Why recycling won't save the planet

recycling bin
Public Domain Unsplash -- An overflowing recycling bin

We blame ourselves for not recycling more plastics, and yet our efforts are like "hammering a nail to halt a falling skyscraper." It's time we got to the root of the problem.

"People need to get better at recycling" is a comment I often hear as soon as the topic of plastic waste comes up. It's a misleading assumption, however, to think that tossing more items in the recycling bin and fewer in the trash can make that much of a difference in dealing with the catastrophic level of plastic contamination that our planet currently faces. In fact, it's pretty much pointless.

Before you think I've given up and gone all anti-TreeHugger, please realize that this is an issue we discuss every single year on America Recycles Day, an annual event sponsored by Keep American Beautiful and the plastics industry that has taught us to pick up our garbage. Matt Wilkins explains in Scientific American that we need to rethink the way we deal with trash, saying that individual consumers cannot sole this problem because individual consumers are not the problem. We have taken it on as our problem because of some very astute, corporate-driven psychological misdirection in the form of campaigns like Keep America Beautiful.

Huh? you might be thinking. Isn't Keep America Beautiful a good thing? Well, Wilkins has a different view. Keep America Beautiful was founded by major beverage companies and tobacco giant Philip Morris in the 1950s as a way to encourage environmental stewardship in the public. Later it joined forces with the Ad Council, at which point, "one of their first and most lasting impacts was bringing 'litterbug' into the American lexicon." This was followed by the 'Crying Indian' public service announcement and the more recent 'I Want To Be Recycled' campaign.

While these PSAs appear admirable, they are little more than corporate greenwashing. For decades Keep America Beautiful has actively campaigned against beverage laws that would mandate refillable containers and bottle deposits. Why? Because these would hurt the profits of the companies that founded and support Keep America Beautiful. Meanwhile, the organization has been tremendously successful at transferring the blame for plastic pollution onto consumers, rather than forcing the industry to shoulder responsibility.

Wilkins writes:

"The greatest success of Keep America Beautiful has been to shift the onus of environmental responsibility onto the public while simultaneously becoming a trusted name in the environmental movement. This psychological misdirect has built public support for a legal framework that punishes individual litterers with hefty fines or jail time, while imposing almost no responsibility on plastic manufacturers for the numerous environmental, economic and health hazards imposed by their products."

If we are serious about tackling plastic pollution, then corporations' actions are where we should start. They are the real litterbugs in this situation. The focus should be on the source of the plastic, not its near-impossible disposal.

Reading Wilkins' article felt disorienting for me, in light of all the zero-waste, pro-recycling, plastic-free articles I write for this website. One line in particular made a big impression:

"Effectively, we have accepted individual responsibility for a problem we have little control over."

I see where he's coming from, but cannot agree entirely. First, I think that people have to feel like they can do something in the face of great difficulty. So, even if it's not the most effective method, putting bottles in the blue bin is at least some kind of beneficial action. Second, I believe in the collective power of people: that's how movements start. Governments won't force corporations to change their ways unless the public is crying for it -- and that begins ever so humbly, with individual households putting their blue bins out each week.

So, how does one even start shifting the blame for plastic pollution to where it's supposed to be? Wilkins calls on people first to reject the lie:

"Litterbugs are not responsible for the global ecological disaster of plastic... Our huge problem with plastic is the result of a permissive legal framework that has allowed the uncontrolled rise of plastic pollution, despite clear evidence of the harm it causes to local communities and the world’s oceans."

Then start fighting. Talk about the plastic problem with everyone you know. Contact local and federal representatives. Think beyond zero waste and recycling initiatives to cradle-to-cradle models, "where waste is minimized by planning in advance how materials can be reused and recycled at a product’s end of life rather than trying to figure that out after the fact." Support bans on single-use plastics or, at the very least, opt-in policies where customers have to request straws or disposable coffee cups, instead of getting them automatically. Support bag taxes and bottle deposits. Fight the preemptive laws in some states that prevent municipal plastic regulation.

As Wilkins concludes, "There are now too many humans and too much plastic on this pale blue dot to continue planning our industrial expansions on a quarterly basis." We need a better approach, and it has to get at the real root of the problem.

Why recycling won't save the planet
We blame ourselves for not recycling more plastics, and yet our efforts are like "hammering a nail to halt a falling skyscraper." It's time we got to the root of the problem.

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