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The Myth That Is Recycling

To delay its eventual rendezvous with its non-recyclable counterparts at the local landfill, recycling plastic seems like an innocuous way to get rid of all the plastic waste we produce. Well, I hate to break it to you, but recycling is barely what it is made out to be.

It is not lost on anyone that plastic does not just go away. Plastic items outlast their users, take hundreds of years to decompose, and typically end up in landfills and oceans. You are essentially investing in a process that helps you feel better about yourself. Nothing more, nothing less. Let me tell you why.

The idea of recycling is misleading by design. Recycling plastic is tricky, and most plastic items are better off as garbage.

Globally, only 15% of the eight billion tonnes of plastic in circulation is considered for recycling. The World Economic Forum has estimated that up to 30% of all the recyclable plastic escapes the collection system. In other words, reams of recyclable plastic items are not given a new lease of life. The illusion that the plastic we toss in the bin can be recycled and reused is just that: an illusion.

In theory, plastic can be recycled. The problem with recycling plastic, however, is that it does not truly happen. In reality, a mere 9% of recyclable plastic is recycled, and the better part of this recycled plastic is of inferior quality. The technique used for recycling plastic involves, for the time being, downcycling. Relying solely on downcycling is a bad idea for it fails to discourage the production of virgin plastic. Again, it is not easy. Recycling plastic, in particular, is a ridiculously expensive process. In fact, the process of recycling plastic happens to be a lot more expensive than that of manufacturing plastic.

Until recently, the West exported the bulk of its plastic waste to China to be recycled. Out of sight, out of mind. While the developed countries kept collecting whatever came off as recyclable and shipping it to the other side of the world, China submissively choked on the plastic waste that had been sent its way. Suddenly, in 2018, China, in an effort to address its environmental problems and improve its public image, banned plastic imports. In other words, China’s refusal to put up with the poor recycling habits of the developed world served as a cutting reminder that waste management is a bigger problem than most of us are willing to admit.

Over the past few years, a number of multinational corporations have set ambitious targets to regulate the production of plastic packaging. McDonald’s, Unilever, and Coca-Cola, among other giants, have promised that their packaging will be a hundred percent renewable, compostable, and recyclable by 2030. What is rarely mentioned is that over the next decade, the production of plastic packaging will grow by 40% under the auspices of these companies, and they stand to benefit from this development because plastic packaging is the cheapest way forward.

Plastic pollution has always been portrayed by industry giants as something that can be dealt with through recycling. In late 2018, thirty of the world's leading corporations joined forces to launch the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW). Together, the companies pledged to donate billions of dollars to promote better management of plastic waste. Shell, ExxonMobil, and Dow are part of the coalition. However, the aforementioned oil and gas giants are known to have spent tens of billions of dollars to build plastic plants.

Because this version of the story would not appeal to the public, the industry-leading corporations have invested millions of dollars in recycling campaigns and spurred profits by deceiving the public into thinking their waste is not waste. It is not easy to imagine that our actions could harm the planet, which is why we like the idea of recycling. Truth be told, recycling has never been a solution to our waste problem, and this is especially true of plastic. There is no immediate solution to the problem of mass consumption of goods that are made of plastic. The solution lies in changing the way we consume.

For many, the more sustainable methods of consumption are unviable. None of this is to say that one should not recycle. Recycling, like most things, should be taken with a grain of salt. Recycling cannot be treated as a beacon of sustainability. We must be vigilant against the larger forces influencing our decisions, consumption, and the subsequent impact on communities. Recycling is important, but we cannot afford to stop there.

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