Plastic Pollution Experts Judith Enck and Pete Myers Testify at U.S. Senate Hearing on Capitol Hill

Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Regional Administrator; and Dr. Pete Myers, Founder, CEO, and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, testified in December 2022 before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight. Both are scientific experts on plastic and Plastic Pollution Coalition Advisors. This is the first time such a hearing has been convened to discuss the plastic pollution crisis.


Shifting the Narrative

Historically, the plastics and fossil fuel industries, government interests, and those who benefit economically and politically from plastics have maintained control of the narrative around plastics as the material continues to harm the entire human population and degrade the Earth. That’s why plastic pollution continues growing worse, not better, despite the “solutions” that industries, governments, and corporations promise. 

Opening the hearing, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the Chairman of the Subcommittee, laid out key facts about the plastic pollution crisis and its wide range of harmful consequences for people and the planet. Merkley stated that the ways we have previously attempted to solve plastic pollution have fallen far short in addressing the core cause of the problem: continued plastic production.

“Now most of us have heard of the three Rs, reduce, reuse, recycle. That sounds like a magical way to address this challenge. But here’s the story with plastics: it’s not three Rs, it’s three Bs: They’re buried, they’re burned, or they’re borne out to sea.”

— Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

The problem with plastic is that it was not designed to be recycled, and despite the plastic industry’s claims that plastic is being recycled, very little of it is actually getting another life. And even in the rare cases when plastics are recycled, an even greater challenge with this material exists: plastics are toxic.

Dr. Pete Myers was the first expert to testify, focusing on the toxicity of plastics and the numerous ways it harms human health, primarily by disrupting how hormones work in the human body. According to Dr. Myers, what’s at stake is no less than human survival.

“Over the last five decades there has been a 50% decline in sperm count in adult men. Just this past month a study came out to see that the rate of decline is speeding up, it’s not slowing down, and it’s global. Not just sperm count but other features of male and female infertility are worsening also. If the current rate of sperm count declines, it will decline asymptotically to zero by the 2040s.”

— Dr. Pete Myers, Founder, CEO, and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences

Similarly, Judith Enck in her testimony presented serious facts about how plastics—especially single-use plastics—cause widespread harm and environmental injustice, and highlighted the real solutions which will significantly and meaningfully reduce plastic pollution and injustice.

“We need major new federal legislation to significantly reduce the production, use, and disposal of plastics, and we need it now….my primary recommendation is for Congress to adopt a law establishing the goal of reducing the production of plastic by 50% over the next 10 years and providing enforcement mechanisms and federal funding to achieve this goal.”

— Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Regional Administrator

 End Industry Interference

Despite the alarming facts about plastic now more clear than ever, and with a wave of awareness of the crisis growing, industries and some members of government appear to be prioritizing profits over people. As is unfortunately common practice, at this hearing like at others, members of government appear to be “inviting the fox into the henhouse” when allowing industries to comment on how their businesses should be regulated.

In addition to Myers and Enck, the other two speakers invited to testify at the hearing included plastic industry representatives Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, which is historically the plastic industry’s most vocal and impactful trade group, and Eric Hartz, co-founder and president of “advanced recycling” corporation Nexus Circular. 

The industry representatives in their testimony chose to not discuss facts or the dire health and social issues plastic causes. Instead, they presented false “solutions,” specifically various forms of plastic “recycling,” which delay real action and enable corporations to produce ever-increasing amounts of plastics for ever-increasing profits. The industry reps also discussed at length the economic implications of making plastics—something that matters to multi-billion dollar fossil fuel and plastics corporations—not everyday people who are worst harmed.

Support Real Solutions

Photo by Preston Keres/USDA

While the industry testimony contrasted sharply with the testimony of Enck and Myers, during the questioning round the scientific experts were quick to set the record straight on the industry’s false information. Enck and Myers also submitted invaluable written testimony laying out the truths about “advanced recycling” and other dangerous industry-drive false solutions—and explaining why these harmful technologies must be avoided.What’s more, they focused on real, systemic solutions that will solve the problem—if we support them and can allow plastic facts to override plastic industry fiction.

Senator Merkley is sponsor of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which is focused on: 

  • Addressing environmental injustices
  • Improving recycling to the degree that can make a difference
  • Eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics by supporting systems of reduction, refill, and reuse
  • Increasing industry and corporate responsibility for plastics
  • Introducing a strong national bottle bill to ensure plastics are collected
  • Other measures to reduce the harms of plastics while reinforcing useful systems and values that protect and support people and the planet

“Pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, pass the National Bottle Bill, pass a sensible law called the Plastic Reduction and Recycling Research Act, also known as EPR, which has been introduced in state legislatures around the country. We don’t need a magical breakthrough, we need reduction, refill, and reuse, and if you absolutely cannot reduce or refill and reuse, then rely on paper, metal, glass. Get the toxics out, particularly out of the paper, and make sure that that material is made from recycled content and are easily recyclable.”

— Judith Enck

Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more about the facts and solutions, and take action: sign petitions on important plastics issues, and pledge to cut your own plastic use.


October 26, 2022 , 1:30 pm 2:30 pm EDT

Join PPC Scientific Advisor Leticia Socal for a webinar about plastic pollution solutions, hosted by the Women In Sustainability network.

We often talk about actions around the 3 Rs Reduce, Reuse, Recycle but the real impact of those actions on actual plastic production is still under debate. Reducing virgin plastic manufacturing is absolutely necessary to reach CO2e emissions levels agreed under the Paris agreement. And, of course, with less plastic being produced, the volume of plastics in our daily lives will naturally be reduced, as well as the littering we see every day in our lands, rivers, and oceans. But, how much we can achieve with each one of the “R”? Let’s talk about different models being adopted globally, the rationale behind those and how we can achieve that goal together.

About the Presenter:

Leticia Socal is chemist with a PhD in Materials Science. She’s a seasoned plastic industry professional, with 15 years of experience in R&D, Intellectual Property, market, strategy, and 3D printing materials. She is passionate about sustainability and makes every effort to educate consumers and organizations about plastic waste and recycling.

She is a recognized thought leader in her area, working in environmental impact (LCA) assessments of new recycling technologies and serving as board member and mentor for several startups and accelerators globally. Leticia also runs a sustainability blog, focused on sustainability education and organizes environmental education activities at her local school. Most recently, she joined ClimeCo as Sr. Manager, Plastics & Recycling, where she works closely with plastic waste collection and recycling projects in Asia and Africa. She is committed to leverage her skills to drive real change in consumption patterns, helping to create a zero or lower-waste economy.

Cost: Free to Members and Non-Members of WIS

Location: via Zoom

The plastic industry has convinced us that recycling will reverse the toxic impact of plastic—while it keeps right on polluting. Here’s what you can do to fight back.

By Erica Cirino

Eating out at a seaside restaurant in Suffolk County, Long Island, not long ago, I was served a drink with a paper straw, the result of local legislation designed to curb plastic pollution. In Suffolk, distributing single-use plastic straws and stirrers, foam cups, and plastic containers and bags is now illegal, punishable by a fine.

To me, that straw looked more like a problem than a solution. Although targeting consumer behavior can reduce local plastic use and litter, this kind of legislation can’t make a dent in the plastic crisis. Besides being too piecemeal to significantly reduce humanity’s plastic footprint, bans on items like plastic straws fail to attack the problem at the source: the companies churning out increasing amounts of the stuff.

If straw laws are absurd, what about the more ubiquitous practice of plastic recycling? It has the same flaws, perhaps reducing local litter but failing to address the fundamental cause of the crisis. Recycling diverts attention from the continued production of plastic by an actively expanding industry and infrastructure. Massive lobbying and public relations efforts by the plastic supply chain ensure that we never see the truth. Their outrageous narrative, that the public must bear responsibility for the plastic piling up all over the planet, leaves them free to make more of it and leaves the rest of us perpetually stuck.

Since 1950, more than 10 billion metric tons of plastics have been manufactured worldwide, with the most of it incorporated into the deadly global waste trade. Collectively, 79 percent of the plastic humans have thrown away is piled up in landfills and scattered across the land and in the oceans. It’s turned out to be horrendously difficult to truly recycle plastic because there are so many types, and each category has to be separated out for a recycling process of its own. Because that isn’t feasible, just 9 percent of plastic has been recycled; the rest has been incinerated or sent to landfills.

Plastic is much more than a nuisance and a visual blight. Its production emits climate-warming greenhouse gases, toxic chemicals, and plastic particles into soil, air, and water. Plastic that is littered or dumped or otherwise escapes into nature sickens and kills wildlife and plants. Chemical-laced microplastic particles can now be found commonly in plants and in the bodies of animals—including humans. Research linking plastic to human health problems is still underway, but the health issues linked to thousands of chemical components commonly found in plastic are already well established.

Microplastic in the waters off Kamilo Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. Credit: Erica Cirino

To the frontline communities living close to petroleum extraction sites, refineries, plastic factories, landfills, recycling centers, waste shipping hubs, incinerators, and illegal dumps, the problems with plastic have long been apparent. Many of these communities have been speaking out for decades and were among the first to hold industries accountable, with varying levels of cooperation from government. African-Americans and other people of color are particularly vulnerable to the potentially deadly consequences of plastic production, from the emissions of cancer-causing dioxins to the asthma-inducing, immune-suppressing, hormone-disrupting particulate matter from factories where it is made. Redlining—the practice of denying financial and other services to minority groups in specific neighborhoods—and the expansion of the petrochemical and plastic industries have conspired to shape a landscape where Black people are 75 percent more likely than whites to live in proximity to industry and more likely to breathe polluted air.

“It’s like they want us to die off,” Sharon Lavigne, founder of the faith-based environmental justice organization RISE St. James, told me. Lavigne, like most of her neighbors in the community of Welcome, in St. James Parish, Louisiana, is Black. Residents there are working hard to stop an enormous plastic complex from being built in their community by an arm of the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Group.

Despite all the harm, industry is positioned to produce vastly greater amounts of plastic in years to come. In 2019 plastic producers reported creating about 368 million metric tons of plastic. That number is expected to surge to 1.5 billion metric tons per year by 2050 as petrochemical infrastructure expands globally. Instead of developing specific plans for handling this spiraling mess, the plastics industry continues to spread misinformation that perpetuates limited interventions like recycling and paper straws while steadfastly resisting the real solution, a dramatic reduction in plastic production.

Green turtle deals with plastic blight at a bleached reef off the coast of Honolulu. Credit: Erica Cirino

The plastics industry has infiltrated the media.

The plastics industry has infiltrated the media,” Stiv Wilson, codirector of the Peak Plastic Foundation and executive producer of the Emmy-winning film The Story of Plastic, explained to me in a phone call. The size of the new ethane crackers they’re building [crackers are plants that perform the first step in the process of transforming ethane—a component of natural gas—into plastic products] and the number of fracking wells being drilled to fuel more plastic production tell you the industry’s true intention. Their approach is to distract people so they can keep producing.”

For instance, in one of a series of public relations plays, American Chemistry Council’s plastics division—America’s Plastic Makers, a lobbying group that represents Shell, BASF, ExxonMobil, Dow, and many other Council members—held a virtual “custom” symposium in September 2021 that seemed to be a media event facilitated by the Wall Street Journal. The online event was, in fact, an advertorial moderated by Phillipa Leighton-Jones, the editor and anchor of WSJ’s branded-content arm, The Trust. With her were Bob Patel, then CEO of petrochemical giant LyondellBasell and former chairman of the American Chemistry Council, and his co-panelist, Jim Fitterling, who is the current council chairman and Dow CEO and chairman.

When discussing solutions to the plastics crisis, the executives focused on “advanced recycling,” referring to various means of melting down plastic into simpler petrochemical gases and liquids, some of which could hypothetically be used to make more plastic. In reality the plastic industry has no track record of recycling plastic this way at scale. So far, the method usually “turns plastic scrap into dirty fuel and toxic waste,” Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, explains. “They are enabling increased production of plastic under the guise that it will be ‘recycled,’ when presently it is not.”

The companies cannot even fulfill their promises for current, non-advanced recycling. Most of the plastic that we haul to our curbs for recycling isn’t recyclable at all. It ends up getting diverted from the recycling stream and sent to be landfilled, incinerated, or shipped to developing nations where imported plastic is often illegally dumped or burned—sometimes just dozens of feet from people’s homes.

That marketing event produced by the WSJ’s advertising arm is just the tip of the industry’s disinformation iceberg. Some of the most widely viewed plastic-related messaging comes from Keep America Beautiful, an organization now based in Stamford, Connecticut. In 1953 executives of industries that benefit from the continued production and sale of plastic, including the beverage and tobacco industries (cigarette filters contain microplastics), and municipal representatives launched Keep America Beautiful to promote an ethos of national cleanliness. Its approach has been to inundate the public with guilt trip–inducing ads that posit the solution to the crisis as cleaning up and recycling.

In 1971 the organization launched its famous “Crying Indian” television ad campaign, featuring an Italian-American actor playing a Native American man who navigates idyllic nature scenes clogged with trash. The mess compels him to shed a single tear, an image that has been viewed billions of times. Noah Ullman, chief marketing officer at Keep America Beautiful, wrote to me that the ad’s “content is problematic” and that the organization will soon address this issue. Regardless of how it packages its message, though, the group stands by its push to make the public responsible for the plastics crisis. “We all need to have a shared responsibility for the convenience of our modern culture,” Ullman wrote.

Finding honest information about plastic pollution is tricky because it is hard to determine which “environmental” nonprofits are funded by the plastics industry and to discern what their true motives are. Sometimes affiliations are clear. The American Recyclable Bag Alliance, for instance, works hard to stop or water down legislation aimed at curbing the plastic crisis by defending the conventional plastic bag—even though plastic bags are not recyclable. In other cases, you have to do some digging. The biggest plastic-focused industry groups, like the Plastics Industry Association (commonly referred to as PLASTICS) and the American Chemistry Council, are now creating a tangle of greenwashed “solutions-based” organizations and campaigns, including the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and the group Positively PET, that paint plastic pollution as a problem consumers have created and can solve themselves. These kinds of groups also fund and advocate for dangerous ways to handle plastic such as advanced recycling, waste picking, and turning plastic waste into roads and other building materials.

Journalists and activists have recently made progress in exposing this strategy to shift the blame. In 2020 the Changing Markets Foundation published a comprehensive report shedding light on the plastic industry’s corporate playbook. “While they have been trying to present themselves as part of the solution, they have worked hard behind the scenes to delay and derail mandatory legislation, be it the introduction of deposit return systems or simple bans on problematic items such as plastic bags,” says Nuša Urbancic, campaigns director of the Changing Markets Foundation.

The plastic and petrochemical supply chains continue to refine their greenwashing campaigns.

Denka, operating in the former DuPont facility in LaPlace, La., produces the chemical chloroprene to manufacture neoprene synthetic rubber. EPA reclassified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen in 2010. Credit: Erica Cirino.

John Hocevar, Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign director, has been working to expose the plastic industry’s tactics by confronting companies that engage in pro-plastic lobbying. For example, by attending industry conferences and public meetings, Greenpeace members have identified several major corporations that have publicly committed to addressing plastic pollution while quietly belonging to problematic lobbying groups. Such pressure has pushed several prominent brands including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, SC Johnson, and General Motors to withdraw their membership from PLASTICS.

“There’s such widespread concern about plastic pollution that everyone knows we have a problem and have to do something about it,” says Hocevar. Making more people aware that the industry bears primary responsibility for the crisis can be used to promote change. “It hurt PLASTICS a lot when many public-facing brands recently pulled out or let their membership lapse when pressed about their membership. Soon the group will be just another representative of the petrochemical sector; it won’t be able to speak for the whole supply chain anymore.”

For most environmentalists, the goal is to enact meaningful regulation of the plastics industry. In 2019 the European Union adopted the Single-Use Plastics Directive, which banned distribution of 10 plastic items commonly found as litter by 2021. The directive also placed fiscal responsibility for plastic collection, transport, treatment, cleanup, and public awareness on plastic producers instead of consumers. On a global scale, this legislation is a milestone. However, each EU country is individually tasked with meeting the directive’s requirements; most are struggling, in large part due to the opposition of the plastic industry, particularly its vocal and well-funded trade groups. The pandemic and associated exceptions some countries have made for sale and use of disposable personal protective equipment have delayed progress as well.

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, reintroduced in the United States last year by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), has many of the same goals as the EU legislation. But it would inevitably face the same challenges with implementation and enforcement across state lines. Hocevar hopes for a global plastics treaty that could regulate pollution and environmental injustice on an international scale, facilitating a transition to zero-waste communities around the world. In 2021 the United States joined more than 150 nations in supporting the idea. No such treaty yet exists, however.

Meanwhile, the plastic industry just wants to make more plastic. To that end, trade groups and businesses linked to the plastic and petrochemical supply chains continue to refine their greenwashing campaigns. Recently they began supporting the creation of a global plastic treaty, but with the enormous stipulation that it fall under rules that benefit the industry. Those rules include a focus on false solutions, like the largely mythical “advanced recycling,” and go so far as to state that people should “recognize the role plastics play in a lower carbon future.”

A genuine move toward a low-carbon future will require changing our throwaway culture and addiction to fossil fuels—which is, of course, antithetical to the plastic industry’s profit motives. The long-running narrative of the plastic straw is a manipulative trope cunningly designed to thwart such genuine progress. Yes, straws often end up strewn along beaches. They can and do harm wildlife, and, like all plastic, they break up into tiny toxic plastic particles. But to hold these industries accountable, we must do a lot more than say no to plastic straws.

We must fundamentally shift our values to reflect the urgent need for environmental protection and remediation and move toward zero-waste practices. We’ve got to transition to renewable energy sources and eliminate hazards linked to plastic and fossil fuel use. Regulations, environmental lobbying, corporate calling-out, plastic and petrochemical divestment campaigns, and community organizing can help shape the future we need. The plastic industry may have gotten us into this mess, but good morals and a concerted effort to hold corporations, governments, and ourselves accountable can get us out. In that sense, at least, individual responsibility really does matter. Recycling has limited impact, but individual activism can lead to true change.

This story originally appeared on OpenMind, a digital magazine tackling science controversies and deceptions.


On June 3, 2022, The Last Beach Cleanup filed two lawsuits against retailers Gelson’s Market and Stater Brothers for allegedly selling illegal, non-recyclable plastic bags to California consumers in violation of SB270, which was voted into law by California voters in 2016. These lawsuits are the latest in a string of attempts by activists, NGOs, and representatives of California’s overburdened recycling infrastructure to see California’s laws regarding non-recyclable plastics enforced.

The Last Beach Cleanup has used civil litigation in the past to enforce labeling laws against deceptive recycling claims made by many companies including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Late July Snacks, Gerber, and L’Oreal as part of TerraCycle programs.

Why Plastic Bags are Allegedly Illegal in California

For the past six years, both California voters and the state legislature have taken progressive steps to reduce California’s consumption and disposal of single-use plastics statewide. In 2016, Californians voted to pass Prop 67, which banned the use and sale of plastic grocery bags. California’s plastic bag law requires the plastic bags to be “recyclable in the state,” which The Last Beach Cleanup and the California Statewide Recycling Commission claim they are not.

A 2020 report by Greenpeace USA found that only plastics and jugs made from plastics PET#1 and HDPE #2 (out of hundreds of types of plastic products) could legally be claimed to be recyclable in the United States, and even then recycling capacity is limited to an estimated 22.5% for PET #1 and 12% for HDPE #2. Today, the overall U.S. recycling rate is estimated at just 5 to 6% for all plastics combined. Plastic bags are typically made of LDPE plastic #4, a type of plastic that researchers have found breaks up rapidly into microplastics.

In October 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed several historic pieces of legislation into law, intending to transform California from a top exporter of plastic pollution to a leading reducer. Among these new laws was an ordinance to remove the circular arrow label from single-use plastic items that cannot actually be recycled.

But the laws will only be effective if they are enforced. 

It’s the wild, wild West of product claims and labeling for “recyclable” plastics right now, and there’s no sheriff in town.

Jan Dell, Founder of The Last Beach Cleanup

According to The Last Beach Cleanup, an estimated 2 billion plastic shopping bags are distributed in California each year. At a glance, consumers see the circular arrow label that for decades has become the symbol of recyclability. Many of these bags and films, however, now contain fine print instructing consumers to “check locally” or drop them off at participating stores to be recycled. When they do reach store recycling programs, there is no evidence that the plastic bags are being recycled. A lack of transparency around where these bags are being sent ensures their final destination is hidden. According to the Berkeley Ecology Center, grocery store Berkeley Bowl said in 2019 that the plastic bags it collected were not recycled and instead were sent to a landfill, which prompted the store to end its plastic-bag collection program altogether. 

More often, plastic bags and films are mistakenly placed by consumers in curbside recycling bins, causing equipment clogs and contamination in paper bales. California paper bales are exported to pulp mills in Indonesia and other countries where the plastic is removed from the paper and dumped to the environment or burned.

Amazon Pouch with How2Recycle Label found on riverbank near pulp mill in East Java, Indonesia (Credit: Ecoton, 2019)

California Urged to Enforce Existing Labeling Laws

On December 3, 2021, the California Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling sent an open letter to Governor Newsom and California Attorney General Rob Bonta asking that California’s laws with respect to labeling be enforced.

Flexible plastic bags and film are a major source of contamination in curbside recycling bins. The flexible plastic materials are harming curbside recycling systems by clogging machinery in material recovery facilities (MRFs) and fiber processors. There is not a comprehensive store takeback system for plastic bags or film in California. Flexible plastic bags and films that depict the word “recycle” or the chasing arrows recycling symbol cause consumer confusion and contribute to contamination.

Heidi Sanborn, Chairperson, Richard Valle, Vice-Chair, and all Commissioners, California Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling

In February 2022, Plastic Pollution Coalition and 74 NGOs sent a letter to Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta supporting the California Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling’s request to enforce California’s existing law banning the labeling of non-recyclable plastics with the circular arrow symbol. The full letter and list of signers can be read here. 

Californians are being deceived by instructions to “Return the plastic bag to a participating store for recycling” and sent on a wild goose chase with no benefit. It is time to end The Great Store Drop-Off Charade in California. There is not a functioning store take-back system in California because (1) it is not required by law and (2) mixed post-consumer plastic film waste is worthless so there is no reason for stores to voluntarily collect it.

NGO letter sent to Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta in February 2022

In April 2022, California Announced Investigation Into Big Oil “Deception”

Though Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta have yet to respond to the NGO letter, California’s Department of Justice in April 2022 launched an unprecedented investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for decades of misinformation as to the recyclability of plastic products

At the center of the investigation is ExxonMobil, the fossil-fuel giant who, along with major plastic polluters like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé, has for decades contributed untold sums of money to Keep America Beautiful, a greenwashing media public service campaign and nonprofit organization that, in the 1970s, began producing PSAs and commercials blaming consumers for plastic pollution and touting plastics recycling. The myths this messaging created continue to this day, and an investigation into ExxonMobil will determine what role the company has played in deceiving the public and what laws they may have broken in the process.

While many activists and NGOs celebrated the news of this historic investigation, there was also disappointment with the California Department of Justice’s silence with respect to the continued illegal sale of non-recyclable plastic bags and films. Allowing plastic bags to continue to carry the recycling symbol helps perpetuate the plastic recycling myth among the public, which is a form of plastic industry greenwashing.

Perhaps our request to the State Attorney General helped spur this larger investigation. This is welcome action at a grand scale, but I’m disappointed that a California authority hasn’t yet taken up the investigation into illegal sales of thick “reusable” plastic bags that should be stopped now.

Jan Dell, Founder, The Last Beach Cleanup

What You Can Do

Although the lawsuit by The Last Beach Cleanup targets specific California retailers, the enforcement of California laws holds true for all retailers that do business in California. The implication is that essentially all stores are breaking the law by selling plastic bags. 

California is in fact lagging on plastic bag laws. New Jersey has banned both single-use paper and plastic bags and now only allows reusable bags.

While further action from state and local authorities is yet to be seen, you can make a difference now and pledge to refuse single-use plastic bags, even those that include recycling labels. These bags clog recycling infrastructure and strain an already overtaxed recycling system.

People often ask what really happens to their plastic recycling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter where you set out your plastic for recycling collection, whether at the end of your driveway, at your local recycling center, or in a municipal recycling bin: Most plastic items collected as recycling are not actually recycled. Surprisingly, plastic is not designed to be recycled.

When you put used plastic (packaging, bottles, wraps, films, etc.) in a recycling bin (or trash bin), it is transferred into the hands of the global waste industry. This industry is made up of a wide network of businesses, governments, and individuals vying for a share of the nearly $500 billion that is generated annually in the global waste market. This trash trade has grown significantly over time, apace with plastics production and per capita waste generation, though recycling of plastic and other types of waste makes up a very small share of the market.

From a recycling bin, plastics are sent by rail or truck to waste-sorting facilities, also called materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Here, plastics are commonly sorted by like types (think films and bags, bottles, foams) and baled (squashed together into easily transportable space-saving cubes). Then it’s loaded back up on a train or truck, or a cargo ship, for the next leg of its journey.

1. Plastic “Recycling” Pollutes When Transported

The transportation of plastic—no matter how it is carried—contributes to plastic pollution, as plastics easily blow, roll, bounce, or are picked by animals like seagulls while they are on the move. This escaped plastic waste enters the environment and begins to break apart into plastic particles that enter our bodies when we eat, drink, and breathe. We’re exposed to even more pollution from the machines, vehicles, and fuels needed to power this constant transportation of plastic waste, which spew out hazardous particulate air pollution and climate-warming greenhouse gases.

2. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Shipped Away—But There is No “Away”

An enormous amount of plastics, labeled as “recycling,” have been historically shipped from the Global North to the Global South. Shipped plastic waste is rarely ever recycled upon reaching its destination. Instead, this waste colonialism more commonly involves waste haulers illegally dumping and open-burning plastics, shouldering the people who live near these dumping sites with major health risks and a degraded environment. People who earn incomes by picking wastes make the least from cheap plastics, and because of constant exposure to plastics in their line of work face elevated risks of cancers, infectious diseases (which cling to plastics), respiratory problems, and other serious health issues.

3. Plastic “Recycling” Ends Up in Landfills

Other plastics collected as recycling are simply landfilled or open-dumped (often illegally). Landfills and dumps emit climate-warming methane gas, attract insects and scavenging disease-carrying animals like rats and gulls, and leach toxic chemicals into surrounding soils and waters. They bring constant and loud truck and rail traffic to neighborhoods, release noxious diesel and waste fumes, and carry high risk of fires generated by landfill gases and highly flammable plastic waste.

4. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Burned

A growing amount of plastics are sent to incinerators, sometimes called “waste-to-energy” plants. These facilities burn plastics in huge ovens, to release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases, while producing only meager amounts of electricity. Incineration also produces a constant stream of toxic ash that is hazardously stored in manmade ponds or is landfilled. Incinerator ash and emissions release toxic particulate matter and chemicals that increase people’s risk of cancers, respiratory illnesses, immune system problems, and other serious diseases. In the U.S., about 4.4 million people live within 3 miles of an incinerator, and 80 percent of those incinerators are located in BIPOC, low-income, and rural communities.

5. Plastics “Recycling” Means “Downcycling”

Even when some form of plastics recycling actually does happen, the term “recycling” is a misnomer. You may have noticed that many plastic items are imprinted with small numbers surrounded by three interlocking arrows. While many people associate those arrows and numbers with recycling, in reality they confer nothing about a plastic item’s actual potential to be recycled. Instead, the numbers are considered codes indicating what type of plastic an item is made from. These numbers in the chasing arrows give the public a false sense that all plastics are recyclable or may be recycled.

When collected, plastics marked with numbers 1 and 2 are more likely to be recycled—or rather, downcycled—which means making lower-quality plastic products from the “recycled” plastic. For example, number 1 plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a clear plastic used for many beverage bottles, and might get downcycled into things like fleece jackets and carpeting. Number 2 plastic is high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is an opaque plastic used to make more rigid plastic containers like milk jugs. HDPE is downcycled into things like plastic lumber and picnic tables. Sometimes plastic number 5, polypropylene, or PP, which is used for many medium-weight opaque plastic containers like yogurt pots and shampoo bottles is downcycled into things like plastic crates and playground equipment—but like most plastics, it is more often landfilled.

Even when plastic is recycled/downcycled, which is not the case for most plastic waste, manufacturers mix in a large portion of freshly made plastic or toxic additives to melted down plastic waste to restore some of its desirable properties. Plastics are not made to be recycled, and their quality diminishes with each attempt. Recycling is also expensive, and requires huge amounts of infrastructure, equipment, water, and energy. Meanwhile, the value of truly recycled plastics—that is, plastic turned back into plastic, which has always been low—has plummeted even further as (thankfully) new regulations are tightening up on waste colonialism and injustice.

6. “Chemical or Advanced Recycling” of Plastics Really Means Melting or Burning

The plastic industry and the petrochemical industry which provides plastics’ fossil fuel ingredients continue to attempt to control the narrative around plastics and recycling. In addition to pushing plastics recycling as they always have, these industries are now also marketing so-called advanced, or chemical, recycling (a fancy name for burning plastics). It involves melting down plastics into more basic petrochemical products—including fuels that are burned for energy and release climate-warming greenhouse gases. This is not recycling.

The plastic and petrochemical industries have also leaned heavily on the ideas that enzymes may be able to break down plastics (which is incorrect, as they only accelerate the break up of plastics into hazardous particles), and that there’s huge value in all the plastic waste piled up in landfills, communities, and the environment (there isn’t). 

Throughout history, these industries have spent fortunes launching nonprofits with names that sound environmentally conscious and a heavy stream of media, instructional materials, and ad campaigns extolling the virtues of their recycling strategies, then and now. When one considers the facts, plastics “recycling” stops looking like recycling at all.

Conclusion: Plastics “Recycling” is Greenwashing

In a world where many of us have been told by parents and teachers to recycle plastic as children, or learned from public service announcements, ads, and other kinds of media as young adults, this may come as a surprise or even a shock. How can an activity we’ve been told is right, actually be wrong?

Many activities, organizations, and products bear a green sheen without any substance behind it, or oversell their positive environmental impacts—this is “greenwashing.” It’s a prime business strategy for corporations making and selling plastic. Greenwashing can look like a vague label with words like “green,” “eco-friendly,” “bio-based,” “ocean-bound plastic,” or “certified plastic neutral” slapped onto plastic items or packaging, or can be representative of an entire process—like plastic recycling itself. The plastic and petrochemical industries are also co-opting language used to describe real solutions—like “zero-waste” and “circular”—inaccurately, for their benefit, mainly to perpetuate the myth that is plastics recycling.

Behind the scenes as they extol the virtues of recycling and advanced chemical recycling, plastic and petrochemical industry trade groups pour money and energy into lobbying for legislation designed to erode protections on human and environmental health. Their end goal is to facilitate increased production of plastics, and they are achieving this by perpetuating misinformation and driving widespread pollution and injustice for their financial gain.

The Real Solution to is to Turn Off the Plastic Tap

Image courtesy of artist Ben Von Wong.

Only 9 percent of the plastics made since they were first mass-produced in the mid-1900s have been recycled. The recycling rate in the US, the world’s biggest plastic-waste producer, is presently a mere five to six percent. But even if plastic recycling rates were higher, recycling alone could never come close to solving the serious and wide-ranging health, justice, socio-economic, and environmental crises caused by industries’ continued plastic production and plastic pollution, which go hand in hand. Production of plastic has only grown over time, and has presently hit a rate of more than 400 million metric tons per year, more than double the rate at which plastics were made just 20 years ago. This is clearly a much more rapid pace than at which plastic recycling actually occurs.

It’s clear recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis. The fossil fuel industry, governments, and corporations really need to turn off the plastic tap.