Recycling was never, and is still NOT, the solution to plastic waste. First, plastic is not a uniform product, different manufacturers use different specifications and the chemical composition, density and quality can vary significantly requiring recycling to be tied to the type of plastic. Following, and more importantly, are also serious environmental, and human health impacts related to recycling. Recycling is not emissions free and emissions from plastic are toxic to both human and environmental health. Additionally, since the chemical structure of plastic degrades with recycling, virgin plastic is still needed to create a new single-use plastic bottle from recycled plastic. Further and for this reason, recycling is a downstream consumer-oriented activity; since more waste occurs in the production process, recycling is not sufficient to mitigate overall plastic waste. An important and related fact, it is the plastics industry itself has promoted plastic recyclability, “while continuing to promote the consumption of single-use plastics”. Recycling, just like litter reduction activities, places the burden on the end consumer to eliminate waste but does not offer a solution to the plastic waste problem. Both recycling and anti-litter programs promote an unsustainable production level at the cost of consumer and environmental health; the rationale, to promote profit.
In 1953, the packaging industry—led by American Can Company and Owens-Illinois Glass Company, inventors of the one-way can and bottle, respectively—joined up with other industry leaders, including Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company to form Keep America Beautiful (KAB), which still exists today. KAB was well-funded and started a massive media campaign to rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses. And that meant cracking down on litter. Within the first few years, KAB had statewide antilitter campaigns planned or running in thirty-two states.
In essence, Keep America Beautiful managed to shift the entire debate about America’s garbage problem. No longer was the focus on regulating production—for instance, requiring can and bottle makers to use refillable containers, which are vastly less profitable. Instead, the “litterbug” became the real villain, and KAB supported fines and jail time for people who carelessly tossed out their trash, despite the fact that, clearly, “littering” is a relatively tiny part of the garbage problem in this country (not to mention the resource damage and pollution that comes with manufacturing ever more junk in the first place). Environmental groups that worked with KAB early on didn’t realize what was happening until years later.
And KAB’s campaign worked—by the late 1950s, anti-litter ordinances were being passed in statehouses across the country, while not a single restriction on packaging could be found anywhere. Even today, thanks to heavy lobbying by the packaging industry, only twelve states have deposit laws, despite the fact that the laws demonstrably save energy and reduce consumption by promoting reuse and recycling. (A year after Oregon passed the first such law in 1972, 385 million fewer beverage containers were consumed in the state.) And no state has contemplated anything like Finland’s refillable bottle laws, which has reduced the country’s garbage output by an estimated 390,000 tons.
With their focus on recycling and nonprofit status, Keep America Beautiful and other anti-litter organizations funded by the plastics and beverage industry, including the Recycling Partnership, offer companies both the opportunity to demonstrate concern about plastic pollution and a tax write off. The Coca-Cola Foundation gave $640,000 to the Recycling Partnership to improve recycling in 2017, for instance. The organization “works with thousands of communities all across the country to provide access to cart-based recycling and education to help residents understand how to recycle materials more and better, including paper, aluminum and steel cans, cardboard, cartons, glass and, yes, plastics,” according to an emailed statement from the organization.
While working to improve recycling and create end markets for recycled plastic, the Recycling Partnership also presents a particularly rosy view of recycling. In May, the group sent out an email that announced that “87% of People Think Recycling is Important,” while failing to mention the reality of single-digit recycling rates. The group’s other funding partners include ExxonMobil, Keurig, Dr. Pepper, Dow, the International Bottled Water Association, the American Beverage Association, and the American Chemistry Council.
In its statement, the Recycling Partnership noted that only half of Americans who have access to convenient recycling do everything they could. The statement also said that the group is working to create and support end markets for recycled plastic.
But according to Jan Dell, an engineer who worked as a corporate sustainability consultant before creating The Last Beach Cleanup, an organization that confronts plastics pollution, the Recycling Partnership and other nonprofits supported by the plastics industry are using misleading information to ease concerns that otherwise might lead consumers to stop buying plastic. “They’re trying to create the perception that there’s a viable way to recycle most plastic waste into new products,” said Dell, “and that’s simply not true”.