Plastic recycling is broken. Why does Big Plastic want cities to get $ 1 billion to fix it?


As the coronavirus pandemic cripples the U.S. economy, giant corporations are turning to Congress for help. Polluting industries were among the first in line: Congress has already bailed out airlines, and coal companies have secured more than $ 30 million in federal small business loans. Big Plastic is next in line with what may seem like a surprising demand: $ 1 billion to help fix the nation’s recycling.

A group of plastics industry and trade groups sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on April 16, asking Congress to allocate $ 1 billion for municipal and state recycling infrastructure in the region. next pandemic stimulus bill. This would be part of the legislation known as the RECOVER Act, first introduced to Congress last November. Recycling looks awesome and has long been an environmental policy that almost anyone – Republicans and Democrats alike – can support. For some environmentalists and advocates, however, the latest push is simply the plastics industry trying to get the federal government to clean up mountains of plastic waste in an effort to spruce up Big Plastic’s image.

“Plastic recycling has been a failure,” said Judith Enck, former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency and founder of the organization Beyond Plastics. “And there’s no reason to try and spend federal tax dollars trying to support plastic recycling when it really hasn’t worked in the last 30 years anyway.”

Simply put, very little of your plastic recycling actually gets recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 10% of the plastic produced over the past four decades has been recycled; the rest ended up in landfills or were cremated. In 2017, the United States produced over 35 million tonnes of plastic, but less than 3 million tonnes were turned into new products.

Part of the problem is that some items are made from different types of plastics and chemicals, making them difficult to melt and process. Only plastics with a “1” or “2” symbol are commonly recycled, and even then they are more often “recycled” into different types of products. A container of laundry detergent or a plastic soda bottle can be used for a new carpet or outdoor patio, but rarely in a new bottle. And downcycling is one more step towards landfill. “The recycling logo is the arrow that keeps spinning – but it never has been with plastic,” Enck said.

Large plastics companies also have little incentive to use recycled materials rather than virgin materials. Plastics are made from petroleum, and when the price of crude oil is as low as it is now, it costs more to make goods from recycled polymers than from crude.

Some analysts say the RECOVER law does not address these broader issues. The law targets the ‘at the door’ aspect of recycling: funding city and state waste collection, improving sorting in treatment plants, and encouraging consumer education – teaching people what to do next. can (and cannot) go to recycling bins. (The legislation is also supported by the American Chemistry Council, which represents Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil, and has a long history of fighting municipal bans on plastic bags.)

There are some border issues with recycling. If plastic bags or containers lined with food waste enter recycling bins, they can contaminate other items and make sorting and reuse more difficult.

But Jonathan Krones, professor of environmental studies at Boston College, said the real problem isn’t at the curb. It is that “there are no strong and resilient long-term end markets for recycled materials”. Even if cities manage to collect and sort more recycling, without markets, all of these perfectly processed plastics have nowhere to go.

For decades, the United States has solved part of the problem by selling hundreds of thousands of tonnes of used plastics to China. Then, in 2018, the Chinese government implemented its “national sword” policy, banning the import of 24 types of waste in a campaign against foreign waste. The United States suddenly lost the largest market for its used plastics, and cities across the United States began burning recyclables or sending them to landfills. Some cities have completely stopped recycling plastic and paper.

Piles of plastic and paper at a recycling plant in the city of Brooklyn, New York. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images

So why is Big Plastic pushing the RECOVER Act? Some claim that the oil companies are trying to cover up failures in plastic recycling. If consumers realized that only 10 percent of their plastics are ultimately recycled, they could push for bans on plastic bags and other single-use items, or tighter restrictions on packaging. Keeping the focus on recycling can distract the public from the piles of plastic waste that clog our landfills and oceans. And a recent survey by NPR and Frontline found that since the 1970s, the plastics industry has supported recycling programs to bolster its public image.

“If this bill had been proposed 10 years ago, I think I would have said it was a good idea,” Krones said, referring to the RECOVER law. “But what has been revealed after National Sword is that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a technological problem. It is a consumer problem and a manufacturing problem. He argues that any attempt repairing plastic recycling should come with constraints on the production of new materials – only making plastics that can be easily broken down and reused, for example, or requiring companies to include a certain percentage of recycled material in their products .

There are other ways to deal with the plastic problem. In February, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat, introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would phase out many single-use plastic items like utensils and straws and force large corporations to pay for recycling and composting of products – what is known as “extended producer responsibility”. Other countries have similar laws in place: Germany has required companies to take responsibility for their own packaging since 1991, and is credited with a dramatic reduction in waste.

For now, the use of plastic is on the rise. According to Rachel Meidl, an energy and environment researcher at Rice University, the pandemic is bringing piles of take-out boxes and plastic bags to landfills, as cities ban reusable bags and enforce social distancing. She thinks that the RECOVER law could be useful, but that it must be coupled with other interventions.

“No matter how much government funding is allocated to recycling efforts, there must first be a meaningful paradigm in human behavior,” she said. “Where plastic is seen as a resource, not as waste. “

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