It’s understandable that our society would be inclined to focus primarily on recycling as a path toward waste reduction. After all, encouraging consumers to throw items in the recycling bin requires no big changes to our lifestyles, nor does it affect the ability of manufacturers to make their goods as profitably and as prodigiously as possible. Of the environmentalist motto, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” recycling is almost certainly the most widely practiced and has been met with the least resistance of all.
But it also might be the least effective. To begin with, environmentalists emphasize that both reducing and reusing are higher in the “waste hierarchy” than recycling, which is meant to deal with waste that can’t be reduced or reused. Recycling uses more energy than either of the other two strategies. The best waste management strategy is always to avoid producing the waste to begin with. According to Lewis Akenji, with the think tank Institute for Global Environmental Strategies:
“Recycling policies are almost like giving a safety net to governments. Everything they want to do is promote recycling. Because we know that we can recycle in the end, we just keep turning out more material.”
But on top of that, the recycling system isn’t always accomplishing what it promises. And perhaps even more importantly, a problem of the magnitude of our current plastic pollution crisis needs to be addressed at the source, through better manufacturing practices, This isn’t a problem that should be left in the hands of individual consumers.
The New York Times reported last month that due to policy changes in China, many of the materials that Americans recycle are ultimately ending up in landfills anyway. Beginning January 1st, China banned imports of some types of plastic and paper, and put tighter standards in place for materials it does accept. Out of the 66 million tons of recycling Americans generate each year, about one third is exported, mostly to China. Now, many waste managers have yet to find a substitute. In some areas, local officials are no longer accepting most plastic and glass, advising residents to instead put such materials in the trash.
Even before this development, reports were indicating that much of the waste shipped out for recycling by the UK was ending up in landfills.
These problem are cropping up as global plastic pollution reaches a new crisis level. Scientists found in 2017 that out of the 6.9 billion tons of global plastic waste ever created, 6.3 billion have not been recycled. Much of that waste ends up in the oceans, where it kills millions of marine animals each year.
“This is a planetary crisis… we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean,” UN oceans chief Lisa Svensson said to the BBC.
The oceans are thought to contain 51 trillion particles of microplastics. Plastic pollution has been found in the world’s most remote locations, including the Arctic, Antarctic, and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans.
Animals consume this plastic, much of which is toxic or can interfere with hormones. Ultimately, it works its way into the food chain that humans depend on ourselves.
Much of this plastic pollution comes in the form of plastic bottles, which take 450 years, or longer, to biodegrade. Four hundred and eighty billion plastic bottles were produced in 2016 alone. Out of that number, 110 billion were made by Coca Cola.
Improving the recycling process is certainly a worthwhile goal. But with a crisis that has reached such epic proportions, perhaps it is time to hold companies like Coca Cola responsible. Only when we produce less plastic waste will we be able to rein in its impact on the environment.
As Annie Leonard wrote in The Guardian last week:
“If your home was flooding because you had left the faucet on, your first step wouldn’t be to start mopping. You’d first cut the flooding off at its source – the faucet. In many ways, our plastics problem is no different.”
Under public pressure, Coca Cola set a new target last year to use 50 percent recycled materials by 2020. But a Greenpeace analysis showed that in 2016, the company increased its production of plastic bottles by a billion, to a total of 110 billion. And many smaller companies have already reached 50 percent and are aiming for 100 percent by 2020.
Moves by government to ban single use plastic bags and straws are great step forward. But instead of only regulating consumers and retailers, governments should put standards into place for the manufacturers themselves. If Coca Cola wants to continue manufacturing an ever-increasing amount of plastic bottles, there may need to be mandates as to how much is made from recycled materials.
The EU is aiming for all plastic packaging on the European market to be fully recyclable by 2030, and the UK is working to eliminate “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042. This kind of initiative by governments is the next step in addressing plastic pollution. And while even these measures may not go far enough to solve the problem, countries like the US are taking no action whatsoever on this level. In fact, along with China and India, the US rejected a UN measure that would have instituted specific, legally binding goals to address plastic waste on an international level.
Prioritizing convenience over the environment is not a sustainable plan. This 20th-century mindset will need to change if we want to preserve the health of our oceans and our food supply. Unlike solving climate change, this won’t require a massive shift in the way the whole of society conducts its business. Instead, we just need to make it a priority.