The Truth About Plastic Recycling
It seems like plastic is everywhere. It is in product packaging, toys, kitchen gadgets, clothing, furniture, and we even pay for it all with "plastic." According to National Geographic, "Enough plastic is thrown away every year to circle the earth four times!"
As plastic-free July approaches I began to think back to my childhood in the 1950s and 60s. I don’t remember seeing much plastic packaging. The milkman delivered milk each week and would retrieve the used glass bottles from our milk chute.
Soda pop was sold in glass bottles requiring a deposit that you got back when the bottle was returned. The deposit was five cents on a 32 oz bottle two cents on the smaller bottles. At that time glass bottles were thicker and very expensive to manufacture. The deposit was an incentive for customers to return the bottles so they could be washed and reused.
My friends and I used a wagon to collect used bottles littered on street corners and alleyways. We cleaned them and brought them to the corner drug store to redeem the deposits. At that time you could purchase a whole lot of sugary treats for a penny like penny candy, Bazooka bubblegum (comic strip included), Pixie Straws, and Tootsie Rolls. A whole Hershey Bar only cost a nickel. We were rich! (Image: Art by George Hughes on the cover of the March 28,1959 edition. Taken from the Saturday Evening Post Archives)
There were very few supermarkets. We purchased fruit from the fruit market, meat and poultry from the butcher, staples from the local small neighborhood grocer, and used paper straws. There were lots of cans, cardboard boxes, glass jars, and paper bags.
I don't remember learning much about environmental issues except that my elementary school had paper drives. We would collect newspapers and magazines from our homes, our neighbors, and even local businesses and compete against other classes to see who could collect the most paper. The school would collect and sell the paper to raise money for various school programs and activities.
Needless to say, things have dramatically changed!
A Brief History Of Plastic
I was surprised to learn that the invention of plastic was created partly with environmental conservation in mind.
During the mid 1800s the game of billiards became increasingly popular. Since billiard balls were made of ivory, elephants were being slaughtered in order to harvest their tusks.
Excessive hunting caused populations to decline and elephants were on the brink of extinction. This also meant that ivory was becoming scarce and more costly, so billiard ball manufacturers offered rewards for the invention of new alternatives.
In 1862 Alexander Parkes, patented a new material called Parkesine. It was derived from cellulose and when heated it could be molded and would retain its shape when cooled. Although it is considered the first manufactured plastic, it was not a commercial success until John Wesley Hyatt discovered a way to create an improved version of Parkesine, commonly known as celluloid.
Although Hyatt's goals was to create an alternative for ivory billiard balls, celluloid was combustable and thus the perfect billiard shot could cause a ball to explode. However, celluloid was able to replace other natural materials such as tortoise shell and coral. Combs were among the first and most popular objects made of celluloid.
According to the Science History Institute the invention of celluloid was revolutionary.
"For the first time human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature. Nature only supplied so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn. But now humans could create new materials. This development helped not only people but also the environment. Advertisements praised celluloid as the savior of the elephant and the tortoise. Plastics could protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need."
The birth of the modern plastics era came in 1907 when Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite. It was the first truly synthetic plastic since it was not derived not from plants or animals, but from fossil fuels.
According to an article written in Scientific American:
"The creation of Bakelite marked a shift in the development of new plastics. From then on, scientists stopped looking for materials that could emulate nature; rather, they sought to rearrange nature in new and imaginative ways. The 1920s and '30s saw an outpouring of new materials from labs around the world."
How Did Plastic Become So Popular
World War II saw an explosion in the manufacture and use of plastics. Scarce natural resources like steel and rubber were essential for the war effort. The production of synthetic plastics was needed to fill the gap in consumer goods as well as for for military items such as cords for parachutes, liners for helmets, components for aircraft, and more.
After the war, the use of plastics exploded into consumer markets and with it the research and development of new forms of plastic followed.
According to author Susan Freinkel in her book Plastics: A Toxic Love Story:
“In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.”
The world had invented a seemingly abundant material that was cheap and easy to manufacture, lightweight, less fragile, versatile, sanitary, and was available in an endless variety of shapes and colors. What could be better?
Plastic: From Environmental Savior to Environmental Curse
While initially being praised as an amazing scientific discovery that prevented the demise of elephants, saved turtles used for tortoiseshell combs, and replaced coral in brightly colored jewelry, plastic is now being reviled as an environmental curse.
Plastic pollution was first noticed in the ocean by scientists in the late 1960s and the first scientific findings of marine plastic debris were published in the journal Science in 1972.
Plastic packaging waste in our oceans, waterways, and land never truly goes away.
As plastic ages it becomes brittle and gradually breaks down into microplastics. This breakdown is due to sunlight, oxidation, or even animals nibbling away at large plastic pieces.
Plastic waste will continue to breakdown forever and at some point the smallest pieces (nanoplastics) can blend in with grains of sand and are no longer visible by the naked eye.
A single plastic bottle can fall apart into millions of microplastic pieces that never fully decompose and are present in water, soil, air, marine animals, land animals and even humans. We have no idea how these tiny microplastics inside us will affect longterm health.
According to an article in UN Environment Programme:
Plastics including microplastics are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are becoming part of the Earth's fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the "plastisphere".
Between the 1970s and the 1980s, plastic waste doubled and more and more plastic debris was littered everywhere. People started to become more anxious about waste and as a result the reputation of this "scientific wonder" began to deteriorate (unlike the plastic itself--sorry).
In the 1980s the plastics industry suggested recycling as a solution and led a drive encouraging cities to collect and process recyclable plastics as part of their waste-management systems.
Environmentally conscious consumers began taking plastic to recycling centers and many municipalities began curbside recycling projects.
The Myth About Plastic Recycling
We have all seen the "chasing arrows" logos on plastic packaging that contain a number in the center. These numbers, one through seven, represent a Resin Identification Code created by the plastics industry to tells us the type of plastic used to make the packaging material.
The symbols do NOT mean that the plastic packaging material is recyclable or will be recycled,
it is just an indicator of the type of plastic.
These numbers give consumers a false sense that all plastics are recyclable or may be recycled. The logo is very misleading since most types of plastic are NOT recyclable at all.
With all the different symbols, as well varying municipal rules, it can be confusing for consumers to figure out exactly what each plastic recycling symbol means and how and where to recycle it.
According to John Hocevar, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, “Instead of getting serious about moving away from single-use plastic, corporations are hiding behind the pretense that their throwaway packaging is recyclable.”
A report from Greenpeace, published in October 2022, shows that most of the plastic that well-intentioned people put into recycling bins is headed to landfills. Some cities are burning their plastic waste which results in toxic fumes as well as climate-warming carbon emissions.
The World Economic Forum reported that while 91.4% of cardboard was recycled in 2021, the amount of plastic actually turned into new things has decreased to around 5%. That number is expected to decrease as more plastic and more plastic is produced.
According to the article there are numerous reasons why plastic recycling is not working.
There is too much plastic to collect. There are more than 20,000 plastic bottles used every second. Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and more than half of our global annual plastic production is destined for a single-use product.
Mixed plastic waste cannot be recycled together. There are thousands of different types of plastic all of which contain different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together.
Even many plastics that share the same resin identification number cannot be recycled together. For example, PET plastic (chasing arrow symbol #1) is touted as one of the best types for recycling. However, PET bottles cannot be recycled with PET clamshells, and green PET bottles cannot be recycled with clear ones.
Recycling mixed plastics results in weak material that is unsuitable for processing and it is extremely difficult and costly to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing.
Plastic recycling is wasteful, polluting, and is a fire hazard. Plastic is made out of fossil fuels and is highly flammable. It burns hotter than other kinds of fires and is difficult to put out. A fire in a plastic recycling plant releases substances known to be harmful to people in area communities which are often low income neighborhoods.
Recycled plastic has huge toxicity risks. Peer-reviewed studies from around the world have shown that recycled plastics often contain higher concentrations of toxic chemicals such as flame retardants, benzene and other carcinogens than virgin plastic. According to a report published by the Canadian government in 2021, toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit the majority of plastic packaging produced from being recycled into any type of food-grade packaging.
Plastic recycling is not economic. Recycled plastic is expensive to collect and sort, but new plastic, is cheap and easy to produce. As a result, plastic recycling plants have very few markets in which to sell their plastic trash. Nobody wants our plastic trash!
While plastic has many valuable uses, the same qualities that make it useful have created a global waste crisis. We have become addicted to single-use plastic products leading to severe environmental, social, economic and health consequences.
Plastic Can Not Be Part of a Circular Economy
At Chagrin Valley our goal is to choose sustainable eco-friendly packaging that can be part of a circular economy.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "The circular economy is an economic system in which materials are designed to be used, not used up." In a circular economy all packaging should be designed to be reused, truly recycled, or composted.
A circular economy is based on the model of how nature handles "waste" in which nothing is lost and everything is reused.
The term "recycling" often means different things to different people and not all "recycling" is equal.
There are actually three ways to "recycle" materials. The three types, in order of decreasing effectiveness, are upcycle, recycle, and downcycle.
Upcycling, which I like to think of as using something you might throw away in a new creative way, actually transforms materials into a product of greater value or quality. For example, an artists who repurposes "junk" to create magnificent pieces of art.
Recycling is the process of taking something, breaking it down, and turning it into a new version of its original form with roughly the same value. For example, since glass and metal can be recycled over and over without losing purity or quality, an old glass jar becomes a new glass jar and an old aluminum can becomes a new aluminum can. Since true recycling uses a resource over and over again it can be part of a circular economy.
Downcycling, the term use to describe the "recycling" of materials that do not have enough structural integrity to be part of a circular recycling system, results is a product of lower (recyclable) quality and value. Recycled plastic is a good example of downcycling.
Although some plastics, like PET, can be made into new materials, after only 1 to 2 cycles the plastic degrades and becomes entirely useless for even downcycling. When you see commercials showing plastic bottles becoming shoes, it seems like a great idea since the plastic is being reused. However, since you can not throw that shoe back into your recycling bin, when it goes out of style its life-cycle has ended. While downcycling one time is better than the landfill, it is not a very environmentally-friendly process in the long term.
A Comparison of Packaging Recycling Outcomes
In order to truly understand the sustainability of packaging material we must assess the environmental impact throughout the entire life cycle of the material which includes all events involved with making, using and disposing of the packaging material.
- The impact of the raw materials needed to create the packaging on the environment
- The carbon footprint involved in the manufacturing process
- The properties of packaging such as weight, since this will have a huge impact on transportation carbon footprint
- The "True" recyclability rate for each material understanding that the ideal goal is to utilize packaging that can be incorporated back into a circular economy and produce zero waste
This assessment is the best way for a company to compare the total environmental impact of different packaging products in order determine the best eco-friendly packaging options that make the most sense for its products.
Recyclability of packaging material is only one step of the assessment, but it is extremely important for the end user, which is usually the consumer.
While some materials may have less environmental impact during the manufacturing process when compared to others, if the packaging is not recyclable, the end of life occurs very early which leads to increased environmental burdens.
The Promise of New “Solution” to Plastic Pollution
I have noticed a recent surge of ads about recycled plastic from “America’s Plastic Makers” promoting a new “recycling solution” to plastic pollution. So, of course I decided to dig deeper into these claims. The purpose of these ads is convince consumers that the makers of plastic are working on solutions to solve the massive problem of plastic waste.
Unfortunately much of their "recycling" solution is NOT achieved by recycling used plastic into new plastic.
Instead they are calling for “chemical recycling” which involves heating plastic waste at a high temperature in order to create low grade oil and gas to be burned.
A report issued by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in 2020 calls chemical recycling an “industry shell game” that keeps single-use plastics in production. Burning plastic waste is inefficient and unproven, releases harmful greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals into the environment, and consumes large amounts of energy creating a large carbon footprint which contributes to climate change. Burning plastics for fuel is just another form of fossil fuel energy.
According to a March 2023 article in Beyond Plastic, since the beginning of 2023 the American Chemistry Council has spent more than $526,000 only on Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns "to promote the idea that 'advanced' or chemical recycling makes plastics a-okay. Chemical recycling is one of the fossil fuel industry’s newest strategies to greenwash its harmful products."
A Surge of New Plastic Production
According to an article published in 2019 on Yale Environment 360:
"Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up output of plastic — which is made from oil and gas, and their byproducts — to hedge against the possibility that a serious global response to climate change might reduce demand for their fuels."
"Petrochemicals, the category that includes plastic, now account for 14 percent of oil use, and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. The World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 20 years."
All over the world environmentally conscious consumers are trying to move away from or decrease fossil fuels as an energy source. We are buying energy efficient appliances, purchasing more and more electric vehicles, increasing the use of solar power, etc., in order to help the environment
At the same time however, the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries, concerned about future profits, are spending billions of dollars creating new manufacturing facilities that will make millions more tons of plastic.
Conclusion: Plastic Recycling?
Plastic recycling does not work and it never has.
Although the large oil and gas companies have known this ever since they suggested "plastic recycling," they have spent millions of dollars telling shoppers that plastic is easily recyclable.
Basically, according to plastic manufacturers, the burden of decreasing plastic waste lies solely with us, the consumers.
In 2021, NPR and PBS Frontline spent months researching documents and interviewing former oil and gas officials.
"We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn't work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic."
As environmentally conscious consumers we see recycling symbols, hear talk of the progress of plastic recycling, believe it is working, and feel better about purchasing items packaged in plastic as we place them in the recycle bin. But are we being deceived?
Plastic recycling has long posed challenges. Unlike glass and metal, plastic cannot be repeatedly recycled without quickly degrading in quality.
According to the Plastic Soup Foundation the world production of plastic increased from two million tons in 1950 to 380 million tons in 2018. So where has all the waste plastic gone? Let's look at some plastic recycling numbers.
- 9% of plastic waste was recycled
- 12% of plastic waste was incinerated
- 79% ended up in landfills or in the environment (land and water), where it will stay forever in one form or another since plastic does not decompose
Around the globe we are generating more and more plastic trash every day. According to the World Economic Forum, every hour, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away in the U.S. alone. This plastic trash is contributing to our waste and pollution problems, impacting our health, choking our rivers, and threatening our oceans and wildlife.
According to Oceana International our oceans face a growing threat from the single-use plastics we throw away every day.
An estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic leaks into the marine environment—this is roughly equivalent to dumping two garbage trucks full of plastic into the oceans every minute.
Plastics never go away. Instead, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, which act as magnets for harmful pollutants. When eaten by fish, some of those chemical-laden microplastics can work their way up the food chain and into the fish we eat.
Eco-friendly packaging or sustainable packaging is becoming more and more popular, as businesses and individuals are growing more environmentally conscious.
While obviously consumers play a critical role in stopping plastic pollution, companies must do their part by moving toward plastic-free packaging.
Knowing that all packaging materials have some drawbacks, our goal is to move as close to zero-waste as possible. Balancing the proper sustainable eco-friendly packaging for our personal care products with their environmental impact requires a lot of thought, research, time and money. We know!
We began making plastic-free shampoo in bars in order to eliminate plastic bottles long before the push for "plastic-free packaging."
However, personal care products are part of an extremely competitive market and there are so many factors to consider.
For example, sustainable plastic-free packaging will increase the cost of a product. Plastic alternatives are often significantly more expensive than their plastic counterparts. Let's compare some packaging solutions:
- a 4 oz glass jar with a metal cap is more than twice the price as the same jar in all plastic
- a paperboard push-up lip balm tube is 10 times more expensive than a plastic lip balm tube
- a paperboard push-up deodorant tube cost 4 times more than a plastic tube
At Chagrin Valley we know that while plastic packaging is a cheaper option upfront, it will not pay off in the future when we consider the health of our planet and its inhabitants.
After so many years of believing that plastic recycling works,
it is time for all of us to finally see plastic packaging for what it is,