I recently wrapped up a consulting project for a large US plastic manufacturer. I was brought in to help them transition from using net-new (industry, virgin) plastic in their manufacturing to recycled or bio-plastic.
I did a deep dive into the recycling industry and was shocked by what I learned. Through sharing my experience, I hope to shed light on the recycling industry and why recycling is always the 3rd in the axiom: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
TLDR: The industry fuels consumption, not ecological responsibility. It is a broken, fragmented global industry. There is a reason that recycling is 3rd in the axiom: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Plastic is a miracle product. It packages everything, has millions of applications and has enabled innovation across a breadth of industries. The public has always been wary of its environmental impact. When you have too much of a good thing, things will get out of hand.
So the public started to moderate itself, slowing down purchasing plastic products. But like any drug dealer worth their salt, the plastic producers, plastic manufacturers, and oil companies figured out a way to keep us buying and feeling good about it. They found our Diet Coke.
Enter 100s of millions invested into recycling facilities, research centres, recycling programs in schools and the now holy grail of consumption, the recycling logo. Pulled from industrial recycling products and pushed through a $50M/yr advertising campaign paid for by Dupont, Dow Chemical, Exxon, Chevron running from the late 80s to the mid-90s. Recycling rates climbed dramatically from 10% to 30% between 1985–95 but progress has flatlined since, rates haven’t exceeded 40% since the late 90s.
Recycling facilities and projects were started by producers with the goal of handing them off to local governments, but that never happened. The goal of the campaigns was to help the public believe that those entree salads with fried chicken were healthy for us. I was shocked but sadly not surprised that global plastic production 3x’ed over 25 years from 1976–2001. And over the past 20 years it doubled again to reach 370M tons in 2019.
Today, producers cavalierly stamp recycling codes on plastic products amidst limited regulation. There is no penalty for erroneously tagging a product as recyclable, in fact it is celebrated. Furthermore, producers do not pay fees for the products that do not make it through the recycling process The complexity of the recycling process (including sorting) has increased in lockstep with this and the consumer demand.
States, municipalities, and cities are left to pay for collection, sorting and storage. So when governments are in a budget pinch, guess what? Recycling gets cut. There are states with pockets or large swaths that don’t even have recycling programs.
At least I live in Toronto, a city with a robust recycling program. In Canada, our governments across the country can afford collection programs. My mental soap box was pulled out from under as I learned that our program sent a minimum of 30% of recycled goods straight to landfill and other estimates are up to 90%.
Since plastic started being produced in the 1950s, less than 10% of ALL of it has been recycled. Recycling was never meant to stop plastic usage or production. It is used to alleviate the sting of consumption.
Global plastic production is on pace to triple again in the next 25 years. Increased production will mean an increase in plastic being pushed into the recycling system. The North American recycling system is nearing capacity this year. As it stands it will not be able to cope with increased complex plastics, volume and lack of government support. On top of a global pandemic that has encouraged the use of single use plastic.
Climate change is still staring right at me and though this may eventually be positively impacted by recycling. It hasn’t yet and in fact it has accelerated it.
I will continue to recycle, with more care than before. I encourage you to do the same. But we can’t count on recycling alone to save us from climate change. We can count on the same power that has changed every other problem we have faced. Individual decisions and consumer habits; where and how we spend our money so too goes the economy. If recycling is fueling consumption let’s look at how to consume and what next...
This was the first post of a three part series. Next, we’ll tackle how our psychology stops us from reusing and reducing our consumption. It permeates a lot more of our culture than you think. Follow my writing journey here: https://sustainablefutures.medium.com/