Beyond the Myth of Plastic Recycling: The Plastic Conspiracy
When I think about the plastic conspiracy, I think about my mom, who loyally rinses out her recyclables, peels off labels from bottles and cans, and separates them by type for pick up by the recycling company. Even now that her town has switched to co-mingled recycling, old habits die hard. Or I think about 5-year-old me and my 9-year-old cousin watching the Keep America Beautiful commercial. We literally cried as we watched a single tear creep down the cheek of a Native American man as he surveyed the wasteland of trash in the river and the city on its banks. Only that man wasn’t Native American; he was a hired Italian actor, and the commercial was specifically designed to shift the burden of guilt away from manufacturers and onto the consumer. Guess what? It worked. Generations of people who hoped to curtail human impact on nature came to equate recycling with being a good environmentalist. But the efficacy of recycling, sadly, is a myth.
Worldwide, 380 million tons of plastic are produced annually. Currently, the United States produces about 35.7 million tons of plastic, but recycles only 5% of it.  Since China launched its sweeping program called “Operation National Sword” in late 2017 in an effort to curtail the exorbitant quantities of solid waste and contamination imported from Europe and North America, recycling efficiency on these continents has declined. Before the ban, China received over 70% of plastics recovered from the US, and over 95% from the European Union. Like a small child at the mercy of a larger, more aggressive bully, we are stuck, perched at the top of a see-saw, with the gargantuan production of plastic products and their instant and inevitable waste sitting immovable on the other side.
Despite the symbol on the bottom of your milk carton or laundry detergent bottle called “chasing arrows,” the plastic packaging you hold in your hand may or may not be recyclable. Whether or not something gets recycled is largely dependent on the market, and since Operation National Sword, recycling companies, who were once paid for their plastic hauls, now have to pay recyclers. According to Bill Meeks, owner and manager of the 18-year-old, now Viroqua-based, business Southwest Sanitation, of the materials consumers send to be recycled, only steel cans, aluminum, #1 & #2 plastics, paper, glass, tin, and cardboard are recycled, per Wisconsin law. Depending on the market, #5’s (polypropylene) are intermittently recycled. These prices swing wildly and often; cardboard was once worth anywhere from $0-$10/ton and now is worth $90/ton. The volatility of the market suggests this, and any of the other prices, could change at any time.
The plastic conspiracy is this: Oil companies such as Shell (Netherlands/UK), ExxonMobil (US), Sinopec (China), and SABIC (Saudi Arabia), in an effort to suck every last drop of profit from their shrinking petroleum reserves, are making more plastic than any recycling system or waste disposal system is built to handle.  The Earth’s beaches strewn with plastic, the starvation of turtles, whales, dolphins and albatross whose bellies are being filled with plastic, and even the major efforts toward beach and ocean clean-up are all casualties of an economic system that values corporate profit over environmental balance and integrity. Under this system, there will always be another beach clean-up and more marine animals suffering needlessly.
In the recent NPR article and interview, “How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled,” Laura Sullivan reminds us that plastic is “not valuable, and it never has been.” Petroleum companies have known this all along and calculate that it is worth it to spend millions of dollars telling Americans the exact opposite. Moreover, "If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," says Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry.
Plastic is cheap and it is much cheaper for a producer to make virgin plastic than to make plastic from recycled materials. Yet even if plastic gets recycled, its integrity is compromised and that material is less stable as it passes through the recycling process. Not all plastic can actually be recycled and for the plastic that can be (1-polyethylene, 2-high-density polyethylene, 4-low-density polyethylene, and 5-polypropylene) these are inevitably downcycled, or made into a lower quality plastic. And all plastic, even a water bottle that you might possess for a matter of minutes, persists in the environment for 500 years or more, not as your familiar toothbrush or razor, but as dangerous particles called microplastics.
According to the American Chemistry Council, plastic producers have invested more than $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects in the US since 2010 including expansions of existing facilities, new plants, and associated infrastructure such as pipelines.  One of the worst parts of the conspiracy is that despite many cities throughout the US putting a ban on single-use plastic like water bottles and plastic-film-based shopping bags, other states have caved to corporate pressures and enacted laws banning plastic bag bans. Wisconsin is one such state.
Plastic is not just a point source pollutant, but contributes to the global climate crisis. According to the Center for International Environmental Law, “Global emissions linked to plastic — now just under 900 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually — could by 2030 reach 1.3 billion tons, as much as almost 300 coal-fired power plants.”
Humans have the ingenuity to make a plastic with all the qualities we value: waterproofness, flexibility, malleability, elasticity, without all the environmental problems. If you want to lend your voice and vote to curtail the production of plastic, put the onus of responsibility back on plastic producers where it belongs, and help states reclaim their power to ban plastic, check out the organization Break Free From Plastic, https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/. And if you want to learn more about the plastic conspiracy, check out this 4-minute video made by the Story of Stuff folks. It’s called The Story of Plastic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO3SA4YyEYU&t=1s. This video is just a snapshot of the 1.5-hour version. Write to us if you are interested in attending a watch party of The Story of Plastic in 2022.
 https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-indian-crying-environment-ads-pollution-1123-20171113-story.html  https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data#:~:text=The%20primary%20data%20source%20on,12.2%20percent%20of%20MSW%20generation.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_National_Sword  https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled  Ibid.  https://e360.yale.edu/features/the-plastics-pipeline-a-surge-of-new-production-is-on-the-way  Ibid.