Plastic experts say recycling is a scam. Should we even do it anymore?

Evidence shows fossil fuel companies pushed recycling instead of addressing our growing plastic problem

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 23, 2024 11:15AM (EST)

Girl organizing recycling bins (Getty Images/Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd)
Girl organizing recycling bins (Getty Images/Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd)

When the Center for Climate Integrity released its report about plastic recycling, one might have expected the environmentalist non-profit to encourage the practice. Anyone raised in the late-20th and early-21st century knows that the term "recycle" is often synonymous with "environmentalist causes."

"Plastic is not designed to be recycled — despite industries and governments telling the public that we should recycle plastic."

Yet the title of Center for Climate Integrity's report — "The Fraud of Plastic Recycling" — reveals a very different point-of-view. What if plastic recycling in fact does little to help the environment, and instead serves the interests of the same Big Oil interest groups destroying Earth's ecosystems?

"Through new and existing research, 'The Fraud of Plastic Recycling' shows how Big Oil and the plastics industry have deceptively promoted recycling as a solution to plastic waste management for more than 50 years, despite their long-standing knowledge that plastic recycling is not technically or economically viable at scale," the authors of the report proclaim. "Now it’s time for accountability."

The Center for Climate Integrity is not alone in characterizing plastic recycling as a false crusade. Erica Cirino, communications manager at the Plastic Pollution Coalition and author of "Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis," pointed to data that clearly shows we do very little recycling anyway, despite the overwhelming emphasis on it.

"In 2017, scientists estimated that just 9% of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastics produced from about the 1950s (when plastics were first mass produced) up to 2015 had been recycled," Cirino told Salon. "Plastic recycling rates vary widely from region to region around the world. In the U.S., plastic recycling rates are currently below 6 percent."

Yet even those numbers are deceptive, Cirino warned, as they incorrectly imply that at least the plastic which does get "recycled" is handled in ways that help the environment. "Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter where or how you set out your plastic for recycling collection, whether at the end of your driveway, at your local recycling center, or in a municipal recycling bin: Most plastic items collected as recycling are not actually recycled," Cirino explained. "Surprisingly, plastic is not designed to be recycled — despite industries and governments telling the public that we should recycle plastic."

The same companies that created the plastic pollution crisis are motivated to keep the public from believing that their product needs to be phased out.  

Instead the plastics that people think get "recycled" are often instead shipped from the Global North to the Global South, with waste haulers often dumping and openly burning plastic without regard to environmental laws, Cirino explained. People who live near the sites where these things happen face a lifetime of health risks, to say nothing of living in a degraded environment.

"People who earn incomes by picking wastes make the least from cheap plastics, and because of constant exposure to plastics in their line of work face elevated risks of cancers, infectious diseases (which cling to plastics), respiratory problems and other serious health issues." Even the plastics that do get reused somehow are less "recycled" than "downcycled," as "manufacturers mix in a large portion of freshly made plastic or toxic additives to melted down plastic waste to restore some of its desirable properties."

If you want to understand why the general public mistakenly believes that plastic pollution significantly helps the environment, one must look at the same fossil fuel companies that caused the problem.

"Many people in the Baby Boomer Generation and Generation X remember the 'crying Indian ad' that was published in the 1970s," Melissa Valliant, communications director for the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, told Salon by email. "It was an iconic ad of the time, created by Keep America Beautiful — a corporate front created in 1953 by powerful generators of plastic waste, like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. This was really the start of a decades-long streak of multi-million dollar ad campaigns leveraged by the plastics industry to convince consumers that if they just were a little better at putting the right plastic in the right bin, the plastic pollution problem would disappear."

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"Ultimately, our world must decide what it values: money or life."

Simply put, the same companies that created the plastic pollution crisis are motivated to keep the public from believing that their product needs to be phased out. By claiming to care about the environment while presenting a false solution to the problem of plastic pollution — one that, conveniently, removes the onus of responsibility from the companies themselves — plastic manufacturers have been able to have their cake and eat it too.

"The continued promotion of recycling, which is a proven failure, distracts from the real solutions," John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director, told Salon by email. "Most people agree that we can no longer afford to produce trillions of items packaged in a material that will last for generations and that we will only use for a few minutes or seconds before being discarded. Plastic bottles and bags don't typically get turned into bottles and bags, but the myth that they will is one of the biggest barriers to real solutions."

Indeed, a compelling question arises from the fact that the crusade to recycle plastic is more corporate propaganda than true Earth-saving measure: Should we recycle plastic at all?

"No," Cirino told Salon. "Even if plastic recycling rates were higher, recycling alone could never come close to solving the serious and wide-ranging health, justice, socio-economic, and environmental crises caused by industries’ continued plastic production and plastic pollution, which go hand in hand." Cirino argued that, given how plastic production has grown exponentially and its pollution problems have likewise worsened, emphasizing recycling over meaningful solutions is at best irresponsible.

"It’s clear recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis," Cirino concluded. "The fossil fuel industry, governments, and corporations really need to turn off the plastic tap, and the UN Plastics Treaty could be an opportunity to do so on a global level—if member states can come together and form a treaty with real ambition. Ultimately, our world must decide what it values: money or life."

Erin Simon, the vice president and head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), offered a different perspective.

"Everyone has a role to play – and that includes the average consumer as well," Simon wrote to Salon. "But individuals are often limited in what they can contribute because recycling infrastructure and availability is different in every community. For those who can recycle, they should understand what can and can’t go in their recycling bin by contacting their local waste manager. For those who currently can’t recycle at home or work, they should advocate for better access to recycling services by contacting local community leaders and local government officials. In addition to recycling, shifting to reusable products is another way for individuals to reduce personal waste."

Simon also advocates for multinational approaches, writing to Salon that the upcoming fourth (of five) negotiating session for a United Nations Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution has promise.

"A Global Treaty is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for governments, businesses, and communities to secure a future free from plastic pollution," Simon explained. "As we approach the next round of negotiations in April 2024 in Canada, WWF will be advocating to ensure the final draft of the treaty is globally binding for all Member states, and provides a clear path to ban, phase out or reduce problematic single-use plastics. WWF is also calling for the treaty to include defined requirements for product design and innovation in plastic waste management systems, while also providing policies and incentives that allow businesses to transition to more sustainable and innovative options."

Hocevar also praised the Global Plastics Treaty as a possible solution to the pollution crisis.

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"The Global Plastics Treaty being negotiated right now is a huge opportunity to finally solve the plastics crisis," Hocevar told Salon. "We need President Biden to ensure that the U.S. deals with the root cause and works to reduce plastic production and use. Without dramatically reducing plastic production, it will be impossible to end plastic pollution."

Chelsea Linsley, a staff attorney at the Center for Climate Integrity and one of the report co-authors, perhaps summed it up best.

"The best and most effective solution to the plastic waste crisis is to reduce the amount of plastic produced in the first place, especially for unnecessary single-use plastics," Linsley wrote to Salon. "The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act is an example of legislation that could implement real solutions, such as reducing and banning non-recyclable or easily replaced single-use plastics and establishing programs to support reuse and refill efforts. However, for such measures to be successful, the plastics industry must not be allowed to perpetuate the myth that recycling is an equally effective solution."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Climate Change Global Warming Plastic Pollution Plastic Recycling Recycling Reporting