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The Plastic Recycling Myth

  • 5 min read

By Jennifer Moscatello


Misinformation proliferates—fueled by the plastic industry—that tells us plastic is recyclable. It’s not.

For years, when shopping, I tried to minimize my plastic consumption due to concerns about bisphenol-a (bpa) and phthalates, which have long been known to cause ill health effects. I eschewed plastic water bottles and invested in a quality water filter, ensuring my HydroFlask was always at the ready. I stocked my kitchen with glass storage containers rather than Tupperware. Simple things. And while I happily minimized my overt consumption, I pushed away the nagging unease at the sight of empty body wash containers and laundry detergent jugs heaped together, and instead comforted myself with the thought, as I piled them all in the recycling bin, that they would be one day be transformed into cozy fleece sweaters and blankets.

But things are never as neat and tidy as we like.

In reality, NPR and Frontline estimate that less than 10% of all plastic produced is recycled. For years, the companies driving the plastic industry—petroleum and coal companies like Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil—waged a campaign to convince consumers that plastics were something they’re not: recyclable, compostable, reusable, and safe. Rather than admit what they knew to be true: that plastic recycling is not economically viable, and that plastic takes millenia to decompose. When it does, it breaks down into microplastics that pollute our waters, earth, air and bodies. Given that plastic is derived from coal and petroleum, this seems rather like a ‘duh’ moment if ever there was one.

But what about the recycling symbols emblazoned on my plastic?

In theory, 90% of plastics are recyclable. In reality, recycling plastic is an energy and cost-intensive process that makes it impossible to sustain. Those eponymous triangles you see emblazoned on everything from yogurt containers to salad clamshells were created in the 1980s by the plastics industry in conjunction with an ad campaign whose sole purpose was to convince the public of plastic’s benefits. Read NPR’s article for the full, fascinating account. The bottom line: the cost of sorting discarded plastic and recycling them is cost-prohibitive. And so it isn’t done. Recycling symbols simply mean that under ideal conditions, if money were no object, plastic products COULD be recycled. The symbol doesn’t mean they WILL be recycled. It is more economical for producers to manufacture virgin plastic than it is to recycle used plastic—especially given that plastic manufacturers aren’t held accountable for the exorbitant expenses that plastic production causes on the back end: clean-up of our oceans, waterways and land, for example, as well as sky-rocketing health-care expenses from illnesses caused by exposure to the toxic chemicals in plastic. And so it doesn’t happen. Instead, the majority of plastic is used once and discarded. Less than 10% is recycled, the rest is incinerated (while emitting toxins into the atmosphere), heaped into landfills, or dumped into the ocean. The discarded plastic decomposes over time, breaking down into microplastics that contaminate the earth, the water, and our food supply. 

Practical steps we can each take to mitigate the problem

Use less plastic. You’re likely all set with your Klean Kanteens and stainless steel travel mugs. Well done, you! But that’s just the beginning. There are so many easy changes we can each implement that will make a big impact:

  1. Invest in reusable produce bags.

When assembling your reusable shopping bag arsenal, don’t forget to add reusable produce bags. No, you mustn't be swayed by the promises of biodegradable or compostable plastic-like produce bags at your natural food store. Remember what we learned above about greenwashing, yes? One other important factor to note: while plastic bag bans are in place in eight states nationwide, the ban only applies to shopping bags, not plastic produce bags, which fly under the radar and slip unnoticed into the shopping carts of all but the most educated among us. Not to fear, BRINGiT has a sustainable, compostable option for you, made from 100% beechwood fibers. This diminutive bag was the one that inspired our fearless leaders, Deb Singer and Karin Heck, to found BRINGiT.

  1. Replace your plastic wrap and plastic bags with healthy alternatives.

Lots of options here: Bee’s Wrap® and Stasher silicone bags, to start. A less expensive hack: when you’ve exhausted your glass jars of almond butter and tomato sauce, rather than tossing them into the recycling bin, wash them out and remove their labels (a bit of baking soda always does the trick) and supplement your glass jar collection. Easy!

  1. Carry reusable shopping bags.

Preferably reusable bags that are compostable, so when they’ve reached the end of their lifecycle, as all things inevitably do, you can dispose of them guilt-free. Many who live in states where single-use plastic bags are banned mistakenly believe that this common sense legislation is enacted country-wide. It’s not. To date, only eight states have banned single-use plastic shopping bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont. And unfortunately, not all reusable bags are created equal; most on offer at your local grocery store—yes, even those bastions of all things natural—are made from polypropylene, which is derived from plastic. Which means that when they’ve become too icky to wipe down (again!) or they begin to wear and are discarded, they end up in a landfill. Invest in a sustainable, washable choice instead. BRINGiT has a new line of sustainable, reusable shopping bags made from 100% beechwood fiber. They’re plastic-free, fully compostable, and quite chic, if we do say so ourselves.

  1. Switch to bar soap instead of liquid soap.

Worried that bar soap is unhygienic, and that if you share a bathroom with someone, it will be covered in their germs? Or is that just me? Rest assured, it won’t. One of our faves: Pacha Dirty Hippy Bar Soap.

  1. Have a look through your toiletries.

Take stock of the items you buy that are encased in plastic, and look for healthy replacements. A few places to start? Swap out your plastic deodorant stick for Meow Meow Tweet’s Lavender Bergamot Deodorant, which comes in your choice of a paper stick or a glass jar. And replace that disposal razor of yours for a gorgeous metal one from Harry’s or Flamingo.

  1. Invest in reusable bulk bags.

Buy your nuts, dried beans and grains in bulk. You’ll eliminate the plastic bags you would’ve consumed when buying pre-packaged nuts, for example. And if you invest in a reusable, sustainable, compostable bulk bag, you can skip the plastic bulk bags on offer at the market as well. BRINGiT’s sustainable, compostable offering has the bag’s tare weight etched on the label, so the cashier can easily deduct the bag’s weight from your purchase. When you arrive home, simply decant into a glass mason jar.

  1. Replace your laundry detergent jug or individually plastic wrapped tabs with a plastic-free option.

A few of eco-friendly options: Earth Breeze and Tru Earth Eco-strips.

There are so many simple things we can each do every day to minimize the amount of plastic we consume. And if you’re anything like me, once you start, you’ll begin noticing it everywhere. 

 

Stay informed. Take action. Inspire others.

Break out the popcorn and host a virtual movie night with your family and friends to watch Plastic Wars, NPR and Dateline’s documentary exposing the plastic recycling myth; then discuss via Zoom afterwards. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the film, and any ideas or feedback you’d like to share.