March 2, 2021

By Miriam Wallstrom

Misinformation on Recycling Effectiveness

Reports from NPR, PBS, Frontline, and others reveal the extent of decades of recycling misinformation, perpetuated by moneyed interests. The oil industry, which provides the oil for the manufacturing of plastic, has spent millions incentivizing consumers to recycle even though they knew it would never be cost effective. 

Plastic bans started gaining traction in state legislatures in the 1970s and 80s in response to the growing American consumption lifestyle. Alarmed by the threat to their bottom line, the oil and plastic industry deliberately lied about the effectiveness of recycling. In the 1970s, the Society for the Plastics Industry, a lobbying group, decided to spend $5 million on an advertising campaign encouraging Americans to recycle, which eventually grew to over $50 million per year. Out of this initiative emerged the triangular “chasing arrows” symbol, found on most plastic products today. 

Insidiously, in the 1990s the industry quietly lobbied state government lawmakers, and advised them on legislation that would require the triangle symbol on every piece of plastic produced. The number within the symbol identifies the type of plastic used to make the product, but does not indicate whether or not the product can be recycled. All the while, industry officials knew the symbol would make consumers believe that everything with chasing arrows was recyclable. 

The campaign of the plastic industry worked very effectively. Every day, the average American now produces 4.4 pounds of waste, comforted by the belief that recycling is a viable option to deal with certain items.

Growing plastic pollution

For the past two years, the problem of where to store plastic waste has become more dire. China used to import millions of tons of American plastic, but stopped abruptly in 2018. Since then, the U.S. has exported to poorer Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. But these countries are resistant to huge plastic imports, and plastic waiting to be recycled has built up in the Western U.S., such as in Eugene, Oregon. 

Plastic left in the environment pollutes on many levels. When plastic waste is deposited in landfills, it can seep into groundwater, affecting the hormones of those who drink it.

Plastic traces have even been found in animal feed.

Plastics dissolve into tiny pieces, called microplastics. These in turn end up in the fish that millions around the world eat as well as in our livestock and grains. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines “microplastics” as any plastic fragment less than 5mm long. Microplastics are typically formed when plastic waste enters the rivers and oceans and begins to break down due to exposure to UV-radiation, wave energy, wind, salt, and other factors. 

In March of 2020, Dr. Noam van der Hal’s study proved cow milk contained microplastic particles. A study of chickens raised in gardens in Mexico found an average of 10 microplastics per chicken. Scientists have also found microplastics in honey and beer. On average, bottled water contains 22 times more microplastic than tap water.

Research in 2019 published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found microplastics in the air, soil, rivers and the deepest oceans around the world. The average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and breathes in a similar quantity, according to the study. 

“The facts are simple. We are producing a lot of plastic and it is ending up in the ecosystems, which we are a part of,” said Kieran Cox, from the University of Victoria in Canada, the lead researcher of the report.

In 2018 microplastics were found in human stool samples, confirming that people ingest the particles. A WWF study from 2019 found that humans were consuming up to a credit card’s worth of plastic each week, primarily from water but also from shellfish. One scientist, Malcolm Hudson from the University of South Hampton, posited that while some plastic moves through the body harmlessly, other nanoparticles are likely being absorbed by our blood and end up in our organs. 

Perhaps most concerning, microplastics were found in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time in late 2020, creating “cyborg babies, no longer composed only of human cells.” One researcher described the finding as “a matter of great concern;” long-term effects of plastic chemicals in the placenta are unknown but could have dangerous, long-term health effects. 

According to NPR the Great Lakes account for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, yet host an average of 17,000 pieces of microbeads per square kilometer. In a year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, more than 11,000 pounds of microbeads are annually added to Wisconsin waterways alone.

Microplastics affect sea life as well. Located halfway between Hawaii and California is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which covers an estimated surface of 1.6 million acres, or three times the size of France. Within this patch, there are 250 pieces of plastic per person in the world. After the plastic breaks down into microplastic, it is incredibly difficult for animals to distinguish it from other food. Many of this plastic contains toxic chemicals, which marine life end up ingesting. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only one of the five plastic accumulation zones that sits in the world’s oceans. 

Plastic alternatives

Several “biodegradable” or “compostable” bags and cutlery items have been developed in recent years. However, a study from England indicates that after being exposed to different natural environments, such as water, earth, and air, certain bags labeled as “biodegradable” are still intact completely. Additionally, certain compostable items can only be processed in special facilities, to which many communities lack access. 

The difficulty in creating truly biodegradable products causes some activist organizations, such as EcoResolution, to question the “throw-away culture” of the modern Western world, indicating that perhaps a behavioral rather than material change is needed.

Despite certain issues with plastic alternatives, however, more research is being done and shows promise. Some compostable plastic alternatives are made out of fish skin and scales or mushrooms. These plastic substitutes decompose anywhere from six weeks to two years, much faster than the fastest decomposing plastic, which takes hundreds of years. Most importantly, they do not require special facilities to break down.

Legislation and hope

In 2020 alone, more than 200 bills were introduced across 35 states aimed at halting plastic pollution. These included Extended Producer Responsibility, single-use plastic bans, anti-preemption bills and more.

Nationally, legislation is being pursued in order to address the issue. Senator Tom Udall (D – NM), now retired, introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act in 2020 with the sponsor in the House, Representative Alan S. Lowenthal (D-CA). 

“Our solutions are not only possible, they are practical and are already being implemented in cities and states across the country, including in my home state of New Mexico. But we need a comprehensive, national strategy to tackle this tidal wave of pollution before it is too late — and drive the innovation necessary to break free from this unnecessary, toxic waste stream that also contributes to climate change. This bill calls on all of us, from companies to communities, to address this crisis head-on so that we can secure a plastic pollution free world,” said Sen. Udall in a joint press release with Rep. Lowenthal. 

One of the main policy aspects of the bill is to hold producers responsible for the waste they generate. Producers will be required to pay into a fund per piece of packaging they create. The fund’s money will pay for the recycling, disposal, and clean-up of the packaging. Recycling costs typically burden local governments; recycling being the producer’s responsibility will give companies an incentive to use less packaging and more recyclable materials. 

“It is irresponsible for us to ignore this crisis which is choking our waterways and wildlife and impacting our environment and public health,” said Rep. Lowenthal in a joint press release with Sen. Udall. “My legislation strips the failing systems currently in place and lifts the financial burden of managing and cleaning up these products away from the municipalities and taxpayers alone and puts the onus on the manufactures and companies who sell the products. Our comprehensive and holistic legislation will create a more robust domestic recycling infrastructure, reduce our dependence on single-use plastics, and more meaningfully protect our communities from the negative impact of these products.” 

The campaign to get manufactures and companies that use plastic in packaging to pay for the pollution they create is garnering public support, which should help move the legislation.

It’s a tactic that’s been successful before. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols in the United States were not banned until legislators acted on the public outcry against them, although they had attempted before.-

By 2050, global plastic production is projected to triple and will account for 20 percent of all oil consumption with nearly two-thirds of plastic produced becoming waste. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight if critical action like the The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act doesn’t become law, and manufacturers’ habits don’t change.