Make this the last America Recycles Day: It's time to celebrate zero waste and ban single-use plastics

America Recycles day
Screen capture America recycles day

Some say we should be worrying more about climate change, but you can't actually separate plastics from climate.

It was ten years ago on November 15 that we first complained about America Recycles Day, the annual event sponsored by the Keep America Beautiful people. I described it once:

It is my favorite holiday of the year, more comedic than April Fools Day and scarier than Hallowe'en. It is the day when Nestlé Water, Anheuser Busch, Alcoa and Pepsi get together with their friends at the American Chemistry Council to pat you on the head for picking up their shit.

When you look at its website now, it seems that it is a shadow of its former self; none of those sponsors seem to be around anymore.

treehugger week in pictures

Perhaps everyone has been reading TreeHugger and recognized recycling for what it is, as described in my decade-old post, Recycling is BS [who edited that? It wasn't the initials!] Make Nov. 15 Zero Waste Day, not America Recycles Day, where I described recycling as "a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America."

Or perhaps people have finally realized that the real scam and fraud was the way big business sold us on a world of single-use plastics, and that recycling isn't enough, that recycling is totally broken, and that we have to break the entire single-use economic model and return to a circular economy.

In The Guardian: The plastic backlash: what's behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference?

Certainly, we are seeing a revolt against single-use plastics; we have been complaining about them forever but now there seems to be a real movement. Steven Buranyi writes in The Guardian that there's "a worldwide revolt against plastic, one that crosses both borders and traditional political divides."

All this has added up to a feeling that we might be on the verge of a great environmental victory, of the kind not seen since the successful action against acid rain and CFCs three decades ago. A great wave of public anger is pushing those in power to eliminate a single substance from our collective life – and with big commitments already secured, the signs seem promising.

That might be a bit of an overstatement, but there is certainly a lot of noise. Some are even complaining that it is diverting us from more important issues.

The public turn against plastic was not foreseen by scientists or environmental activists, most of whom are used to their warnings going unheeded. In fact, today some scientists seem vaguely embarrassed by the scale of the backlash. “I scratch my head about it every day,” says the Imperial College oceanographer Erik van Sebille. “How is plastic public enemy No 1? That should be climate change.” Other scientists I spoke to downplayed plastic pollution as one problem among many, albeit one that had crowded out public interest in more pressing problems.

But Buranyi notes that, "Unlike climate change, which seems vague, vast, and apocalyptic, plastic is smaller, more tangible, it is in your life right now." We can do something about it.

But in fact, the story of single-use plastics and climate change are deeply interconnected and intertwined.

So how did we get into this mess? Buranyi tells his version, but I have been thinking and writing about this for 10 years, and I am going to try and pull it all together again in honour of America Recycles Day. Some of the points are covered in Buranyi's article; they are also in an article by Matt Wilkins in Scientific American that Katherine wrote about and that I thought looked vaguely familiar. We all owe a debt to Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The hidden life of garbage.

miss blacktopWisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

The story really starts here, with Miss Concrete and Miss Blacktop and the opening of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate and Defense Highways. It revolutionized transportation in the USA, permitting long-distance trucking.

At the time, most soft drinks and beer were packaged locally in heavy glass reusable bottles, filled at local bottlers and brewers. The interstate created an opportunity to centralize production and dramatically cut costs; one Coors brewery in Colorado produces more beer than is consumed annually in all of Canada. But shipping all of those bottles back and forth, all that distance, was way too expensive, so they started promoting single-use packaging like cans and disposable bottles. The brewers and bottlers loved them, as they closed down all the local breweries and bottlers and got rid of all that pickup infrastructure. Consumers loved them; they didn't have to take them back to the store.

Along with defense highways, the United States was going through a vast de-densification project, moving businesses and people out into the suburbs for civil defense purposes (Russia would need a lot more bombs in a nation of sprawl), which led to fast food, McDonalds, and an increasing load of paper waste.

Throwaway living© Life Magazine 1955

People weren't trained for this; they had always walked to a diner to eat off a china plate and drink out of a glass or mug. Now they had disposable paper and plastic, and that's what they did – they disposed of it, anywhere and everywhere. They just threw it all out the windows of their cars or dropped it where they walked.

susan spotless© Big companies have trained us from childhood to pick up their garbage

This was becoming a problem for cities, which started thinking about legal action and deposit laws. So the industry got to work and created Keep America Beautiful (KAB) to drive home the message, getting Susan Spotless to tell us that every litter bit hurts. Heather Rogers wrote in Message in a Bottle:

KAB downplayed industry's role in despoiling the earth, while relentlessly hammering home the message of each person's responsibility for the destruction of nature, one wrapper at a time. ....KAB was a pioneer in sowing confusion about the environmental impact of mass production and consumption.

adopt road photo

They even got citizens to accept that picking up their litter from the side of the public highways was something people should be spending their spare time doing or that kids should volunteer for it, even though the litter was packaging made by a company to contain their products, and maintaining public roads is a public responsibility.

Campaigns like these, with the tear running down an Italian actor's cheek, actually worked, and people became good eco-citizens, picking up the litter which was shipped off to dumps. Cue Heather Rogers:

All this eco-friendly activity put business and manufacturers on the defensive. With landfill space shrinking, new incinerators ruled out, water dumping long ago outlawed and the public becoming more environmentally aware by the hour, the solutions to the garbage disposal problem were narrowing. Looking forward, manufacturers must have perceived their range of options as truly horrifying: bans on certain materials and industrial processes; production controls; minimum standards for product durability.

There was even talk, horror of horror, of mandatory deposit laws. Suddenly all the companies producing single-use packaging got into recycling, training us not only to pick up our litter, but to separate it into little piles so that we could all pretend to recycle it. Some of it, like the aluminum cans, actually was. The rest often went to landfills or got shipped to China.

Over time, convenience became the product; people paid more for the ability to have something faster, easier, and not have to clean up. Water got wrapped up in bottles and coffee grounds engineered into plastic coffee pods. Millions of tons of plastic, more every year, feeding into this culture of convenience. As Leyla Acaroglu explains:

We are set to see a perpetuation of the addictive cycle that has led us to the mess we are in — that being the all-pervasive disposability practices that designers replicate, governments try to manage and clean up, and everyday citizens like you and me have to accept all of it as normal.

Plastics and climate change

And here is where you get the confluence of climate change and single-use plastics, because plastic is essentially a solid fossil fuel. It is half natural gas. As transportation electrifies, plastics are the future of the fossil fuel industry and could consume up to 20 percent of it. So every bit of plastic made has its own carbon footprint from its manufacture, from its shipping across the country or across the planet. That's why we should stop calling them single-use plastics and start calling them single-use petrochemicals.

Recycling is broken

Piles of garbage© Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Now, the entire recycling system has broken down since China closed its doors to our waste. We were never really recycling; we were simply exporting to where the wages were once low enough that people could pick through it for value and scrape the pizza drippings off the cardboard.

So we have, on this America Recycles Day, a big mess. Manufacturers are making plastic that is killing our oceans, getting into our bloodstreams, pumping CO2 into our atmosphere, and has nowhere to go. No wonder nobody is celebrating.

For me, the breaking point, where this turned to anger, was a few weeks ago when three Girl Scouts in lime green hi-viz were killed while picking up litter by the side of the road. “A tragic and senseless act that happened earlier today in Hallie involving a Halmstad Girl Scout troop has us all asking Why?”

I'll tell you why it's tragic and senseless: They shouldn't have been there in the first place. They were there because for 60 years we have been brainwashed into thinking that we have a problem and a personal responsibility to pick up garbage.

Now it is time to make it their problem – the petrochemical companies, the vendors of convenience. Let's have big deposits on everything and make the use of single-use petrochemicals as socially unacceptable as smoking.

zero waste dayLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And next November 15th let's celebrate Zero Waste Day.

Make this the last America Recycles Day: It's time to celebrate zero waste and ban single-use plastics
Some say we should be worrying more about climate change, but you can't actually separate plastics from climate.

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