One of my favorite sci-fi films is the classic 1973 movie Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston. The movie takes place in the year 2022 when overpopulation, pollution and climate change have caused severe worldwide shortages of food, water and housing. Not such an unrealistic premise given where we are in 2020. Charlton Heston stars as NYPD detective Frank Thorn who is investigating the assassination of a wealthy businessman who was on the board of Soylent Industries. Soylent Industries controls the food supply and produces Soylent Green which is supposedly made from ocean plankton which is in short supply.
Thorn’s older friend, Sol Roth, is an analyst who assists Thorn’s investigation. Roth learns from oceanographic books seized from the murdered businessman’s apartment that the world’s oceans are no longer producing plankton. Soon thereafter Roth seeks assisted suicide at a government clinic and tells Thorn what he has learned before dying. After Roth dies Thorn follows Roth’s body from the clinic to a recycling plant where human corpses are made into Soylent Green. There is a fight between Thorn and the security personnel at the recycling plant and Thorn is injured. As he is being carried away by medics Thorn shouts out to a crowd that “Soylent Green is people!”.
Given the state of the world in 2020, it seems highly probable that we are heading for some type of ecological dystopian future as depicted in Soylent Green. With that in mind, I feel it is necessary to disavow every one of the fantasy that plastic is being recycled and reused in significant volumes . . . it’s not now and it never has been – “Plastic Recycling is a lie!”. Just because you place all of your plastic waste on the curb for recycling collection doesn’t mean it is being recycled.
An estimated 8.6 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s. Approximately 10% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled and approximately 10% has been incinerated. The majority of plastic has been either landfilled or dumped into the environment. Plastic can take centuries to break down in the environment. For example, there’s a humongous floating patch of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. Marine life ingests plastic waste and is ensnared by plastic bags, used fishing line, and six-ring plastic drink holders.
In addition, microplastics from the breakdown of plastic waste now exist in the world’s oceans and terrestrial environments and are being ingested by all types of animals including humans. Certain types of microplastics are intentionally added to cleansers and toothpastes. In addition, many types of bottled water inadvertently contain microplastics. Fibers that shed from certain types of clothing are also a source of microplastics in the environment.
Plastics with recycling numbers 1 and 2 are realistically the only type of plastics that can be recycled. Numbers 3 through 7 are not typically recycled because these types of plastics have chemical constituents that are very difficult to breakdown and make it expensive to recycle. For example, plastic bottle caps, plastic stirrers and plastic straws are not recycled.
#1. PETE – Polyethylene Terephthalate is in pop and water bottles. Please recycle.
#2. HDPE – High Density Polyethylene is opaque and usually in bottles that store laundry detergent and milk. These are usually recyclable.
#3. V – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is found in plastic pipes, shrink wrap.
#4. LDPE – Low Density Polyethylene is in produce bags, plastic wrap, and plastic bags.
#5. PP – Polypropylene is used for yogurt tubs, ketchup bottles.
#6. PS – Polystyrene is found in Styrofoam, used for egg crates.
#7. Other – This category covers a vast mixture of resins and includes food containers (clam shells), polycarbonate used in sport bottles, and bio‐based plastic used in compostable food containers.
Combining different types of plastic in a load sent for recycling can also result in none of that plastic being recycled. The other problem with recycling plastic is that it needs to be clean for recycling. In addition, each time plastic is recycled its overall quality degrades and more virgin plastic needs to be added to make useable plastic products. Plastic recycling is not economically viable. It is cheaper to produce virgin plastic than to recycle plastic for reuse in plastic production. Currently, approximately 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year.
Most of the plastic waste generated in the Western Hemisphere was sent to China for recycling for many years until 2017 when the Chinese government announced the National Sword policy which put an end to China receiving plastic waste for recycling. Most of the plastic waste that had been sent to China was not actually recycled but instead was burned or landfilled. Now most plastic waste that used to be sent to China is being burned or landfilled in the country where it originates.
Several investigations by different news organizations has revealed that going back to as early as the 1970s the plastics industry knew that recycling plastics would be difficult and not economically viable. It was actually the plastics industry that conceived and promoted the concept of plastics recycling to counter concerns about the proliferation of plastic waste and any initiatives to ban or curb the use of plastic. Evil geniuses!
Remember that public service announcement from the 1970s known as the “Crying Indian” which showed a Native American Indian standing by the side of a highway with a tear running down his face after a bag of garbage is thrown out of the window of a passing car and lands at his feet. This ad was part of the Keep America Beautiful campaign which included the tag line “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.” Several beverage and packaging manufacturers are members of the Keep America Beautiful organization which advocates for personal responsibility for litter and not for corporate responsibility for single use packaging and the pollution it causes!
Single-use plastics and other forms of single-use packaging are wasteful, difficult to recycle and do not breakdown in the environment quickly. Plastic waste is not really being recycled in any significant volumes to counterbalance the large quantities of plastic produced each year. The best way to manage plastic waste is to minimize the amount of plastic used to begin with and to minimize its use.
Copyright 2020 “The Welcome Matt”