A quick Google search yields a number of sites enumerating the benefits of recycling plastic: it reduces pollution across ecosystems, it saves quickly depleting landfill space, it eases the demand on fossil fuel consumption, it reduces waste, it saves energy, and so on.
The world's first fully synthetic plastic was invented in New York in 1907. It was widely adopted in the 1950s, and it is estimated that 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic were produced between 1950 and 2017, and more than half of that just since 2004.
After the environmental revolutions of the 1960s, people began to take note of the toll plastic waste was taking on the environment, and the world's first plastic recycling mill was opened in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, in 1972, becoming a template for future plants. Over the years, people began to learn the habit of recycling and manufacturers started producing easier to recycle plastic. The recycling codes seen on products around the world were first introduced in 1988.
As more and more people came to see plastic as harmful to public health and the environment, Big Plastic launched a massive campaign to improve the product's image, including the message that "recycling is the answer."
But after decades of the recycling PR machine, the tide may be turning against the practice.
In fact, recycling plastic can actually make it more toxic, even worse for the environment, and should no longer be considered a solution to the pollution crisis, says Greenpeace. The global environmentalist network dropped the bomb in a new report timed to the beginning of new talks for a potential global plastics treaty involving 173 countries.
"The plastics industry – including fossil fuel, petrochemical and consumer goods companies – continues to put forward plastic recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution crisis," said Graham Forbes, the head of Greenpeace USA's global plastics campaign. "But … the toxicity of plastic actually increases with recycling. Plastics have no place in a circular economy and it's clear that the only real solution to ending plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production."
In particular, recycled plastics often contain higher levels of chemicals such as toxic flame retardants, benzene, and other carcinogens, environmental pollutants, and numerous endocrine disruptors that can tamper with the body's natural hormone levels, according to the Greenpeace report.
Unsurprisingly, these toxins cause more harm in the underdeveloped world—waste plastics intended for recycling are often shipped out of high-income countries, headed for economically struggling lands.
And another blow to the reputation of plastic recycling is the fact that despite the large-scale campaigns pushing the practice, the overwhelming majority of plastic is never recycled anyways. According to National Geographic, a meager 9% actually goes through the process. Another 12% is incinerated, but the vast majority is simply taking up space in our landfills and oceans. And plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade.
In 2020, NPR ran an illuminating article entitled, "How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled."
The long and the short of it is recycling plastic is awfully expensive.
"I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage," says Laura Leebrick, a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in Oregon, "and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You're lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It's gold. This is valuable."
But while no one really wants to hear it, the makers of plastic—Big Oil and Gas—have always known that recycling their product does not make economic sense, all the while spending millions of dollars to convince the public of its benefits. "There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis," one industry insider wrote in a speech all the way back in 1974.
Though used plastic can be turned into something new, picking it up, sorting it out (there are hundreds of kinds of plastic that cannot be melted down together), and melting it down is expensive, and it degrades each time it is reused. New plastic is of better quality and more cost effective.
And this whole scenario should have been obvious all along.
Larry Thomas, a former industry executive who decades ago helped oil companies convince people that most plastic could and would be recycled, sees more clearly now:
You know, they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material. Nobody that is producing a virgin product wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material — that's their business.
But if the public thinks the plastic it is buying will be recycled and that this is helping to heal the environment, then that public will continue buying plastic with a clear conscience.
"If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry (known today as the Plastics Industry Association) told NPR.
But projections that plastic production will triple by 2050 coupled with a statistically negligible amount of recycling mean the public should probably be concerned about the environment now more than ever.
One particularly startling testimony to this fact is the so-called "seventh continent" floating in the middle of the ocean between California and Hawaii.
Formally known by the charming name of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this "continent" consists of at least 80,000 tonnes of garbage taking up an area about three times the size of France. And there are other such patches of various sizes in the south of the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean.
Most of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been known about since the late 1980s, comes from fishing boats, and about 10% from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The garbage is stuck in a type of vortex formed where major currents meet. Once trapped in the calm center, plastic remains there to break down into microplastics over the years. It is also hypothesized that the seafloor beneath the "seventh continent" is covered in plastic.
In addition to the pollution of the water, now there are reports that coastal marine species are living and reproducing on the floating garbage pile, possibly invading and harming the local ecosystem. In fact, a new study published in the Nature Ecology & Evolution journal reveals that such species are developing on 70% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In short, coastal animals are interacting with those native to the open ocean and "essentially creating new communities in the open ocean," says Linsey Haram, science fellow at the US National Institute of Food and Agriculture and lead author of the study. And the increased competition for food and space created by these new communities may be harmful to traditional species and the existing ecosystem.
However the coastal lifeforms wound up living on 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the middle of the ocean, it is clear that the garbage patch poses a serious enough threat.
And it is clear that the ever-expanding plastic industry poses a serious enough threat and that plastic recycling is far from an adequate response, both in terms of the environment and the economy.
But the way forward remains unclear.
Greenpeace proposes a three-pronged attack: There must be an immediate and significant reduction in plastic production, those plastics that remain must be reused as far as possible, and new waste disposal technologies that do more than simply burning or burying garbage must be developed. However, as already noted, it is forecasted that the production of plastic will significantly increase in the coming decades, not decrease.
There are those executives who talk a good game, pledging to seriously increase the percentage of plastic that is recycled, but at the same time, as Greenpeace warns, that is probably even more dangerous for the environment. And anyways, it sounds like the same old song and dance we have been hearing since the 1970s.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is that, given the competing interests and difficult logistics, in the end, nothing will really change, but most people will go on happily thinking they are doing their part to save the environment.