Walking into any grocery store, it is unsurprising to see aisles lined with single-use plastic. From wrapped hard boiled eggs to solo cups, the extensive use of plastic directly reflects its inexpensive cost of production. To the same extent, the environmental cost of single-use plastic is no societal mystery—and rather than question the decisions to wrap produce that comes in natural shelling, consumers are persuaded to recycle through slogans like “reduce, reuse, recycle” and “don’t be trashy, recycle.” The blue and green bins and triangle arrows are not indicative of a circulatory system but rather an illusion misleading consumers about their environmental impact. To demonstrate this illusion, observe the example of a solo cup’s life cycle.
How is the solo cup made? First, raw materials, coal, crude oils, and natural gas are procured by drilling, mining, or fracking. These processes use oil and gas, and lead to methane leaking and flaring–a major cause of air pollution. Clearing forests and wetlands is also a part of the drilling process, which does not directly cause the release of greenhouse gasses but destroys areas that sequester carbon thus disrupting ecosystems and atmospheric equilibriums. Once manufactured and used by the consumer, the solo cup is placed in a bin dubbed recycling by its green or blue color. After this step, the consumer is satisfied with their work and likely will not think about the cup again as they have completed their societal obligation. Little does the consumer know that the majority of plastic waste actually ends up in landfills and incineration: 19% goes to unmanaged dumps or leaks, 40% goes to landfills, 25% is incinerated, and 16% is collected for recycling—of which only 75% is recovered in the recycling process. This consumer is not alone in their misbelief of the fate of the solo cup: society as a whole has been persuaded that recycling is a perfectly circular system.
This history of plastic, dating to before the birth of the solo cup, explains why. In 1979, single use plastic bags became available to shoppers. Shortly after in 1982, plastic bags were offered by Safeway and Kroger, two of the largest American supermarket chains. As a result of lobbying by oil companies to promote plastics, the 1990s saw an increase in commercials about recycling. While oil companies were selling the lie of the ability to recycle plastics, they were able to justify and advertise their mass production, granting them millions of dollars. In the 1990s, as environmentalism gained a new global awareness in response to rapid climate change as well as scientific progress, Congress began introducing bills banning single use plastic which threatened the entire plastic industry. The industry retaliated by creating interest groups such as the Council for Solid Waste Solutions that brought the lie of recycling plastic into people’s homes through blue bins. The slogan of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” “the future of plastic is in people’s garbage cans,” and “carbon footprint,” all created by oil companies, shifted the blame onto the individual rather than companies and gave consumers the illusion of power over plastic pollution.
One of four of the solo cups thrown away ends up bobbing up and down in the ocean or washed up on the beach for centuries. One of every six solo cups thrown into the recycling bin actually makes it through the recycling process. What is its fate? It is first sorted by polymer type before being shredded, washed, melted, pelletised, and made into new products. The environmental benefit of this process is indisputable: recycling conserves non-renewable fossil fuels, reduces energy consumption in producing new plastic, reduces solid waste going to langdale, and reduces gas emissions. But there is another lie casting a dark shadow on the recycling industry.
Recycling seems like the perfect deal to producers and the planet: the cost of inputs disappears and a circular system is engaged. So why isn’t the solo cup being recycled? Firstly, in a society run by monetary incentive, recycling plastic does not make sense as it is economically detrimental to recycle it. There are many different kinds of plastic that must be melted down and separated in order to be reused and most plastic is made of hybrid materials. Looking under the cup, the number 6 is decipherable in the center of the familiar triangle. This number identifies the resin content in the plastic which was a response to the mandate established in forty U.S. states that placed a recycling symbol on all plastics and thus caused people to throw nonrecyclable plastics into recycling bins. There are seven categories of plastics according to Resin Identification Codes, differentiated by the temperature at which material was heated which numerically classifies what type of plastic it is. The number corresponds to PET water bottles which have the highest recycling value. An additional complication of recycling is that if an item is made of two different materials, it cannot be recycled unless the materials are separated. This makes it cost ineffective and too time consuming for recycling companies to separate and process items like coffee cups and granola bars that have a plastic inner lining. Similarly, any plastic material with food residue on it cannot be recycled.
In the case that a plastic contains the right resin number, has been cleaned, and has been separated into its different materials, the recycling process itself is flawed as it downgrades quality. Plastics are polymers, long chains of atoms, which allow them to be strong, lightweight and flexible. Recycling plastic shortens the chain thus decreasing the quality. For this reason, plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times before it can no longer be used. Additionally, virgin material is often added to help upgrade the material each time plastic is recycled. The only materials that can actually be infinitely recycled without losing quality or purity are glass and metal. Thus, the one in six solo cups that make it to a recycling center are not returned to the market with the same initial quality and if they are, required additional inputs.
As awareness about sustainability and recycling’s flaws increases, so are potential solutions to the plastic problem. Technological advancements are made in three areas. Firstly, mechanical recycling physically processes used plastic into resin pellets which leaves polymer chains intact. This would ameliorate the problem of quality deterioration of resins as a result of recycling. Secondly, chemical recycling further breaks down plastics into their monomers. However this solution is only feasible for condensation-type polymers that can be re-monomerized like polyesters and polyamides. Finally, processing plastics waste back to basic feedstock involves breaking down polymer chains to hydrocarbon fractions through catalytic or thermal processing. Pyrolysis has big potential because it can process a wide range of low-quality mixed-plastics-waste streams helpful for processing flexible packaging. Although much is being done to improve technology, the lack of raw materials due to low rates of recovery of used plastics has limited their growth and dampened interest in further development and investment.
In the midst of a climate and pollution crisis, we have been completely accustomed to single use plastic labeled as recyclable and do not think twice about the lie that is the circular recycling process. Much of the responsibility for the historical and social depth and complexity of this issue falls on oil companies. However, it is now time for consumers to step up by educating ourselves on the types of recycling plastics, what plastics are accepted at our local recycling program, opting for glass and metal, and choosing plastics that have higher probabilities of being recycled.