How the recycling symbol lost its meaning

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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August 31, 2022 , 5:00 pm 6:00 pm PDT

The bulldozer buries food and industrial wastes

Join Break Free From Plastic movement members from Mexico and Ecuador as they share their knowledge and expertise on the global waste trade and waste colonialism between the United States and Latin America. Waste colonialism manifests differently in distinct geographies and jurisdictions. This will be the first of a three-part series.