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Recycling is Real, But Plastic is Trashing Recycling

“Recycling is Real.” So says the Plastics Industry Association in their recently launched $1 million advertising campaign. As mission-based recyclers who helped birth the recycling industry in the US, we know recycling is real. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone and is critical to our economy, climate, and the preservation of our finite natural resources. But the irony of this latest plastic industry campaign is that most plastic recycling is not real. It has always been limited, costly, and challenging to recycle plastic, and it’s breaking the recycling system’s back. This campaign is merely a tactic to defend the plastics industry against increasing public awareness about the crisis plastics are causing for the planet and human health. While the industry would like you to believe recycling is the solution to our growing plastic pollution crisis, it isn’t. Plastic is trashing our planet, and it’s trashing recycling.

The modern residential recycling industry was built on paper and cardboard, and, shortly thereafter, aluminum, glass, and steel. For decades, these materials have been sold to reliable markets, largely created by the industries that buy back their products. Plastics are a relative latecomer to household recycling, and the fact is only a very short list of plastic packaging types are recyclable – namely, plastic bottles and containers with a #1 or #2 on the bottom and, in some regions, a #5. Should we continue, improve, and expand recycling for those recyclable plastics while we work to reduce their prevalence? Yes. But it’s important to distinguish what’s really recyclable from what isn’t. The plastics industry has used recycling as a PR smokescreen, dragging on the coattails of recycling’s historical success with other materials, to greenwash an ever-growing complex array of products and packaging that has cost recyclers and taxpayers millions of dollars in processing and contamination of other, more marketable materials. 

Every decade or so, the plastics industry comes up with a new marketing ploy to convince consumers that plastic packaging is the best, safest, and most ecologically friendly option. They co-opted the historic recycling symbol of the chasing arrows for plastic labeling and advanced their narrative with campaigns like “Take Another Look at Plastics” and “Collect All Plastics,” selling plastic recycling as the end-of-life solution to their problematic packaging. But most plastic packaging is not designed to be recycled. As a result, the majority of it ends up in our landfills, incinerators, communities, and ecosystems. It contaminates the water we drink, the air we breathe, and our food. Shockingly, studies show that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week, which is equivalent to the average weight of a credit card.

Plastic industry myths have resulted in the collection, export, and irresponsible disposal of millions of pounds of plastic trash each year, and it’s been going on for decades. 

The latest “Recycling is Real” campaign has been launched as the plastic packaging industry faces strong public opinion against their polluting products. But rather than make real efforts to reduce plastic pollution, they are spending big bucks on a marketing campaign to solve what they see as merely a marketing problem. They have once again co-opted authentic recycling and highlighted the small amount of plastic recycling that does actually happen to make the public think that all plastic is recyclable. 

So while the Plastics Industry Association fights the actual measures that could help address the problems they create, they spend their money on slick videos and hide behind working people. 

As recyclers, we call upon the plastic industry to stop pushing false narratives around recycling and get serious about eliminating plastic pollution by embracing the waste reduction hierarchy: Reduce, reuse, and only then recycle. This means:

  • Ending the production of the most problematic and unnecessary plastics 
  • Quickly phasing out the use of harmful toxics 
  • Redesigning packages and products so they are functionally recyclable 
  • Investing in the additional collection systems necessary to collect those plastics 
  • Supporting a national Deposit Return System (i.e., bottle bill) 
  • Supporting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws
  • Supporting mandatory minimum recycled content requirements for new packaging 
  • Paying to clean up the toxic messes they have already created

Rather than responsibly working toward solutions to the plastic pollution crisis they’ve created, the plastics industry has fought bottle bills, EPR programs, and minimum content laws. Currently, they try to undermine the EPR laws that have been passed and are actively trying to get the Biden Administration to weaken the Global Plastics Treaty, which they will predictably work to prevent from getting ratified. If the Plastic Industry Association truly wants to make plastic recycling real, it needs a radical redirection, one that its shareholders may not agree with.

To learn more about what is really recyclable, watch “Chasing Arrows” and learn how plastic trashes recycling.