How our thinking changed in 2019: recycling and plastics

We are now prisoners of the petrochemical industry

For the last dozen years we have complained about recycling, describing it as:

…a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America. Recycling makes you feel good about buying disposable packaging and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country or farther so that somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky.”

Straw bans won't fix the plastic problem, but something else can

family dinner© K Martinko — The prioritization of at-home family dinners could go a long way toward fighting plastic packaging waste.

The epiphany hit me when Katherine Martinko wrote about how plastics are not really the problem.

What needs to change instead is American eating culture, which is the real driving force behind this excessive waste. When so many people eat on the go and replace sit-down meals with portable snacks, it's no wonder we have a packaging waste catastrophe. When food is purchased outside the home, it requires packaging in order to be clean and safe for consumption, but if you prepare it at home and eat it on a plate, you reduce the need for packaging.

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It was not the first time that Katherine had raised the point that this is cultural and systemic.

Why we need to start drinking coffee like Italians

While traveling in Sardinia, Italy, my husband and I stopped at a small roadside bar for an early morning coffee. The barista pulled our espressi with a deft hand and pushed two white ceramic cups across the counter, along with a little sugar dish and spoon. We stirred, drank it in a few gulps, and chatted briefly with the other people lining the bar, also enjoying a quick coffee. Then we headed back out to the car and continued on our way.

There is no waste because of the difference in the culture, in what they serve and how they serve it. In North America, where you got to take the cup with you, it just got bigger and bigger. More consumption, more waste. More in TreeHugger.

Recycling is broken, so we have to fix our disposable culture

Leyla Acaroglu, author of Design for Disposability, came to pretty much the same conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong — recycling, remanufacturing, and repair all have their place in the transition to a circular and regenerative economy, but the reliance on a cure-all magic system that takes your old clamshell salad box and turns it into something just as valuable and useful is very far away from the reality of the current status quo. The undeniable issue is that we have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it. We need to remedy this illness at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and the rapid increase of a throwaway culture being normal.

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We can't just change our coffee cups, we have to change our lives

Vessel cups stacked© Vessel Works (used with permission)

Finally, when Katherine wrote about a radical solution to disposable coffee cups, I realized that the whole idea was wrong, that you can't take a linear system and try and bend it round into a circular one.

The radical solution proposed by the Vessel stainless steel cup, or the RFID chipped CupClub that I liked so much, is trying to make a circle out of this linear process; but it is complicated and awkward because it is a much larger circle than the one from counter to dishwasher. They are all trying to give us the ability to do what we do with a paper cup, which will never be easy. But the problem isn't the cup, it's us.

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To get to a circular economy we have to change not just the cup, but the culture

Carrying on with this theme, we looked at the new Circular Economy, as being promoted by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, and what a tough sell it was.

Linear is more profitable because someone else, often the government, picks up part of the tab. Now, the drive-ins proliferate and take-out dominates. The entire industry is built on the linear economy. It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être. [Before it] You didn't have waste bins and trash pickup or cup holders in cars or any of this giant ecosystem based on a linear system of single-use packaging.

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Scenes from a Shutdown

garbage in washington© Win McNamee/Getty Images

When there was a government shutdown that eliminated garbage pickup in Washington we got a good example of how fragile the linear system is, and how quickly things fall apart. It was “a graphic demonstration of how the taxpayer essentially subsidizes the food industry, which sells us the packaging but takes no responsibility for dealing with it after the fact. Shut down the government and the fast food ecosystem breaks down in front of your eyes.” Yet it is the customers who get blamed. As Leyla Acaroglu has written:

Countries spend billions of dollars every year to build and manage landfills that just compress and bury this stuff. While people complain about dirty cities and giant ocean plastic waste islands, producers continue to deflect all responsibility for the end of life management of their products, and designers are complacent in the perpetuation of stuff designed for disposability.

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Get ready for pushback in the war on plastic

Uber eats delivery© Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the plastics industry is getting nervous. They see single use plastics as a growing source of demand for their product as the world switches to electric cars. We have seen how they fight with laws and resist bag bans. Katherine thinks that the protesters can succeed:

While municipal bag bans, the zero-waste movement, and anti-straw campaigns are miniscule when faced with the construction of multi-billion-dollar petrochemical facilities, remember that these alternative movements are far more noticeable than they were only five years ago – or even a decade ago, when they didn’t exist yet. The anti-plastic movement will grow, slowly but steadily, until these companies cannot help but pay attention.

At which point I note: “we are up against the biggest, most powerful industry in the world, which will keep developing ever more convenient and attractive ways for us to use more and more plastic. Anyone for Uber Eats tonight?
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How the plastics industry is hijacking the circular economy

processes© Closed Loop Partners

Even the circular economy, which seemed like a good idea at the time, gets subverted. They are inventing all these fancy new technologies to turn plastics back into their original components.

In the end, they have hijacked the concept of circular economy so that everyone can keep making disposable crap and put it through a fancier recycling process. But the cost will never be competitive with virgin plastics when natural gas producers are giving the stuff away and a vast infrastructure of petrochemical industries exists to make new plastic out of fossil fuels; that is where the money is.

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The Alliance to End Plastic Waste just wants to make more of it

They are setting up Astroturf organizations to promote all these technologies, and of course, waste to energy.
Look at this list, every single company with a vested interest in pumping more oil and making more plastic. There is a direct line from Susan Spotless to Keep America Beautiful to the latest “energy bags” – looking for new ways to make us feel more comfortable and acquiescent to using single-use plastics. They also keep the regulators who would ban them at bay by putting together a beautiful website and an investment of $ 1.5 billion that is piddly compared to the $180 billion the industry is investing to produce 40 percent more plastic.

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Our lives have been co-opted by the Convenience Industrial Complex

In his farewell address in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans about the Military Industrial Complex, speaking to a nation that was “giddy with prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly for the easy life”:

As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.

Every word he said could be applied to what I call the Convenience Industrial Complex.

The problem is that, over the last 60 years, every aspect of our lives has changed because of disposables. We live in a totally linear world where trees and bauxite and petroleum are turned into the paper and aluminum and plastics that are part of everything we touch. It has created this Convenience Industrial Complex. It's structural. It's cultural. Changing it is going to be far more difficult because it permeates every aspect of the economy.

More in TreeHugger and no doubt, more to come in 2020.