Consumer recycling became part of the American consciousness back in the 1970s. Thanks to a concerted effort among environmental groups and manufacturers, people began hearing just how important recycling was to the health of the planet. So what happened? Decades later, we still can’t get recycling right.
The epitome of what is wrong with American recycling was encapsulated by a Forbes article that is pretty old itself. It was published back in 2012. Author Amy Westervelt went to great pains to explain why our recycling system was broken. But here is the thing: we already knew that. At least politicians and the recycling industry did. Yet very little has changed over the last 10 years.
1. Blaming the Oil Industry
Way back in 2012, it was en vogue to blame the oil industry for the lack of plastic recycling. Such logic is a stretch, yet it is still defended today. Recycling advocates blame the oil industry for purposely misleading consumers and politicians alike, increasing demand for plastics without offering effective recycling solutions.
The ‘blame Big Oil’ crowd is quick to point out that the original recycling solutions of the 1970s and 80s were never intended to handle the kind of volume they face today. If that is the case, why doesn’t a short-sighted approach to recycling get talked about as much as Big Oil’s contribution to the problem?
Knowing recycling solutions could not handle large volumes should have been a bright red flag. Ignoring it is a lot like building a two-lane road when you know you will need an interstate 10 years down the line. But rather than admit the mistake, it is easier to blame the oil industry for pushing plastic on a supposedly reluctant society.
2. Cost and Convenience
Plastic volume is a legitimate concern. However, the large volume of plastic we produce these days is not the result of deceitful oil companies pushing something on us that we otherwise do not want. We Americans create demand through our purchase decisions. And like it or not, we love plastic.
Plastic food containers cost less than containers made from other materials. It is more convenient to throw away a plastic container than wash a glass one. It is more convenient to throw away a plastic milk jug than return glass bottles to the dairy.
We also like the convenience we enjoy from the technology made possible through plastic production. For instance, we love our cell phones. They make life more convenient in so many ways. But it wasn’t Big Oil that created the demand. Buying consumers created that demand, and our insatiable desire for the technology requires ongoing plastic manufacturing.
3. There Is a Way to Do It
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to all of this is that we continue to ignore the fact that there is a way to effectively recycle plastic. Instead of trying to fix the problems inherent to our broken system, we look to see who we can blame for producing so much plastic. Meanwhile the answer is staring us in the face.
In Tennessee, a company known as Seraphim Plastics recycles industrial scrap plastic profitably. They are not the only ones. Industrial plastic recycling is economically viable because the system on which it is built was designed to be that way. We could just as easily recycle consumer plastics by following the industrial system.
That would take real effort and commitment. Unfortunately, those are the very things modern culture is lacking. That’s why we still can’t get recycling right some 50 years after claiming this was the most important thing that we could do to save the planet.