California (And the Whole World) Needs to Get Over Recycling

CC BY 2.0. Lars Plougmann

It doesn't work. Let's talk about circularity instead.

California is, without a doubt, leading the United States in the fight against plastic pollution. The state has outlawed plastic straws unless requested and thin plastic shopping bags. San Francisco did away with disposable water bottles and Berkeley recently passed an ordinance that will charge 25 cents for takeout cups and make all food accessories available by request only.

Now the state is looking to make broader, more comprehensive changes. New legislation was announced last Wednesday that would require all plastic materials sold in California to be reusable, fully recyclable, or compostable by 2030.

The Los Angeles Times reports that this law would also require the state to recycle or divert from landfills 75 percent of plastic packaging sold or distributed in California, up from 44 percent in 2017.

The legislation was introduced by Senator Ben Allen, who said,

"We can’t keep ignoring the public health and pollution threat posed by mounting plastic waste. Every day Californians generate tons of non-recyclable, non-compostable waste that clog landfills, rivers, and beaches."

It Sounds Like a Great Idea

At first glance, it looks like a great idea – until you stop to consider just how broken the recycling system is. The goals of reusing and composting are right on track, but recycling is not on the same level as those other two. Recycling is virtually non-existent; it's wishful thinking, even in a progressive state like California, and needs to be relegated to the past. What we need to be focusing on instead is circularity, closed loop manufacturing, reusability, and true biodegradability.

To quote from the new Life Without Plastic book by Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, "Only 9.4 percent of all discarded plastics were recycled in the United States in 2014... The solution to our plastic problem is not to recycle more, it is to consume less plastic."

None of this should come as news to Allen and other senators, if they've been following the state of California's recycling system. It's a complete disaster. People throw ridiculous things into their blue bins (diapers, shattered pottery, etc.) and the slightest bit of contamination (grease, food, feces, and mixed materials like paper envelopes with plastic windows) requires extra labor to separate. As the LA Times reported, "It doesn’t pay to tear the stuff apart. Off to the landfill."

When recycling does occur, it's hardly worth the effort because China isn't paying for it anymore. I wrote last summer,

"A ton of newsprint that went for $100 a year ago is now only worth $5, and it's cheaper to make bottles from virgin plastic than from recycled... People are supposed to be able to return bottles and cans to a recycling center for 5 to 10 cents apiece, but 40 percent of centers have closed in the last two years because of the low material values."

Allen recognizes this, saying that California only recycles 15 percent of the single-use plastic it generates, in part because "the cost of recycling plastics exceeds the value of the resulting material." So why propose this as a green solution for the state? It's clearly a dead-end – not to mention the fact that plastic can't even be truly recycled. It's only ever down-cycled into a lesser, weaker version of itself, and eventually ends up in a landfill.

Dare to Think Differently

I wish that governments would dare to think more aggressively and creatively about how to fight plastic – say, outlawing all single-use plastics that are deemed non-necessary (excepting medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, food handling tools, etc. that have no other option at this point); requiring stores to eliminate all plastic packaging and offer bulk options with refillable containers; subsidizing doorstep deliveries of milk in glass bottles and more; mandating reusable food containers in cafeterias; and requiring washing machine retrofits to catch synthetic microfibers.

Who knows, maybe some of these things will come about if the legislation emphasizes the 'reusability' and 'compostability' components of its goal – but I fear that the lawmakers will get sucked into the myth that recycling actually works and can be an effective solution to this mess we find ourselves in. It's not, never has been, and never will be.