I have long been a recycler of my trash that could be reprocessed. I have memories of years ago driving my car to a paper recycling center and getting my vehicle weighed in and out so they could pay me a buck or two for the bags of newspaper I dropped off. I felt good about the effort I was making.

Nowadays, most garbage companies also offer recycling services. Every two weeks I put out a bin with paper, aluminum, plastic and glass all mixed together for them to process. I feel good about my long history in recycling stuff but in the back of my mind has been a question about just what exactly happens to it. Are my “good feelings” truly justified.

A year ago my garbage service sent me a letter saying that China was no longer accepting US plastics and that it was costing my company more to place it with alternate recyclers. Hence, my bill went up and I paid the fee…..afterall I am someone who recycles. I still feel good.

But yet questions were in the back of my mind….is it really reprocessed? How do they clean it? How do they separate it? …and do I really want to know? After all, what if I find out that I am not truly helping the planet.

The online investigation journal The Intercept recently posted a long article entitled “Waste Only: How the Plastics Industry is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World“. Although there is a lot to unpack in the article, I want to share here a few important “takeaways” via the following lengthy quotes:

The U.S. has been offloading vast bundles of scrap [to China] since at least 1994, when the Environmental Protection Agency began tracking plastics exports. The practice has served to both mask the mounting crisis and absolve U.S. consumers of guilt. But in fact, much of the “recycled” plastic scrap that the U.S. sent to China appears to have been burned or buried instead of being refashioned into new products.”

“With the institution of China’s new policy in January 2018, the extent of the plastic waste crisis became dramatically more visible. Around the world, bales of used plastic that just a year earlier would have been destined for China began piling up. In the U.S., some cities have stopped their plastics recycling programs altogether.”

“Without good alternatives, the U.S. is now burning six times the amount of plastic it’s recycling — even though the incineration process releases cancer-causing pollutants into the air and creates toxic ash, which also needs to be disposed of somewhere. And poor people are stuck with the worst consequences of the plastics crisis. Eight out of 10 incinerators in the U.S. are in communities that are either poorer or have fewer white people than the rest of the country, and residents living near them are exposed to the toxic air pollution their combustion produces.”

“And, as we know from the plastic-filled whales that regularly wash up dead, the oceans are awash in plastic waste and now contain some 150 million tons of the stuff — a mass expected soon to surpass the weight of all the fish in the seas. “

“Bottled water, sales of which are increasing in part because people are seeking alternatives to contaminated local water supplies, now contains plastic as well.”

“Between extraction, refining, and waste management, the production and incineration of plastics will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere this year alone.”

“Falling oil and gas prices mean that the cost of making new plastic, already very low, will be even cheaper.”

“The growing output of new cheap plastic further undermines the industry’s own argument that recycling can resolve the waste crisis. It’s already impossible for most recycled plastic to compete with “virgin” plastic in the marketplace.”

“Because no one has learned how to remove additives from plastic, products made from recycled waste, such as the railroad ties, fence posts, and decks made from [one company’s] plastic, can release toxic chemicals as they degrade.”

I could go on and on but you probably get the picture…..the article covers extensively the plastics industry’s efforts to promote recycling even though they know it’s not effective…..and their efforts to stop legislation and initiatives that would limit our use of plastics. If you want to wake up on the issue even more….I strongly encourage you to go read it via the link above.

After reading it, I started noticing the frequency with which I was interacting with plastic…..it is all around me and I am working with it multiple times each day. Much of my recycling is plastic.

Although it would be easy to get sad…..or mad about this…..that is not the point….the point is awareness. Each of us has to become aware of the seriousness of this issue and begin where we can….helping others to become aware (hence this article)….and then voicing our concerns where we can (politically and otherwise)…..and voting with our pocket books to reduce plastics in our lives.

It’s time to wake up on this issue.

Mark Gilbert

ps. My thanks to The Intercept for their work on this issue. I encourage all of you to subscribe to their newsletter.