The Great Recycling Con
The greatest trick companies ever played was making us think we could recycle their products.
Everyone knows recycling is pretty easy. You throw the bottle into the blue bin or in the recycling bin. The city then throws it into some kind of truck all sorted nice and neat. It goes to a separate place, to a plastic recycling plant, to a factory. Then I imagine that there’s some large machine that just squishes everything together. Everything then is melted down. It’s somehow melted, maybe they melt down the plastic or something. From there, it can be reshaped into sheets of plastic, a park bench. You hear about sneakers being turned into a basketball court. And that turns into new things. Recycling!
Turns out, that’s not the whole truth, especially for plastic. Who’s behind a lot of this messaging? The industry that produces plastic and the retailers who sell it to us. And it makes perfect sense that they’d want us thinking we can use as much plastic as we want so long as we recycle. Why not pass the responsibility for a big corporate mess onto individuals like you and me. But here’s the big secret. Entire categories of papers and plastics are rarely recycled. Of seven types of plastic that people put into blue bins, five whole categories hardly ever get recycled at all. According to the E.P.A., in 2017 as little as 8.4 percent of our discarded plastic went through that magic recycling process.
To make it worse, we used to export a third of our recycling, a whopping 20 million tons a year, and pay countries like China to deal with it for us. That game’s over. China’s basically told us no more followed by the Philippines and Malaysia. This recycling shutout has caused hundreds of American municipalities to cut down or totally cancel their recycling programs.
In Eugene, Ore., you can’t even recycle a milk cartons or yogurt containers anymore. You might be thinking, if so little is actually getting recycled, why does everything we buy seem to have that symbol on it? Great question. Let’s ask the F.T.C. That’s the entity set up to protect American consumers like you and me by setting rules on consumer labeling. But their guidelines around recycling are a bit confusing. Basically, to earn this symbol, 60 percent of the people who buy that product should be able to recycle it, which seems to mean 60 percent of buyers of that product would live in a place that can break down and reuse that thing. But then it gets more complicated. Like if a shower curtain package says recyclable but either the curtain or the package isn’t recyclable, then that’s considered deceptive. But if it’s a bottle instead of a curtain and it’s the cap instead of the package that’s not recyclable, then it’s totally fine unless the bottle has a nonrecyclable wrapping or is contaminated with food.
Is anyone else totally lost here? With such complicated regulations, companies can get away with stamping a recyclable label on products that aren’t likely to be recycled. And most of us wouldn’t even know. Now you may be thinking, so should I not even bother recycling anymore? Please keep recycling stuff that’s recyclable. But we’ve been made to feel that as long as we put our plastic in the blue bin we’ve done our part. And that’s just not true. The best thing we can really do is start buying as if nothing gets recycled. Because that’s pretty much what’s going on.