The Realities of Recycling Plastic

While almost all plastic comes with a “recycle” symbol on it these days, next to none of it actually ends up recycled. Surprisingly it has little to do with consumers' willingness to recycle said materials, and more to do with a decades-old myth perpetuated by oil companies. 

In the 1980’s, as the public became more concerned with the amount of plastic trash in the environment, the oil companies that produced this plastic were faced with a PR crisis. In order to change the public’s perception of plastic, campaigns were launched promoting widespread plastic recycling; it wasn’t that plastic is bad for the environment, it was that the consumer ought to be recycling it. The problem is, the oil companies were hiding the truth: it was never going to be economically viable, and they had no intention of actually following through with their promise.

The infrastructure needed for plastic recycling was not there, and the cost of building it was simply not worth it. There are hundreds of types of plastic, and they cannot be melted down together, they must be sorted separately. Also, since plastic degrades a little each time it’s recycled, it cannot be used more than twice. On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It's made from oil and gas, and it's almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh. The oil industry makes more than $400 billion a year making plastic, and making items out of recycled material would cut into those profits.

So rather than make meaningful changes to the industry, oil companies launched a number of feel-good projects, telling the public to recycle plastic. It funded sorting machines, recycling centers, nonprofits, even expensive benches outside grocery stores made out of plastic bags. Few of these projects actually turned much plastic into new things, and most of these initiatives lasted only a few years before funding was cut.

In 1989, oil and plastic executives began a campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the ‘recycle” symbol appear on all plastic — even if there was no way to economically recycle it. Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic. What it actually did was make it seem that all plastic is recyclable. During the 1990’s, industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on a number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic. These commercials carried a distinct message: Plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it. These ads ran for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was designed to be single-use. 

This misinformation campaign was fully intentional. The makers of plastic have known all along that large-scale recycling operations would never be economically viable, even as they spent millions of dollars to convince the public of the opposite — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic. If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment. But the fact remains that less than 10% of plastic ever made has been recycled; the rest has been burned, buried, dumped into the ocean, or left to rot in landfills. Even worse, Canada and the US have been shipping their plastic waste overseas for years, paying underdeveloped countries to deal with it.

Until the plastics industry & governments make widespread changes and improve recycling infrastructure the responsibility falls to the consumer to make different choices. Look into the waste management and recycling facilities in your area to see what types of materials they accept, recycling what you can.  Consider finding a local refillery for commonly-used items, and try to use glass or metal storage containers instead of plastic. Avoid single-use plastic whenever possible, and look for products with minimal or no plastic packaging. At Upfront, we've got you covered! Our entire line of products, including our accessories, are 100% plastic free!


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