“I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage,” Laura Leebrick told NPR, “and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You’re lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It’s gold. This is valuable.”
Leebrick is a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon, the end of the line for many truckloads of trash that arrive every day but a point of rebirth for materials that can be recycled.
Ever since China’s National Sword policy closed off its borders to recyclable exports, many domestic operations have been struggling under the weight of their own trash. Recycling plastic, even common items like soda bottles, sometimes requires special machinery that not every facility has.
Plastic producers know that, yet still maintain that their materials are recyclable and put the responsibility of that work on consumers. A joint investigation conducted by NPR and the PBS series Frontline uncovered evidence that recycling plastic was never a sustainable option, despite the fact the plastic producers spent millions of dollars on campaigns claiming otherwise.
“There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” a 1974 speech from a plastic industry insider reads.
Why the misdirection? Perhaps because it’s easier to justify when the downsides aren’t as well understood by the public.
“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.
Industry representative Steve Russell, former vice president of plastics for the trade group the American Chemistry Council, holds a different point of view.
“The proof is the dramatic amount of investment that is happening right now,” he told investigators. “I do understand the skepticism, because it hasn’t happened in the past, but I think the pressure, the public commitments and, most important, the availability of technology is going to give us a different outcome.”
Some plastics are recyclable, but not forever. They degrade with each reincarnation, eventually reaching a point where they are unusable, and sent to a landfill if they haven’t reached that point already. Moreover, plastic recycling, sorting and cleaning materials and melting them down into reusable pelletized media is costly. Facilities that cannot justify the cost of recycling plastics themselves or transporting the, to a facility that can are more likely to trash those products.
Again, this comes as no surprise to those making money off plastic production, despite decades of warnings. An April 1973 report from Syracuse University to plastic industry executives actually pointed to this fact as reason enough to consider recycling plastic “infeasible.”
“A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial fabrication, through aging, and in any reclamation process,” the report read. “There is no recovery from obsolete products,” it says.
According to CNBC, some plastic industry groups are pointing to chemical recycling as a more effective solution. In this process, chemicals break plastic products down into their raw components, which can be converted into fuel or pelletized media with the same structural integrity as new plastic.
“A number of companies like Brightmark, Plastic Energy, and Agilyx now say they’re ready to deploy this technology on a larger scale than ever before,” CNBC reports. “But skepticism abounds, as environmental groups express doubt about the tech’s economic feasibility, capacity to further scale up, and carbon footprint.”
“Proof of successful status (and failures) remains largely undisclosed outside of laboratory trials, and for the interested party much will be found in theory but little or no substance given to practice,” writes Dr Andrew Neil Rollinson, chemical engineer and specialist in alternative thermal conversion technologies in “Chemical Recycling: Status, Sustainability and Environmental Impacts,” a technical assessment from GAIA’s global network.
In some cases, chemical recycling may cause even greater harm to the environment, Rollinson claims.
“For economic and regulatory reasons, chemical recycling operations are mostly likely to be collocated with existing petrochemical facilities,” he wrote. “This will further increase the environmental health impacts on communities that are already subject to disproportionate, cumulative environmental burdens.”
And there are other issues that make chemical recycling difficult. Mixed plastic polymers, for example, items that consist of one material with a lining or coating made of another, are not recyclable by any process until they can be reliably separated. For reference, mixed plastics waste makes up at least 25% of all plastic waste collected in Europe, according to the Material Research Institute at the Athlone Institute of Technology.
Another obstacle is convincing producers to rely on recycled materials that not only cost more but are less effective than new plastic.
“My concern about chemical recycling is that it’s another end of pipe ‘solution’, instead we should address the plastic pollution upstream,” Janek Vahk, coordinator for the Climate, Energy and Air Pollution Programme at the NGO Zero Waste Europe told Forbes. “Market conditions don’t favor the production of recycled resins or plastic.”
Plastic waste is a major contributor to climate change and environmental pollution nearly everywhere on earth.
“When people think about plastics, they really don’t tend to think about the beginning of its life cycle. And the beginning of its life cycle really begins with oil and gas development,” Matt Kelso, manager of data and technology at FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that addresses extraction concerns in the United States, told the Yale Center for Environmental Communication.
About 19.2 million acres within the United States have been cleared for oil and gas development, Yale Climate Connections reports. This clearing is responsible for at least 1.686 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
“These figures really add up over time because you’re talking about millions of miles of pipelines in the United States,” Kelso said. “You have to clear cut. So you’re taking all of the carbon from the trees and from soils and removing that from the earth basically and introducing it to the atmosphere.”
From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the dwindling ice caps in the Arctic where polar bears have been seen playing with plastic trash, it’s an insidious problem that shows little sign of being solved without significant cultural and industrial changes.
With plastic production expected to triple by 2050, according to NPR, those changes will be difficult to implement on a large scale, if they are at all.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.