Corporate plastic polluters love talking about recycling. That goes for both the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries, as well as the consumer goods and retail sectors. As long as the public views recycling as the primary solution to the plastic pollution crisis, these companies can continue producing endless quantities of single-use plastics.
For decades, we have all been told that if we toss our plastic packaging into the blue bin a truck will come take it away and turn it into a new product. This story was created by corporations so they could continue churning out cheap single-use plastics. The reality is that less than 10 percent of the plastic ever created has actually been recycled, and that which is recycled gets downcycled, losing its value over time. For the rare plastic item that does get recycled, it is just a brief stopover between its fracking origins and its inevitable end in a landfill, incinerator or sea turtle’s stomach.
For corporations, the strategy has always been to guilt us on pollution. They have worked to make us feel shame for the litter that they themselves produce, coining terms like litterbugs and launching worldwide ad campaigns. These companies knew that if they could get us to focus on cleaning up their mess, then they could avoid responsibility for their own packaging. And it has worked for decades.
For many of us, recycling has been synonymous with environmentalism since we were young. We put bumper stickers on our cars, wore t-shirts with the chasing arrows symbol and took pride in sorting our waste to do our part. But the companies that continue to market recycling as the solution have always known that it would never be enough to stop our pollution crisis. It has always been cheaper and easier for consumer goods companies and retailers to use virgin plastic. Recycling was their cover to keep producing more plastic stuff.
The primary solutions have always been the other two Rs that we learn about as kids: reduction and reuse. That is not to say that recycling does not have its place for certain materials, but for single-use plastics, it is simply never going to solve this crisis. It is time for legislators in Washington, D.C. — and across the country — to stop pushing the industry’s agenda by lobbying for recycling, cleanup or unproven technological solutions to plastic pollution. It is time for legislators to focus on comprehensively tackling this emergency by reducing the amount of plastic we create in the first place.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would do just that by holding corporations responsible for their packaging. This groundbreaking legislation would phase out unnecessary plastic products, pause new plastic facilities, hold companies accountable and expand options for reuse. It tightens the regulations of toxic chemicals found in plastics, establishes minimum recycled content requirements and creates new standards for labeling. And importantly, it takes the burden off of frontline communities by preventing the export of plastic waste to countries that cannot handle it and rejecting false solutions like incinerators.
Some corporations are already responding to the growing interest in reusables by testing pilot projects, often in partnership with scrappy startups like Algramo that bring new ideas to retail or consumer goods models. In many cases, global corporations are focusing these initiatives in countries that incentivize reuse or are banning or taxing throwaway packaging.
Clearly, regulation can help facilitate the shift to reuse. Policy can also help create common design requirements or support infrastructure to help scale up the reuse revolution. President BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE’s American Jobs Plan presents a powerful opportunity to invest in reuse, building for the plastic free future we need rather than trying to subsidize recycling of single-use plastics that need to be phased out as quickly as possible.
The plastics crisis is not just a litter issue — it is a public health emergency and an ongoing threat to our climate. Low-income communities and communities of color face disproportionate health impacts from living near plastic production and disposal facilities — and have been particularly hard hit along the Gulf Coast and in Appalachia. The same companies that are destroying our climate are relying on the continued use of single-use plastics for profit, jeopardizing our health and well-being.
If we truly want to save our seas and the communities most impacted by these crises, we must act holistically and reject failed approaches that corporate polluters have lobbied in support of for decades. Recycling has not and will never solve this crisis. It is time to stop producing so much single-use plastic. Members of Congress who want to make a real difference should support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and not failed strategies of years past. And Biden should make the necessary investments for a future centered on reuse to truly “build back better.”
John Hocevar is oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA. He is based in Washington, DC.