Plastic “Recycling” is a False Solution to Plastic Pollution

Plastic “recycling” is a false solution to plastic pollution. How do we know this? Since the 1970s, businesses making and selling plastic, governments, and some organizations have overwhelmingly told the public that it is essential to recycle plastic. Recycling messages have been communicated to us across all types of media and in many different ways: in advertising campaigns, imprinted recycling symbols on plastic products, and much more. Yet, despite this major push for recycling plastic, plastic pollution and its toxic impacts continue to grow. There is plenty of evidence that plastic recycling is not only failing to live up to its promises, it is also making plastic pollution worse. In contrast, by focusing on plastic-free reuse, we can tap into a solution that ends wastefulness at the source.

Recycled Plastics Are Toxic

How can an activity we’ve been told is right actually be wrong? Turns out, plastics were never designed to be recycled. “The future of plastic is in the trash can,” one packaging industry executive said at a plastic industry meeting in 1956—not in the recycling bin. In other words, plastic was designed to be wasted, despite the heavy toll that its full existence—from the extraction of fossil fuels to plastic’s eventual disposal in landfills, incinerators, or the environment—has on people and the planet.

Plastics are Not “Circular”

Today, the plastic and fossil fuel industries continue to perpetuate the myth that plastics are recyclable by promoting the idea of “plastics circularity”—that plastics can somehow be reused endlessly without creating harmful costs. But this idea is false: Plastic recycling as it is today is harmful and cannot be considered “circular,” because plastic recycling processes continue to drive plastic pollution and its dangerous and toxic impacts—including the climate crisis, environmental injustice, chemical pollution, and more. And while we may need to engage in some kinds of recycling of the less toxic plastics we already have in order to mitigate plastic pollution, recycling on its own cannot be seen as the sole solution to plastic pollution. Instead, recycling must be coupled with a drastic reduction in plastic production in order to be more helpful than harmful. 

“Recycled” Plastics are Actually Downcycled

Additionally, even when plastics are recycled, they are most often “downcycled,” or made into items of lesser value and quality (like turning plastic water bottles into plastic fleece jackets or carpet fiber), and continue to cause considerable pollution. When collected for traditional “mechanical” recycling, plastics must be sorted by color and type, washed, and shredded up. These processes burn large amounts of fossil fuel energy–emitting chemicals and greenhouse gases, waste and contaminate water, and create microplastics and nanoplastics. The small plastic particles are then melted down, and manufacturers must mix in a large amount of newly made (virgin) plastic and/or toxic additives to restore some of its useful properties. Recycling increases the toxicity of plastic; there are hundreds of additional toxic chemicals, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals, in recycled plastic. And that’s in addition to the mix of more than 16,000 chemicals in newly made plastic.

“Recycled” Plastic is Not Suitable for Food and Beverage Packaging

The toxicity of plastic and recycled plastic presents serious dangers to the environment and public health, and drives environmental injustices. Research has indicated that recycled plastic is not suitable for many uses, particularly when it comes to packaging of food and beverages, as it contains a wide range of dangerous chemicals. Drink bottles made of recycled plastic are even more contaminated than drink bottles made of virgin (new) plastic, and these chemicals easily leach into the beverages they contain. 

Plastics Create Environmental Injustice

Today, most plastic that is discarded as “waste” is never recycled. The global waste industry is more likely to landfill, incinerate, or ship plastic—often to the Global South—where plastic is dumped and sometimes open-burned, driving pollution and injustice as waste colonialism. Meanwhile, these industries only continue to increase plastic production, worsening plastic pollution.

Communities near plastic recycling sorting centers, often called materials recovery facilities (MRFs), and recycling plants are often the most underserved, and face increased risks to their health. People who find employment by picking through plastic pollution as part of the informal waste sector, who often live in the Global South, face serious health hazards and poor working conditions. Plastic recycling infrastructure and activities can cause polluted air, soil, and drinking water; bring constant truck, train, or barge traffic as well as scavenger animals who are attracted to eating waste; and there are often fires or intake of radioactive and other hazardous materials.

Yet Industries Want to Make More Plastic

As a result of the increasing awareness around plastic recycling’s failure, the plastic and fossil fuel industries—as well as consumer brands using huge amounts of plastic in their products—now face significant backlash. Corporate giants churning out plastic pollution, which decades ago answered the public outcry over plastic pollution with plastic recycling and anti-litter campaigns, are working to counter society’s growing consciousness. 

People are beginning to realize there is simply too much plastic on the planet. More than 10 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced globally to date, and plastic production has increased by more than 18,300 percent in the last 65 years alone. About 460 million metric tons of plastic are now produced annually, and without action, this number is expected to triple by the year 2050. Yet, less than 9% of all plastic ever made has been “recycled.” Recycling rates for other materials, which are fully recyclable, such as aluminum, glass, and paper, are far higher. (Though, for all materials, reuse should be prioritized over single-use, reducing the need for recycling altogether.)

Despite the world’s need for far less plastic, the plastic and fossil fuel industries only want to create more of it. This time around they are pitching “advanced recycling,” sometimes also called “chemical recycling,” to the public, media, and policymakers as a revamped strategy for coping with their rapidly accumulating plastic pollution. In reality, “advanced recycling” is just another harmful industry-driven false fix that delays and distracts from real solutions—most notably turning off the plastic tap. There is nothing advanced about melting down plastic with heat or chemicals to turn it into petrochemical products that are less likely to become plastic and more likely to become dirty fossil fuel energy.

These industries have invested massive funds into lobbying, campaigns, and activities promoting both mechanical and “advanced” recycling, especially among policymakers and investors. Essentially, these industries are trying to reframe the debate around plastic pollution by promoting recycling as an attempt to draw attention away from the real problem, which is plastic production. This strategy is a sneaky approach to continue ramping up plastic production, while seeming environmentally conscious. Some corporations and industry trade groups have gone so far as to form groups that sound like environmentally conscious organizations that outwardly advocate for plastic recycling. But behind the scenes, these groups try to block real solutions to plastic pollution through intensive lobbying and communications campaigns.

Take Action

Scientific experts, Indigenous knowledge holders, and frontline activists have made clear that it is necessary to drastically reduce plastic production to best protect the health of people and the planet. Fortunately, real solutions to plastic pollution already exist today.

You can take action by implementing and supporting plastic-free solutions in your own life, your community, and on wider systems levels. View our guides to learn how to go plastic-free at your home or school, in your community, at your business, or while on the go.

On a systems level, it’s time for policymakers to get serious about addressing plastic pollution and stop wasting time entertaining the plastic and fossil fuel industries’ false solutions. We need policymakers to curb plastics and fossil fuel production, support frontline communities, and implement just, equitable reuse solutions that end wastefulness at the source. Plastic recycling and other forms of greenwashing won’t help us solve plastic pollution. In fact, according to the waste management hierarchy, the first option to take should be to prevent and reduce waste through reuse. We can’t recycle our way out of this crisis, and we can’t afford for the dangerous deception of plastic recycling to be the focus of local or national policies, nor international agreements such as the UN Plastics Treaty. 

You can help reinforce systemic change and real solutions to plastic pollution by signing petitions to the U.S. Government and world leaders preparing to enter the final round of UN Plastics Treaty negotiations this November.

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By Jessica Heiges and Lindsey Hoell

Four months ago, we were launching our reusable container system in downtown San Francisco with an exciting list of companies and restaurants. Our model placed reusable container return bins (we coined them “4th bin”) on every floor of office buildings. Employees were given “Dispatch Goods Memberships,” which granted them access to reusable containers at many local restaurants when ordering take-out, and an easy return bin at the office. It was a thriving circular reuse system.

And then March arrived, as did COVID-19, and our operations came to a screeching halt. As employees were instructed to work-from-home and many restaurant partners closed their doors, we had to adapt quickly. We had always wanted to tackle food delivery, but we didn’t expect to focus on it so soon. Luckily, our team is stacked with passionate superhumans dedicated to solving the waste crisis, and within a month, we were delivering cold, restaurant-prepared meals to our customers, all in reusable containers that we pick up and wash. It’s been exciting to explore this new space, and with single-use plastics increasing 250-300% during COVID, we are adamant that we must solve this packaging problem on a large scale.

As we talk to companies that we’d been working with prior to COVID, we have been receiving a lot of similar questions. We thought we’d share our knowledge and aggregate learnings about how companies are handling returning to work safely and sustainably! 

How to return to work — without all the single-use plastic:

  1. Self-bussing: Create a self-bussing station or reusable return bins for all reusable foodware. 
  2. Dishwashing: If your office doesn’t have a dishwasher, partner with a foodware service provider like DishJoy or DishCraft to get reusable take-out boxes and cups in your office and have those items washed off-site 
  3. Boxed Lunches: If there is a cafeteria, have the food service employees plate meals individually into the reusable take-out boxes for pick-up by employees. Stainless steel lunchboxes are available from ecolunchbox, ReVessel, and U-Konserve. Stagger employee pick-up windows to limit foot traffic to the cafeteria.
  4. Cutlery: Offer a “mess-kit” for employees when entering the building. This could be a clean cup, with cutlery and a napkin, for the employee to use for the day. At the end of the day, the employee can deposit at the self-bussing station or reusable bin. If reusable cutlery is not desirable, offer single-use wooden chopsticks instead of plastic or bioplastic cutlery as the “best” alternative.
  5. Water: Provide additional clean cups/ water bottles for employees and have a contactless refill station (e.g. Elkay).
  6. Foodware: Store reusable foodware in open cabinets (no door), or on the counter.
  7. Coffee & Tea!: Order mason jars of cold brew or chai from Dispatch Goods; enjoy it and we’ll pick up the empty jars on a daily basis. If you have a coffee attendant, have them pour it directly into clean cups and deposit it at the self-bussing station.
  8. Bulk bins of treats/snacks: If there are cafeteria personnel, request that they pre-package treats/snacks in mason jars for pick-up. 
  9. Catering: Cater lunches from Dispatch Goods; receive individual restaurant meals in reusable containers, which we’ll then pick up and wash later that day. 
  10. Take Out: Look out for Ritual.co to soon offer meals and coffee in reusable containers for pick-up orders at restaurants and cafes near your office.  

This is a compilation of the best strategies we’ve uncovered when talking to businesses, so take from it only what you deem safe and applicable! We will be holding a panel to take a deep dive into “returning to work safely and sustainably” at the end of July. If you’d like to be notified of the details of this event, please visit dispatchgoods.com and sign up for the newsletter.

Co-authored by Jessica Heiges, Chief Sustainability Officer, and Lindsey Hoell, CEO of Dispatch Goods

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Grammy Award Winner Keb’ Mo’ has released a new song “Don’t Throw It Away” with Taj Mahal in support of the global movement to stop plastic pollution and as part of his new album that drops June 14. 

Watch and share the video now on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

Special thanks to Plastic Pollution Coalition Notable Members Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal and video collaborators Make A Change World.

SB 54 would phase out top trash items that contribute to the global pollution crisis through source reduction and improved recycling

SACRAMENTO, CA–Amidst growing awareness of worldwide environmental devastation and health problems wrought by plastic and non-recycled trash, the California State Senate has approved first-of-its-kind legislation to dramatically reduce plastic and packaging waste and jumpstart the in-state clean recycling economy.

Senate Bill 54 (Allen), known as the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, attacks the trash crisis at both ends — both before a product is ever created or purchased, and after a single-use item is ready for disposal.  The measure helps businesses transition from single-use plastic containers to reusable or compostable packaging with reasonable timelines to make changes in order to achieve an overall reduction of 75 percent by the year 2030. The measure also calls for incentives for in-state manufacturing using recycled materials.  Together, these requirements will cut back on the amount and type of trash going into landfills and litter in neighborhoods, waterways, and the ocean, which will reduce costs to taxpayers for disposal and clean-up.

By increasing recycling rates and incentivizing the in-state manufacture of goods using recycled materials, the Act will end California’s existing reliance on other countries to take its waste, and it will boost the state economy.  Currently, California waste and recycling industries are struggling to adapt to China’s 2017 “National Sword” policy to stop accepting other nations’ trash. This has resulted in Californians’ garbage and recyclables piling up at local waste facilities, going into landfills, or being shipped to other countries in Asia that cannot process the sheer amount of trash coming to them.  California’s local governments — and, therefore, ratepayers — are experiencing increased costs as a result. But if fully implemented, the Act’s 75 percent recycling rate will not only help reduce California’s need to ship meaningful quantities of waste out-of-state, it is expected to double the existing 125,000 California jobs in recycling and manufacturing.

Plastic and single-use packaging contribute to a variety of environmental ills.  As plastic breaks down in the environment, it becomes microplastic particles that leach chemicals into waterways and ocean environments, or is eaten by wildlife and marine creatures.  Further, single-use items don’t simply cause pollution; they also contribute to the climate crisis. Plastic items, in particular, are derived from fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases as they break down.  Reducing California’s reliance on these items is critical for the state to meet its climate and waste diversion commitments.

Plastic and single-use items also contaminate drinking water sources, food supplies, and even air.  Human exposure to plastic and its associated toxins has been linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other serious health problems.

The measure is supported by a broad coalition of environmental organizations, health advocates, green businesses, local governments, and labor.  It now goes to the State Assembly. The identical companion measure, Assembly Bill 1080 (Gonzalez), currently awaits a vote on the Assembly floor.

For more information about the measure, see the bill text or view the fact sheet here.

What others are saying about the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act:

Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), joint author of SB 54 and co-author of companion measure AB 1080: “We need to phase out single-use plastics as quickly as possible.  These plastics are ruining entire ecosystems, poisoning our oceans and waterways, and killing wildlife. It’s time to transition to better alternatives and to send a powerful signal to industry to innovate and to create more sustainable products.”

Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), joint author of AB 1080 and principal co-author of SB 54: “Our decades of overusing non-recyclable and non-compostable single-use products has set the stage for what could be one of the greatest man-made ecological and environmental crises in history. The longer we go without taking action, the higher the costs to our environment, animal life, public health, and our economy. These bills are an important step forward and a direly-needed investment in the health of our planet.”   

Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO, Plastic Pollution Coalition: “Plastic Pollution Coalition urges your support of this legislation to dramatically reduce plastic and packaging waste in California. It’s time for California to take the next step towards Zero Waste to protect human and animal health, waterways, oceans, and our environment for years to come.”

Dan Jacobson, Director, Environment California (djacobson@environmentcalifornia.org): “Nothing we use for a few minutes should end up polluting our environment for thousands of years. The time of the single-use plastic container needs to go the way of the dinosaur.”

Geoff Shester, California Campaign Director and Senior Scientist, Oceana: “Solving the plastics problem in our oceans will take a concerted effort from the companies that are producing and selling these materials. This legislation will create the framework desperately needed to turn the tide on our single-use plastics problem. We applaud these state leaders and urge that these bills remain strong in their commitment to meaningfully and drastically reduce the impacts of single-use products. As the fifth-largest economy in the world, California has the opportunity to remain an environmental leader on responsible plastics policy and inspire national and international change.”

Stiv Wilson, Campaigns Director, The Story of Stuff Project (Stiv@storyofstuff.org): “This represents California drawing a line in the sand on plastic pollution. As plastic production skyrockets, we’re witnessing the growing environmental and financial cost of attempting to manage the unmanageable. Without a policy like this, we won’t address the scale of the problem. This is California making a quantum leap in the fight against plastic pollution.”

Kathryn Phillips, Director, Sierra Club California (kathryn.phillips@sierraclub.org):  “We are in the midst of a global health crisis. Single-use packaging and product waste pollutes our environment and harms humans and wildlife. California must dramatically reduce the amount of single-use packaging and products. We must also ensure that these products are reusable, recyclable or comp
ostable. Sierra Club California thanks the legislators who have taken a bold step forward in addressing this urgent crisis.”

Katherine O’Dea, Executive Director, Save Our Shores (katherine@saveourshores.org):  

Comprehensive legislation like this is exactly what is needed to address the plastic pollution crisis we have reached. The framework it puts in place provides the kind of flexibility that is required to address various single use packaging formats and some of the most ubiquitous plastic products with a best approach for each. At the same time, the legislation mandates significant source reduction while driving recycling rates to levels we should have been able to achieve voluntarily but have failed to for decades. Save Our Shores applauds our state legislators for taking bold action.”

Shilpi Chhotray, Senior Communications Officer, Break Free From Plastic (shilpi@breakfreefromplastic.org): “China may have set the trend of refusing foreign plastic waste but now other countries are following suit, including Malaysia, Thailand, and India. It’s time for California to set the gold standard for the US in reducing the overall global production and consumption of plastics and redesign for their reuse. This type of systemic legislation is crucially needed to address the global plastic pollution crisis.”

Christopher Chin, Executive Director, The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE) (media@coare.org): “Waste management is an important part of the conversation, but it cannot effectively address the deluge of plastic pollution we all face.  We cannot recycle our way out of this problem, and it is imperative that we, as a society, support upstream solutions considering the full lifecycle of plastics – including its production and consumption.  This legislation begins providing the framework for an approach that the world wants, and that the world so desperately needs.”

Sophie Haddad, State Board Chair, CALPIRG Students (shaddad@ucsd.edu): “As students and young people, we are the generation who will have to face the worst levels of ocean pollution. We know that if we don’t act now, our environment will be even more devastated by trash. We have to do everything we can to stop using single-use plastics, and SB 54 and AB 1080 are great steps in the right direction.”

Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, Founder and Executive Director – AZUL (media@azul.org): “From production to disposal, single-use plastic and packaging waste negatively affect humans, wildlife and the environment, with a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. This legislation is a strong step towards remedying this environmental justice crisis. Mil Gracias to supporting legislators for their strong leadership!”

Heidi Sanborn, Executive Director of National Stewardship Action Council (heidi@nsaction.us): “Producers of wasteful single-use products need to rethink their design and share in the responsibility for those end of life costs previously externalized onto the public sector and the environment do achieve a circular economy.  We need well-designed durable, reusable products and the product producers are the only ones who can change that and why we support SB 54/AB 1080.”

Angela Howe, Legal Director, Surfrider Foundation (ahowe@surfrider.org): “Surfrider Foundation stands in strong support of the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which will help Californians rise above plastics and begin to free our ocean of the plague of plastic pollution.  We applaud the state legislature for taking this critical step to usher in forward thinking policy and pave the way toward zero waste.”

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