Today I woke up with severe second thoughts about this whole thing. I know, it hasn’t even been a week, and maybe it was fueled by secret resentment that I couldn’t have yogurt with blueberries for breakfast, but I had to ask myself: am I thinking about this all wrong? I mean, apparently the entire consumer world runs on plastic. Maybe the [insert adjective here] industrial complex knows something I don’t. Maybe (please, gods of commerce, let it be so) the problem is not that we are creating so much single-use plastic, but that we are not efficiently recycling it. If that’s the case, then it makes no sense to swear off single-use plastic. I can resume buying my convenience foods and my favorite lip balm, while militantly agitating for mandatory recycling with harsh penalties for non-compliance. Problem solved!
With this utopian vision dancing before my eyes, I did a quick gallop around the recent scientific literature – hey, I’m not writing a thesis here – to try to uncover the lovely truth that recycling is the answer to our use-and-toss lifestyle.
Let me share with you what I found:
- We are manufacturing more and more plastic every year, over 300 million tons last year alone. For comparison, your Jeep Cherokee weighs about 2 tons. So that would be equivalent to 150 million Jeep Cherokees worth of plastic bags and Barbies and mardi gras beads and bubble wrap and coffee stirrers …
- Only about one tenth of this makes it into the recycling pipeline. Let’s see… that means about 135 million Jeep Cherokees worth of plastic will just get driven right into landfills, incinerators, or (remember why this blog was born?) the ocean.
- This army of stuff is made out of different kinds of plastic, which can’t just be recycled all together, because they are literally unable to mix at the molecular level.
- Products that are made out of more than one kind of plastic are not considered recyclable. Same with items that are “contaminated” with non-plastic components. So that disposable lighter you bought at 7-11 the other month, which is now out of lighter fluid? Might as well just flip it off the nearest bridge into the closest body of water.
- If it’s colored, recycling facilities don’t like it. Why? Because most colored plastic can only be recycled into a darker-colored plastic. So recyclers want clear plastic, or maybe white plastic – but that bright red shampoo bottle that looked great in your bathroom while you were using it? They don’t want that.
- Recycling charts show that being able to recycle an object back into that same object is rare. Soda and water bottles, apparently, can be recycled back into soda and water bottles. Yogurt cups can be recycled into toothbrush handles. But can toothbrush handles be recycled back into yogurt cups?
They don’t say.
And how many toothbrush handles does one world need? A whole lot, it turns out: the number floating around on the web is 3.5 billion toothbrushes per year. So that would probably account for a lot of yogurt cups. But then what? Is it better to have an ocean full of used toothbrushes than an ocean full of yogurt cups? There’s an uck factor there that I’d rather not think about.
Which brings me full circle to my own toothbrush. In my no-single-use life, where does the toothbrush fall? I use it over and over again, but when it wears out I can’t fix it, and off it goes into the trash. So does it fall under my no use-and-toss ban? How long is long enough when it comes to using a plastic item?
Anyway, today’s hope has been crushed: recycling is not the answer. Even the most optimistic materials scientists end their articles by saying, “clearly we need to reduce the amount of plastic we use.”
So much for the gods of commerce.