The Plastic Pollution Problem – We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of It

Bales of used plastic containers.
Recycling alone is not the solution for displacing the production of virgin plastic. Photo Credit: Nareeta Martin via Unsplash

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Right now, plastic is unavoidable. As hard as you try, you just can’t escape it. This isn’t a coincidence. For decades, the companies producing plastic have claimed that the products they make are widely recyclable. And they tell us that careless consumers who litter and don’t recycle are the cause of plastic pollution. But this just isn’t true. The reality is, most plastic was never designed to be recyclable, and it will never be recycled. What’s more, plastic pollution is a lot worse than the straws you find on the beach. The real impacts of plastic are catastrophic for our health and our climate. Enough is enough. We can’t keep trying to manage plastic waste. That simply won’t work. We need to look for solutions that hold polluters accountable and shut off the plastic production pipeline.

A World Engulfed in Plastic

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of sea turtles, birds, whales, and other creatures injured – or even killed – by plastic waste in the environment. These visuals, along with images of rivers, beaches, and parks overrun by plastic pollution, are now synonymous with the havoc our plastic addiction wreaks on our planet. Sadly, as horrific and jarring as these images are, they only depict one small part of our plastic pollution crisis.

The real impact plastic is having on our environment, our climate, and even our health is much, much worse. Plastic manufacturing alone is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions – and that’s just the first step in this toxic process. Once it is produced, plastic becomes a persistent environmental hazard that impacts everything from the food we eat to our oceans’ ability to capture and sequester carbon. This is the reality we’re facing.

Making matters worse, the companies that produce the majority of all plastic know how bad things really are. Yet, they’re trying to make us consumers believe that it’s entirely our fault. According to them, if we all just recycle better, everything will be fine. But that is far from the truth. 

Plastic Production Increases Pollution

Plastic is a constant problem – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This problem starts the moment oil and gas giants drill into the ground with the intent of collecting fossil fuels for plastic production.

Oil and gas are the basic building blocks for plastic. Extracting, collecting, and transporting these fossil fuels is energy intensive. What’s more, hydraulic fracturing – a process used for extracting gas – can contaminate groundwater with a toxic array of chemicals used in fracking fluid. And refining oil and gas into plastic emits countless vile chemicals into the air, which negatively impact the health and well-being of neighboring communities.

Unsurprisingly, most plastic refineries are located in Black and brown communities, low-income communities, and communities of limited English-speaking proficiency. And you can bet new plants will also be forced upon these environmental justice communities. In fact, oil and gas giants recently set their eyes on an 80-mile strip between Mississippi and Louisiana to build more plastic refineries. Known as Cancer Alley, this area already has the highest density of petrochemical sites in the nation, as well as the highest cancer rates.

Recycling Alone is a False Solution

The plastic problem doesn’t end with extraction and production. These are just the first steps in a long and toxic cycle. Pollution and environmental degradation persist throughout consumption and disposal as well.

Right now, the U.S. only recycles 6% of the plastic waste produced every year. And not for a lack of trying. But because most plastic isn’t designed to be recycled in the first place. Even when plastics are technically recyclable, our recycling system can’t keep the material clean enough for use in the production of new products.

Roughly 25% of what we try to recycle is too contaminated by other materials, like glass and paper, to be of any use. It is also impossible to sort plastic well enough to recycle it. Not only are there several different kinds of plastic, but dyes, labels, caps, and other small differences in containers contaminate bales of plastics so they can’t be recycled together. All this to say, recycling alone is not the solution for displacing the production of virgin plastic. Low recycling rates are low for a reason.

The Plastic Recycling Myth

The idea that most plastic is easily and readily recyclable is a myth – a message carefully crafted by plastic producers for decades. Their reason? To try and distract consumers from the real problem – the absurd amount of plastic waste plastic producers continue to produce.

So, what happens to all this plastic waste if it isn’t recyclable? It winds up in a landfill or incinerator – neither of which are sustainable. In time, all landfills leak, releasing toxic chemicals into the ground, water, and air. Incinerators aren’t any better. They emit toxic chemicals and heavy metals, like lead and mercury, into the air. What’s more, these incinerators exacerbate environmental injustice, as they are overwhelmingly built in or near communities of color and low-income communities.

As for the plastics that don’t make it to these polluting facilities, they end up as litter and wreak havoc on our environment. Eventually, the plastic that escapes into the environment slowly breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. Consequently, these microplastics infiltrate our soil, our food, and even our bodies.

We Need to Address Plastic at Its Source  

By characterizing plastic as a disposal issue, corporate polluters turn our attention away from the big picture. But the only way to seriously tackle the plastic pollution crisis is to stop producing plastic in the first place. This is easier said than done.

Right now, oil, gas, and petrochemical giants are working to increase plastic production. They see plastic as their new lifeline. As countries around the world turn to renewable energy and electric vehicles, corporate polluters lose profits. For them, plastic production is the way to make up for those losses. And all while locking us into decades of continued pollution.

Together, we need to embrace a comprehensive approach that prioritizes reducing plastic production, increasing options for reuse and refill, and improving recycling so that it actually works. Sign up for our emails now to stay in-the-know as we strive towards this comprehensive approach.

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