Why We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of the Plastic Apocalypse

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Almost exactly one year ago, I made a video in which I described the problem we are facing with plastic pollution in the oceans, the problems with ocean cleanup endeavors, and the actual solutions we need to institute in order to clean up our act. I regret to inform you that in the 12 months since, we have not, in fact, fixed the problem. In fact, just back in September the Ocean Cleanup project did another PR push in which they made up an animation of what it would look like if their project actually worked and used it to ask for more donations, which apparently led their biggest supporters to assume that this meant it really was working.

I bring this up because of a few recent relevant studies: first, biologists in the UK and Finland found that at least one mechanical plastic collector is responsible for killing an impressive amount of oceanic lifeforms. This is something that researchers have been calling out since before Ocean Cleanup even built one of their devices, so it’s not exactly surprising, but having hard data is always nice. In this case, the scientists examined a Seabin, which is a similar but slightly different project from Ocean Cleanup that asked the important question: “If we have so much trash in the ocean, why don’t we throw some trashcans in and see if that helps?”

For real though, the Seabin floats in a harbor or marina, connected to electricity on land that allows a pump to force water through a filter that catches debris. And it DOES catch some litter, as the biologists observed in this new paper: on average, it removed “58 items of litter per day,” which they say were mostly “plastic pellets, polystyrene (styrofoam) balls and plastic fragments.” Great! Unfortunately, each day they also 13 marine organisms per day, which were things like eels, crabs, and shrimp. Half of those organisms died in the Seabin and the other half were released. The worse news is that a bevy of research shows that “fish do not survive discarding processes well,” thanks to temperature changes, injuries we can’t necessarily see, and even just making them easier prey for birds and marine animals hunting near the surface.

These researchers concluded that compared to manual methods of removing plastic from the water (like using nets from pontoons), the Seabin and similar technology is less efficient AND more likely to kill organisms.

I tried to make that last sentence as simple and easy-to-understand as possible – these devices cause MORE HARM and DO LESS GOOD than existing methods – but I know for a fact there will still be people in the comments yelling “well at least they’re doing SOMETHING!” Because at the end of the day, we have a large population of people who lack critical thinking skills and who fervently want to believe that no matter how bad things get, technology will save us. But this study, along with pretty much every other third-party evaluation of systems like this, show that it will not.

Which brings me to the next study: instead of throwing all this plastic away and having it end up in our oceans, why don’t we recycle it? Well. That’s something I’ve long been skeptical of – not recycling in general, because scientists have done a pretty good job of perfecting the recycling of things like aluminum cans. But specifically recycling plastic. It has been no secret amongst experts, for at least the past 20 years when I last took an environmental science class and probably for longer, that it is very, very difficult to recycle plastic. So this new report would only truly be groundbreaking if it found otherwise, but what the hell, it gives me an opportunity to point out something that a lot of people still do not realize.

First of all, let me point out that this paper comes from Greenpeace. They’re a clearly biased environmental justice organization that hasn’t always necessarily been on the side of good science. For instance, I disagree with their anti-nuclear power stance, which has included them fearmongering over radioactive pigeons at a UK nuclear site. They’re also anti-GMO because they claim it causes health problems, for which there is no solid scientific evidence.

On the other hand, they’ve done what I think is important work stopping commercial whaling efforts and pushing for more renewable energy.

Overall they’re a mixed bag, which is why we should take any of their pronouncements with a grain of salt. But, like I say, what they’re reporting on in this case is simply not news: the vast majority of plastic we use every day does not get recycled, and not just because we aren’t putting it in the right bins. And it’s not even because the trash collectors aren’t keeping those bins separate and taking them to the right place for disposal! Most of the plastic trash you put in your recycling goes to a recycling facility, where hopefully 5% of it is actually recycled. The rest goes to a landfill.

You see, the main issue here is that “plastic” encompasses a LOT of different materials, as it can be found in everything from soda bottles to carpeting to my glasses. That’s why experts break plastics down into 7 categories, and that’s why if you check your trash you can see a number that will tell you what type of plastic trash you have: an empty jar of peanut butter – I guess that’s just a jar – for instance, is in category 1, for Polyethylene Terephthalate or “PET.” A detergent bottle is probably category 2 for High-Density Polyethylene, or “HDPE”.

And those are the only two categories of plastic that most recycling facilities will even accept. So not teething rings (category 3, PVC or Vinyl), not bubble wrap or grocery bags (category 4, Low-Density Polyethylene), not straws and bottle caps (category 5, Polypropylene), not styrofoam (category 6…styrofoam), and not my eyeglasses (category 7, “other”).

I should point out that many recycling facilities say they take category 5 items like straws, but they end up recycling less than 5% of the items and throw the rest in a landfill. They used to sell them to other countries, but other countries have caught on and we can’t do that anymore. Ah well.

Even in the best case of category 1 plastics, it’s hard to recycle them because there are things that exist within that category that, unlike paper or metals, can’t be combined with other plastics in the same category for recycling. As Greenpeace correctly notes:

“Different plastics have different melting points, dyes, and colorants. Different types of chemical additives give plastics specific characteristics, such as flexibility or rigidity. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles are made by blow-molding and cannot be recycled with PET#1 cups, trays, or clamshells, which are made by thermoforming and are a different PET#1 material.101 Green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles.”

When you combine that with the fact that the process to recycle any plastic is extremely inefficient (not to mention possibly hazardous to the environment), it’s not surprising that even in the MOST RECYCLABLE CATEGORY of PET#1, they still only manage to recycle about 20% of the plastic into something that can be used again.

So what’s a baby environmentalist to do these days? Cut out the middle man and just start shoving plastic bottles down dolphins’ blowholes? Now now, let’s not be dramatic. Here’s the rest of that depressing PET1 paragraph from Greenpeace:

“To combat this issue, all beverage companies operating in Japan have voluntarily used only clear PET#1 since 1992,103 and South Korea banned colored PET#1 in 2020.” Ah! An industry that actually policed itself on the one hand, and a country that enforced a standard on the other. That must be nice! Right now we have neither.

So yeah, obviously I’m recording this on election day here in the US, and you already know where I fall on all that: vote against every Republican you can. The majority of them desperately want fascism and they’re coming for your rights. But if you have the opportunity, try and vote for someone progressive who supports things like the Green New Deal! Someone who wants to hold the fossil fuel and beverage industries, which have promised to increase production of single use plastics for their own profit, accountable. Just as I’ve said when talking about Ocean Cleanup, it’s not enough to bail out the lifeboat before we’ve plugged the hole. And in this case I’m not JUST referring to the amount of trash pouring into our waterways – I’m talking about the amount of trash we are buying, and the amount of trash companies like Coca Cola and Pepsico are producing. So: if you have the opportunity to get a progressive representative, vote for them, and if you have the opportunity to reuse something or choose a material other than plastic, do that too! And don’t get toooooo stressed if you still struggle to know whether your plastic bags go in the recycling bin or the landfill bin. Chances are no one else knows either.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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