Confused on What to Do about Plastic Waste? That's What the Plastics Industry Wants
As the summer comes to a close, many of us will be making one final trip to the beach. But for Americans from shore to shore, those visits to our coastlines have changed over the years.
Whether going for a morning walk on the beach or building a sandcastle with your children, it’s hard not to come face-to-face with the plastic pollution crisis plaguing our marine environment. On Cape Cod, where I live, empty plastic water bottles can, unfortunately, be as ubiquitous as the sand.
According to a February 2021 survey conducted by Piplsay, a global consumer research organization, 58 percent of Americans have cut back on buying plastic products even during the pandemic, while 57 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should ban single-use plastic items. Though COVID-19 halted action, the bounce back of the environment with the cessation of human activity has given much time to reflect on quality of life and the need for stewardship of the environment. The push to reduce their plastic footprint is being led by Baby Boomers, with Millennials having a significant presence.
There is strong evidence that Americans want to contribute to a solution to plastic waste. But unfortunately, the alignment between consumer intent and action has been stalled by corporate interests.
Corporate interests are focused on profitability, not impacts related to production, including the environmental costs that plastic manufacturers do not pay. And short-term profitability is not aligned with the longer-term perspective of individual and planetary well-being.
Recycling and anti-litter campaigns are a creation of corporations. Neither, though, addresses the health consequences of plastic creation, use, and disposal but instead promote a false narrative.
Specific to recycling, it’s a public relations strategy several decades in the making. A PBS investigation last year uncovered a disturbing 1980s plastics industry initiative to overcome concern about plastic pollution by promoting recycling. This is despite an acknowledgement that plastics recycling would never be viable at scale.
“If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment,” said Larry Thomas, the previous head of the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), the former powerful lobbying arm of plastic manufacturers.
It’s an effective, albeit cynical, way to shift responsibility away from plastics manufacturers, brands, and retailers. After all, recycling is a downstream consumer-oriented activity that only addresses one small part of plastic’s full life cycle. Yet, the plastics recycling ruse appears to still be working today. In a 2020 World Wildlife Fund poll, seven in 10 people believed (wrongly) that plastic pollution would not be a problem if people “recycled more.” This ties to the false perception that placing items in a recycling container equates to recycling, which it does not.
A recent Greenpeace report found that only two of seven plastics in commerce can be considered recyclable. For the types that can be recycled, the numbers are hardly inspiring. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a meager 29 percent of PET, the clear, lightweight plastic used in food and beverage packaging that is touted by the manufacturers as recyclable, was recycled in 2018. And based on the industry’s own numbers, Americans recycled less PET bottles in 2019 and a third of PET is lost in the recycling process.
The American Chemical Council (ACC), a plastics industry organization, whose gross receipts topped $200 million in 2018, has also long sought to falsely position plastic as the more sustainable solution compared to competing materials such as glass and metal. The association’s blunt advocacy instruments have been industry-funded “life cycle assessments” that paint an all-too-rosy picture of plastics’ impact on the environment.
In a July 2021 Transparency Report, Sustainable Practices, an environmental advocacy organization, identified significant gaps and omissions that call into question the rigor and relevance of these ACC-financed studies. In sum, separate 2016 and 2018 plastics’ life cycle assessments fail to address the full range of cleanup costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental impacts from plastic that are attributable to plastic production and exclude the human health impact resulting from plastic production, consumption, and disposal.
It is critical for consumers to know when reaching for their favorite beverage at the grocery store that it’s far better to never purchase a piece of plastic than to worry about whether it can be thrown into a blue bin and where it might end up from there.
There are alternatives to single-use plastic that are recyclable, such as aluminum. However, the best solution is to reuse. All convenience products have an environmental footprint in excess of their few minutes of consumption value.
Dr. Madhavi Venkatesan is an assistant teaching professor of economics at Northeastern University and the Executive Director of Sustainable Practices.