The plastic recycling scam

Plastic pollution is a global menace. In. his latest episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver exposes how the plastics industry has managed to pull off one of the biggest scams on the public by persuading us that tackling plastic pollution is our responsibility and urging us to ever greater recycling efforts while making false promises about their own efforts to reduce plastic contamination. In one episode of his excellent series Adam Ruins Everything, host Adam Conover made some similar points.

One of their triumphs was to get legislatures to force manufacturers to put those triangles on almost all plastic items, suggesting that they can all be recycled when in fact most of them can’t. Only those with the numbers 1 and 2 have a reasonable shot at being recycled. Worse, by having the public think that all of them can be recycled, it contaminates the plastic pool making it harder to even recycle the plastic that can be. What then happens is that the ‘recycled’ plastic from the US ends up in landfills all over the world.

The best thing we can do is to dispose of all plastics with numbers 3 and higher in the trash and not in the recycling bins, enact legislation that creates strong disincentives for single use plastics by manufacturers, and put the burden for reducing plastic pollution where it really belongs, on the manufacturers and not the public. Some countries are doing just that.


  1. says

    This is utterly ridiculous. I was watching the video when it came out and now it is suddenly age-restricted. YouTube has gone peculiar again.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Do you need a Google account to watch this? Did you try just clicking on the link? Sometimes they want you to go to the YouTube site just to have you certify that you are over 18.

  3. John Morales says

    Mano, one needs to log in to a Google account to watch any video marked as adult. It’s bullshit, of course — anyone can make an account at any time, but it’s their policy.

    So, since I (on principle) never ever log in to watch videos, I don’t get to see them.
    No big loss.

  4. anat says

    BTW, if you are concerned about plastics in the oceans specifically, then one of the biggest culprit for *visible* plastic pollution is discarded fishing equipment -- nets and lines -- according to organizations involved in ocean clean-up.

  5. outis says

    Mh, if I go on YouTube it starts without problem and without age verification. And this in Germany, where YT delights in being stupid, so I dunno what’s going on.
    Could it be… a CONSPIRACY?

  6. flex says

    John Oliver makes some very good points, and I don’t know that he said anything untrue, but there are few things which I would say that he left out of the program.

    I do not call myself an expert on recycling, but between 2008 and 2018 I served on the Washtenaw County Consortium for Solid Waste Management, and pretty much everything we did was related to trash and recycling. I’m not an expert, but I spoke to a lot of experts in that time. We toured dumps, recycling centers, recycling sorting centers, trash collectors, electronic wastes recycling companies, and even plastic bottle manufacturers. I’ll repeat some of the things I was told, with the understanding that I haven’t verified a lot of it, but I also know of no reason why the people we talked to would lie.

    First of all, and this surprised me, we were told by a manufacturer of plastic bottles (catsup, mustard and other condiments, as well as laundry detergent, etc.) that the numbers printed in the triangle were not originally designed to be used for recycling. Instead, the manufacturer claimed, those numbers were established by the plastic industry for their own use and tracking of material but were adopted by the recycling industry. This is why category 7, other, is a catchall, because it includes plastics which no one in the industry really cared about tracking. Again, I’m willing to be shown that he was wrong about that statement. I have no independent verification. But I do know from my other manufacturing experience that this isn’t an unlikely story.

    Next, plastic water bottles. I discussed the problems of recycling plastic water bottles with our local trash collector/recycling operator. They say that plastic water bottles are no longer recycle-able because there is too little plastic in them. The process of making a plastic durable enough for a water bottle, but with as little plastic as possible has resulted in so little plastic being used for each bottle that when the put a water bottle in the grinder it turns to a fine powder. They could try to recycle the bottles, but a 100 bottles through the grinder yields about a cup of plastic. It costs more to run the grinder than the value of the plastic recovered (more on that later). This is probably also true for a lot of the thin plastic supermarket containers.

    On to plastic bags. There is no one in the waste stream who likes the ultra-thin plastic grocery bags. These use a long-chain plastic which is tough and stringy. It can be cut easily, but it stretches rather than rips. These bags are such a problem that many municipalities have tried to ban them. Washtenaw County had an ordinance on the books to ban these until the Michigan GOP-Controlled legislature passed a law banning municipalities from banning the thin plastic bags. There are many problems with these bags, so I’ll only mention one which is probably less well known. Because of the nature of these bags, tough, stretchy plastic which forms strong threads, they really gum up grinders and choppers at recycling centers. Ann Arbor, which is in Washtenaw County, spends more than $40,000/year cleaning the shredders, and the process involves someone cleaning the knives while standing on a ladder inside the machine. It’s very dangerous work, but also tedious. I hope no one gets hurt, but if someone does I hope they sue the Michigan legislature for preventing Ann Arbor from banning these bags.

    Sorting recycling/wishcycling. This is a little disingenuous on Oliver’s part. There are quite a few single-stream recycling centers which sort material after it is collected. This greatly reduces the chance of impurities getting into the bales. It also means putting plastics, or other materials, which you are uncertain will be accepted will be sorted by someone who knows better than you do. That being said, there are two major caveats. First, not all municipalities run a sorting station after collection, which makes Oliver’s point perfectly valid. Second, the more non-recyclable material a sorting center gets the slower it operates (which adds cost). So, it is always a good idea to check with your local recycler to know what they will accept. But you shouldn’t feel too guilty about throwing things into the bin you are uncertain about. Obviously, an umbrella isn’t recyclable, even if it is nylon.

    For what it’s worth, its a general rule that any product with a mix of materials is usually not recyclable. I’ve dealt with that problem in my automotive engineering job where we have insert-molder metal in a plastic housing. Plastic bonded to metals, like kitchen knives as an example, are generally too expensive to separate. There are specialty recyclers who can handle such things, but your local MERF will just toss things into their trash.

    This comment is long enough already, so I’ll skip all the interesting details of electronics recycling, I’ll just way that that as electronics recycling goes there are probably more options to recycle old TVs, radios, computers, then you think. A lot of retail electronics stores will accept and recycle electronics, even brands they don’t sell. Check with your local municipality for further details.

    Let me conclude with a short discussion of the remedy Oliver proposes. Oliver says we need legislation to make companies responsible for their materials throughout their life-cycle. That is not a bad idea, and it’s something which Germany started doing with cell phones over a decade ago. However, the deeper problem is in the economics of producing raw plastic and recycling used plastic. Even if a company collects all their packaging material at the end of it’s use, if the result is that the company throws it away because it’s cheaper to use new plastic rather than recycle the old plastic you get no benefit. Even if there are financial penalties for using new plastic, the stick may not be enough. We have plenty of experience in companies looking at fines or other financial penalties as a cost of doing business.

    Further, after a number of conversations with recycling experts, they say the real driver is energy costs. The way the system is currently set up, the energy cost of recycling is greater than the cost of producing new plastic. When the cost of energy is high, which means the cost of oil is high, the cost of the raw material for making virgin plastic goes up. But also the cost of recycling plastic goes up because of the energy required to recycle. On the other hand, when the cost of energy is low, the cost of recycling is low, but also the cost of the raw material for plastic, crude oil, is low. So the cost of virgin plastic is still less than the cost of recycling.

    The legislation being proposed is a stick, if a manufacturer doesn’t do something they will be punished. But the stick needs support. There will need to be monitoring systems set up to check on companies for compliance, and the penalties need to be large enough to encourage compliance while small enough to prevent a company from closure unless there are numerous egregious offences.

    There is no reason why a subtle carrot couldn’t be offered. If the desired behavior is for manufacturers to use more recycled plastic in their products, you can bludgeon them into compliance by legislation, or add incentives to make the change by changing the economics. Place a tax on the manufacture of virgin plastic which will offset the cost of recycling. The plastic manufactures will pass most of this cost onto their customers. Which will cause the price of these virgin plastics to go up. Which will encourage manufacturers who use virgin plastic in areas where it isn’t necessary (and virgin plastic is currently more durable than recycled plastic so there are places where virgin plastic is necessary) to look at using a higher recycled plastic content. This will drive up demand for recycled plastic, increasing its value, which will further encourage recycling. If we are lucky, it may even encourage people to collect the discarded plastic and recycle it. It will be fairly easy to monitor the companies who make bulk virgin plastic, there are only a couple dozen of them, for compliance.

    I’m not against the proposed legislation, but I think balancing the economics and creating market-based incentives (rather than tax rebates) would be more effective in the long run.

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