There has been a lot of conversation about NPR’s investigative piece last month, How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled. It is an excellent article that rightly highlights the disturbing power structure and the resulting perverse incentives behind plastics recycling.
In summary, the article highlights the fact that “Big Oil” wants you to think recycling is working beautifully and that you are successfully recycling all of your plastics. But these oil and plastics companies have no incentive to then reclaim and remanufacture that material, which often leads to recycled plastics being landfilled.
"If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry's most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.
"[Plastics Companies] were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material," Thomas says. "Nobody that is producing a virgin product wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material — that's their business."
Oil companies and consumer brands know that a lot of consumers feel really good when they recycle, and that the act of recycling often negates the guilt they might feel about consumption. In fact, an NPR piece from a few years ago discussed how the ability to recycle actually makes people consume more! So it is not surprising that oil companies and brands are motivated to slap a “recyclable” label on everything - driving consumption up and scrutiny about sustainability down.
While the article isn’t necessarily groundbreaking - much of what it covers is frequently highlighted by advocates of the plastic-free movement - we are thrilled that it has spurred a broader and more mainstream dialog about the fact that recycling is absolutely not a sustainability silver bullet.
Here are some of the reminders and takeaways we had from the piece.
REMEMBER THAT “RECYCLABLE” IS NOT BINARY
We have to remember that recyclability is not binary - something isn’t “recyclable” or “non-recyclable”. In fact, practically every material is technically recyclable, and can be made into something else.
We need to think about “recyclable” as a spectrum - some things are readily recyclable, meaning there are well developed markets that will pay good money for the reclaimed material. Some materials can be technically made into something else, but the markets for the material are underdeveloped so their price is so low that recyclers will not make enough money to warrant the effort sorting and baling the material. Aluminum is very readily recyclable and secure high prices, Yogurt containers are harder to recycle and not readily accepted. When recyclers begin accepting things that aren’t easy to find markets for (such as Yogurt Containers), they can quickly become inundated with those goods and find that they don’t actually have an outlet for all of the material they sort and bale.
As companies and consumers, we need to remember that the chasing arrows sign on a package or product means very little in itself. Do the research to find out what is accepted by your local recycler. Do not wish-cycle!
You can contact your recycler to ensure that the goods they are accepting are truly being reclaimed and remanufactured. And when purchasing materials and products, consider choosing those that are that are well known to be readily recyclable, versus those that are simply “technically recyclable.”
What does this mean for EcoEnclose packaging? We offer two poly-based lines: 100% Recycled Poly Mailers and Recycled Bubble Mailers. These items must be recycled in a thin film dropoff location, typically found at grocery and big box stores. Thin film recycling is, overall, faring fairly well compared to some plastics (such as yogurt containers). Composite lumber brands like Trex continue to purchase the material at high rates. However, since the China Recycling Ban, there has been an urgent need for more investment in film recycling equipment within North America. Given this, some plastic film is being stockpiled until more remanufacturing capacity opens up. This puts poly mailers at the "harder to recycle" spectrum when compared to paper and aluminum.
RECYCLING IS IMPORTANT, BUT IT DOES LITTLE IN ISOLATION (AND IT CAN’T BE USED AS A CRUTCH)
Recycling is an important facet of sustainability, but we need to remember that it really is just one small facet, as it deals only with end of life, which is just one component of the environmental impact of an item.
One tell tale sign of greenwashing is when companies can only point to the “recyclability” of their products or packaging as their single step in making their business more eco-friendly. Other characteristics - such as recycled inputs, organic inputs, carbon footprint, etc are much harder to achieve but also far more impactful.
What should consumers and companies look for outside of “readily recyclable?” Read on...
DEMAND SOURCE REDUCTION AND THE USE OF RECYCLED CONTENT
Anyone truly invested in sustainability knows that “Reduce” is the most important “R” - particularly when it comes to single use plastic.
Step 1 is finding ways to minimize your own consumption and choosing recycled content wherever you can.
Step 2 is to demand the same from the companies and suppliers you purchase from. If they don't or can't, find suppliers that can do this.
One positive of 2020 is that we’ve seen how collective action of consumers can inspire corporate action. It isn’t perfect and change doesn’t happen as quickly as we might want, but it is something. Black Lives Matter has spurred a host of actions by corporations - some fairly empty, others important. It is exciting to finally see brands like Aunt Jemima being shut down or shows like Cops being removed.
So yes, trade associations such as the Plastics Industry Association are powerful, there is no doubt about it. But well-informed and committed consumers can be just as powerful when working together.
This all means you can impact companies through your voices and your spending.
When it comes to packaging, we believe companies should demand source reduction and the use of as much recycled content as possible (preferably post-consumer waste). Yes, big fossil fuel and plastics companies don’t want to go recycled, but they want your business and if there is a truly collective and broad sweeping movement to demand recycled content - we’ll get somewhere.
If the vendors you purchase from today aren’t able to budge, then find a vendor that will. And be comfortable with the fact that it might not be as cheap, quick or easy. A company fully invested in sustainability and business ethics is unlikely to be able to be as cheap and convenient as Amazon!
DON’T STOP RECYCLING, BUT DO SO RESPONSIBLY
One fear I had in reading the NPR piece is that people would think all of recycling is a scam or that they might demonize their local recyclers. Please continue recycling, according to your local recycler’s guidelines. If you are worried that your recycler is landfilling what you send in, give them a call. People who work at recyclers are typically incredibly committed to sustainability. They will often be open about the challenges they face and what materials they are struggling to recycle.
I have found this to be true of three different local recyclers here in Colorado: Alpine Recycling, Boulder County Recycling Center (and EcoCycle), and the Broomfield Recycling Center.
Recycle, but don't wish-cycle. If something isn't recyclable in your municipality, landfill it. If everyone in a community followed the guidelines of their recycler, it will be cheaper for your MRF to sort and bale goods, making it feasible for them to continue accepting and selling different materials.
DON’T FORGET THAT PLASTIC ALTERNATIVES HAVE THEIR OWN DOWNSIDES. WEIGH PROS AND CONS THOUGHTFULLY.
Plastic has a lot of downsides. It is made with fossil fuels, an industry with a lot of political control, which is tremendously problematic for our policies and communities. Plastic has had a tragic impact on ocean and land health. And it does not biodegrade.
But we’ve seen that plastic free efforts often swap out plastic with materials that have their own important challenges.
For example, many companies have swapped plastic for glass, thinking that this recyclable good is a clear eco-winner. But is it? Unfortunately it isn’t that clear.
Glass is made out of sand. We actually mine more sand worldwide than we do fossil fuels! The sand needed for glass is typically harvested from riverbeds and sea beds, severely disrupting the ecosystem and leaving that land susceptible to erosion and flooding. Glass is heavy and bulky, making it more carbon intensive than plastic to transport and store. In fact, its overall carbon footprint is higher than that of plastic (when comparing equivalent bottles). And while glass is technically endlessly recyclable, only 33% of it is actually recycled, and of that amount, some percentage actually gets crushed up to become landfill cover instead of a new product. Finally, it takes one million years for glass to decompose in the natural environment.
Is glass worse than plastic? Not necessarily. Different companies will land on different decisions based on their own sustainability principles. But it is important to remember that glass isn’t a silver bullet or free from any environmental impact.
Every material and decision you make has an impact. Businesses and consumers need to choose wisely.
GET INSPIRED BY ECOCYCLE
EcoCycle released an excellent piece describing their specific action steps stemming from this NPR article. It is such a thoughtful and heartening review. Here are their main steps, but check out their full write up for more information.
- We are working with companies and industries such as outdoor apparel, brewers, pet food and cannabis who are voluntarily stepping forward to explore how they can minimize their plastics use and impact.
- We are working on the local and state levels to pass legislation to eliminate unnecessary plastics and pave the way for reusable, recyclable or compostable alternatives.
- We have formed a partnership with three other similarly mission-based recyclers called the Alliance for Mission-Based Recyclers (AMBR) to stand up for true recycling solutions, particularly for plastics.
- We as AMBR members are working with industry and other stakeholders to collaborate on authentic solutions. For example, we will be participating members in the U.S. Plastics Pact that brings together businesses, government entities, non-governmental organizations, researchers, and other stakeholders to work collectively toward a common vision of a circular economy for plastics, as outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative.