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You’ve been lied to: The plastic reality of recycling

Aurelia Athanasia Anchor Staff Writer

Image via Francesco Paggiaro/Pexels

Drilled into the minds of recent generations is the importance of recycling. They are told that recycling is crucial for the protection of the environment and salvation of Earth. It’s no secret that plastic is an already incredible threat to the environment that continues to grow, but are consumers that fail to recycle really to blame?

You may be shocked to hear that for all plastics created, less than 10% are actually recycled, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. How is that possible? Plastics are marked with the recycling symbol, right? In fact, that’s a very similar symbol with a very different meaning, created by the plastics industry using the fact that the actual recycling symbol is public domain.

This symbol is the Resin Identification Code, or “RIC,” and was deliberately designed to deceive the public into thinking that plastics are more sustainable than they really are. The reality of recycling plastics is that very few can be safely recycled and fewer still are economical to recycle. The number in the center of the RIC symbol indicates the plastic resin type the product is made of, with there being seven possible numbers starting with one. Typically, only resins of type one or two are taken and even then, few of those are recycled.

Greenpeace, a global network of environmental campaigning organizations found in a report that plastic collection and processing are expensive, and as more plastic is used, the more it degrades and becomes toxic. Creating new plastic instead is comparatively cheaper and is less toxic. As is, plastic recycling is nearly unviable, yet there are huge pushes to increase public participation in recycling programs.

An investigation by NPR revealed that key figures in the plastics industry had “serious doubt” that recycling would ever be viable, yet the Society of the Plastics Industry contributed substantial funding to promotional campaigns for recycling. The motive behind this is made clear by the words of Larry Thomas, once the President of SPI until the year 2000, who told NPR investigators, “The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire, we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products[...] If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment.” The SPI sold the idea of recycling to the public in order to ease economic and legislative pushback, allowing them to make incredible profits off of selling more plastic.

Of course, continuing to recycle your plastics is still important; data from the U.S. EPA shows that 35.7 million tons of plastic were generated in the year 2018. However, only 10% of that amount will likely be recycled, but 10% of such an incomprehensible mass is a very substantial amount of plastic.

Real change, however, will have to be brought about at the legislative level. As individuals, we can utilize what power we have by keeping an eye on active legislation surrounding the plastic waste issue and leverage our support accordingly. We should try our best to mitigate the damage as best we can, but we shouldn’t allow the weight of the world to be thrust onto us so lightly. Corporations should be accountable for their crimes of greed, not the people forced to live with the effects of their actions.


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