2020.”
The pandemic has forced local governments to slash budgets, including the elimination of recycling programs. Costs of recycling have also escalated as facilities have had to operate with fewer workers and purchase PPE due to Covid restrictions. Meanwhile, the price of oil plunged where the raw material cost of oil-derived virgin plastics outcompeted recycled feedstocks. With the increase of plastics, carbon emissions and health risks rise as well.
In face of the growing piles of plastic, what can one person do? I propose conscious consumption through elimination of plastic in pursuit of a zero waste lifestyle. Plastic is ubiquitous, and there are situations where use of plastics is unavoidable and even needed. One can however cut out large amounts of plastic, especially single-use. I believe as long as we keep moving in the direction, even baby steps will make a difference. So, will you join me on this journey?