The ubiquity of plastic has become a global problem. An estimated 242 million tons are generated each year and the United States is one of the top producers. Although recycling may seem like a simple solution, it is not. Plastics recycling has proven ineffective, as evidenced by a shocking statistic from Our world in data: Of the 5.8 billion tons of plastic waste generated between 1950 and 2015, only about 9% of it was recycled. The rest is left to be burned, landfilled or strewn. On top of that, a more recent report from nonprofit The Last Beach Cleanup and advocacy group Beyond Plastics found that number even lower, with only 5% to 6% of plastic waste in the US being converted into new products by 2021.
It’s hard to believe that so little plastic has been recycled when you consider how commonplace recycling has become. But the truth is that plastic is not easy to recycle. Plastic products are usually composed of a mixture of chemicals that can cause problems in the recycling process, and it is more difficult to isolate the base materials that can be recovered and reused. So why is it that environmental campaigns view recycling as such a simple solution?
The plastic problem is not new, of course, but I learned more about its far-reaching consequences during a recent conversation with Judith Enck, president of Beyond plastics† The nationwide project at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, combines the experience of environmental policy experts with creative students to deliver the institutional, economic and societal changes needed to combat the plastic pollution crisis.
During our conversation, Enck discussed the critical need for companies to be held accountable for the environmental impacts of their products, as well as the major problem with chemical recycling and the abundance of greenwashing in companies that take ‘environmental measures’.
Extended producer responsibility
As I shared in my first article of my conversation with Enck, the first step she proposes to take to combat the plastic problem is to create clear and measurable requirements in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies, with an emphasis on reduction. EPR is the concept that manufacturers and importers should be held accountable for the environmental impact of their products throughout their life cycle.
While many environmental groups agree that enacting these policies is important, many special interest groups have taken advantage of legislators lacking policy depth on such a complicated issue, and as such have developed their own EPR laws. Take, for example, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is known for writing model legislation with the big companies — usually the same companies that fund ALEC — and then encouraging their introduction through legislative partners across the country. “They have drafted an alternative EPR law on the subject of plastics, but these model notes come straight from the packaging industry,” says Enck.
Many proponents of EPR argue that charging packaging fees will lead to changes and improvements to packaging. And while that’s a well-intentioned theory, Enck says companies will likely pass those fees on to consumers. Some bills currently being tabled give too much control to companies, which tend to evade their responsibilities if not precisely defined. Enck says it’s even more problematic that many of these bills allow chemical recycling.
The problem with chemical recycling
Until 2018, the US shipped nearly half of its plastic recycling to other countries (mainly China). But in 2018, China stopped taking in plastic that wasn’t sorted perfectly. Other countries soon followed. As such, plastic began to accumulate in the United States, where it was landfilled or sent to incinerators to be burned. Incineration, also known as chemical recycling, has been hailed as a ‘promising new recycling technology’, but it is not a magic solution. And unfortunately, many of the new EPR bills being introduced contain language that enables chemical recycling.
“Chemical recycling is not recycling,” says Enck. “It picks up waste plastic, heats it up at a high temperature and then creates a low-grade fossil fuel.”
as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explains: in a 2022 analysis, chemical recycling typically falls into two categories: plastic-to-fuel and plastic-to-chemicals. The conversion of plastic to fuel involves pyrolysis or gasification, both of which use heat and chemical processes to break down plastic waste into products that are converted into fuels. The plastic-to-chemical process uses treatments such as heat and solvents to create raw materials that proponents claim can be turned into other chemicals or new plastics.
Both categories are teeming with health, environmental, social and economic concerns. In particular, the conversion of plastic to fuel produces harmful air pollution and greenhouse gases when burned. The NRDC found that Agilyx, an Oregon processing plant hailed as the “gold standard for chemical recycling,” produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic waste in a single year. In addition, many of these facilities are located in or near lower-income communities with residents more vulnerable to health risks.
So if chemical recycling isn’t the solution, why are so many proposed EPR policies greening plastic-to-fuel processes as recycling? Because of course it is simpler and cheaper. This is true of many of the ‘environmental measures’ that various companies have taken.
The perception that plastic is easily recyclable — and that the burden of recycling rests solely with consumers — has been shaped by decades of carefully crafted campaigns paid for by many of the most common plastic producers.
If you lived in the 1970s, chances are you’re familiar with the “Crying Indian” ad from the environmental organization Keep America Beautiful. The ad featured a Native American man crying over the destruction of his homeland at the reckless mess of visitors. It was a compelling and effective image. However, if you look at the organization’s board members, you will find representatives from Dow Chemical Company, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Nestle – companies that all rely on the production of single-use plastics. This fact alone should challenge the intent behind the organization’s altruistic campaign. By shifting all the blame for the plastic crisis onto the consumer, manufacturers are free to continue producing plastic products.
Then there’s an organization called The Recycling Partnership, which sounds promising. “The Recycling Partnership has a nice name, but the company is actually funded by Dow, Exxon, Coke and Amazon,” says Enck. One of this organization’s board representatives is also a member of the American Chemistry Council – an industry group that represents plastic manufacturers.
A worrying detail about The Recycling Partnership is that it supports EPR policies in the New York government’s Kathy Hochul budget. As explained in my earlier conversation with Enck, Hochul’s proposal allows chemical recycling and makes no demands on reducing packaging – unlike an alternative bill from Councilman Steve Englebright, which rejects chemical recycling and a 50% reduction in the number of plastic units required. 10 years.
But the biggest concern around Hochul’s EPR proposal is who makes the decisions about what types of materials will be recycled and at what rate. “Many companies want the legislature to authorize the creation of a Producer Responsibility Organization, or PRO, where they have complete control over everything,” Enck says. Unfortunately, as Enck points out, many PROs lack oversight and will end up developing the most inexpensive, ineffective EPR possible.
Again, these kinds of “environmental actions” are just a band-aid on a much bigger wound. As Enck and others note, tackling the plastic problem requires a change of mindset from the belief that recycling will solve the problem to finding legitimate ways to reduce plastic production. And that means companies must be held accountable for the environmental impact of their products.