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I view of plastic waste in Myanmar (nd) (photo by Stijn Dijkstra via Pexels)

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The great thing about being both a writer and an artist is that each profession gives me a way to find out things I want to know. Many of us have read the horrifying statistics — 90% of plastics are never recycled, or that we all eat a credit card’s worth of plastic a week, or that ocean garbage patches now occupy 40% of our oceans. But what can anyone really do about any of it?

Well, if you’re me, you hold a year-long performance piece in which you throw nothing away, to see what you find out.

What I found out was that all of us are being lied to about recycling, all the time:

The sad truth is that the only plastics that reliably get recycled are the ones numbered one and two. This is because one and two — and very rarely number five — are the only varieties of plastic for which there is an actual market. Regardless of what your service provider is telling you, numbers three, four, six and seven are not being recycled. Yes, they are collected. But ever since China stopped accepting our “recyclables” in 2018, they’ve been getting shipped to impoverished countries around the world to junk up their environments. The streets and waterways of Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam are just some of the places our “recycling” ends up.

Most “compostable” products are not actually compostable. “Compostable” brands are popping up more and more as feel-good alternatives to disposable plastic. Most are made from Polylactic Acid (PLA) resin derived from plants, which sounds great, right? Unfortunately, these products will not degrade in anything but a very specific environment: industrial compost. Do you have access to an industrial composting facility? Me neither.

Can you put compostables in recycling? Nope. So, this material goes to the landfill, our airless mausoleums of trash. This means that, despite the fact that PLA resin is made from plants, it never degrades. 

Zero waste isn’t enough. We’ve all seen the zero wasters on Instagram showing off their mason jars full of a year’s worth of trash. I applaud them. But most people aren’t going to be willing or able to change their lifestyles to that degree.

Instead, most people will go for smaller changes: bringing their plastic bags to the supermarket plastic film recycling bin or paying more attention to the How2Recycle label which is now on thousands of products. They could find out more about TerraCycle, and their programs for recycling difficult-to-recycle materials. In making such changes, people will feel they’ve done something to help.

Commonplace recycling symbols found on plastics (2021) (photo by the author)

What they won’t realize is that their well-intentioned actions may actually be making things worse.

That’s because all of these programs are now under suspicion for misrepresenting what they do and for taking advantage of people’s genuine desire to do the right thing for our environment — what’s known as “greenwashing.” How2Recycle, it turns out, is an entity created by the packaging industry that “certifies” recyclability for a fee, which is kind of like the fox certifying himself to watch the hen house. TerraCycle is currently being sued for deceptive labeling and failure to provide any proof of actual recycling.

To recap: Single Stream! Compostables! Extreme recycling! Ploy, ploy, ploy. Such blatant deception is possible because the world of recycling is almost entirely unregulated — it’s the Wild West. Snake oil salesmen are on every corner making wild claims, and there’s no sheriff in town.

The packaging industry will blame consumers, will say that the failure of recycling is because we’re all lazy and stupid and can’t figure out not to put greasy pizza boxes in the blue bin. But after a year of trying to do the right thing as an environmentally conscious person, today I’m here to tell you that it’s not only impossible; it’s meant to be impossible. The more we all run in circles, the more the plastics industry can continue quietly ramping up production, which means more fracking, more fossil fuels being extracted and used, more greenhouse gas emissions and more global warming, more incinerators, landfills, and toxic emissions, more environmental injustice.

Despite all the corporate sustainability pledges that are so in fashion now, plastic production is nevertheless expected to quadruple in the next 25 years. That’s four times as much disposable plastic as we have now — still not getting recycled. And if this happens, emissions from the plastic lifecycle could equal 50 times the emissions of all the coal power plants in the United States.

The garbage we know today is not the garbage of our ancestors. It’s not too late to reverse our course, but it’s going to take more than bringing our own bags to the grocery and avoiding plastic straws. Individual actions aren’t — can’t be — enough. It’s going to require actual new legislation and a willingness to hold corporations to account.

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Eve Schaub

Eve O. Schaub is the author of Year of No Sugar, Year of No Clutter, and is currently at work on her third memoir Year of No Garbage. She and her husband, photographic artist Stephen...

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