Photo: Will Waldron / Albany (N.Y.) Times Union
It seems like every week, a corporation maligned for its role in the plastic pollution crisis comes out with some new recycling pledge, accompanied by fanfare and applause. Just last month, Starbucks announced that it will be phasing out plastic straws in favor of “recyclable” plastic lids (containing more plastic than the old straw-and-lid combo did). Earlier this year, Pepsi pledged to make its packaging 100 percent recyclable by 2025, and Unilever committed to making its packaging 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable. Sounds like a step in the right direction — right?
No. These announcements may sound great, but they look painfully naive in the face of the growing storm that is the global plastic recycling market. At the same time that the news is filled with these flashy industry recycling pledges, we are getting an increasingly frantic story from across the country and the world that our plastic simply isn’t getting recycled.
A 2017 study found that of all the plastic ever created, only a paltry 9 percent has been recycled, and the rest is clogging our streets, waterways, and has even made its way into our food systems. Beyond the fish on our plate, tiny pieces of plastic have been found in sea salt, honey, and even beer. Not to mention 94 percent of the United States’ drinking water.
For decades, brands have bankrolled flashy media campaigns to convince us that our switch to disposables over reusables was perfectly fine for the planet because we could just recycle them into new products. The ugly truth is that instead of dealing with the mounting piles of plastic waste enabled by this harmful mind-set, we sent much of it to China, burdening that country with the responsibility of land-filling or burning the large quantities that couldn’t be recycled. Now China has had enough, restricting imported waste in 2017 and imposing tariffs of 25 percent as of Aug. 23, and the West’s fantasy that its plastic waste was being taken care of elsewhere has come crashing down.
As of January 2018, cities across the country have had to break it to their citizens that the yogurt cups, takeout containers, and single-use cutlery that they were dutifully putting into the recyling bin were being sent straight to a landfill. Last month Waste Management, the largest waste company in America, announced that it would not be collecting plastics with codes #4 through #7 for recycling in Sacramento, making the Starbucks “sippy cup” lid just another disposable item destined for the landfill.
So where does that leave those lofty corporate “recyclability” goals? Most likely in the garbage with the rest of the plastic.
We can’t count on recycling to save us from the plastic pollution crisis, especially when the plastic industry is planning on increasing production in the next decade. Even if we were to miraculously find a way to recycle the millions of single-use throwaway plastic Starbucks cranks out every year, more and more plastic will overwhelm recycling systems and decimate the market.
As consumers, we must demand that these companies do more than give us the same-old “recycling will save the day” line, and take things into our own hands. Cities and states can be the first line of defense against plastic pollution through sound policy that minimizes waste instead of merely managing it.
As of now, food and beverage single-use disposables make up approximately 25 percent of all waste produced in California, gumming up recycling systems and clogging our landfills. Berkeley is tackling this problem head-on. A proposed ordinance from a coalition spearheaded by the city’s recycling provider, the Ecology Center, would mandate that all restaurants provide reusable foodware to customers dining in, and charge a small fee for takeout disposable foodware. Takeout items would need to be compostable or recyclable by local standards.
This is one of the most ambitious waste reduction policies in the country, and would force global chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s to limit their use of throwaway items and change packaging design. Imagine if cities across the country adopted the same measures. Companies like Starbucks would have to wake up and smell the coffee.
Plastic recycling has long been used as a crutch to justify industry’s ever-increasing production of single-use plastic. We need bold, innovative solutions to the plastic pollution crisis at the global level, not tired, recycled promises.
Monica Wilson is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ policy and research coordinator and the associate director of GAIA’s U.S. office. She has been working on waste issues around the world for more than 15 years.