Plastic: reduce, reuse, but don’t recycle

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“The bottle may look empty, yet it’s anything but trash.”

This was the message of DuPont, the chemicals conglomerate that topped the 2018 Toxic 100 Air Polluters Index, in a 1990 TV commercial boasting about the company’s recycling efforts.

Plastic recycling originated as a sham to sell more plastic products and has been destined to fail since its conception.

Back in the ’70s, the American plastic industry was in a precarious position. Pollution awareness was growing, the inaugural Earth Day had attracted 20 million protesters, and disposable products were being outlawed left and right.

Knowing public perception of plastic was threatened, chemical companies launched an array of half-baked recycling pilot projects with $50 million of advertising behind them.

It worked. While these firms knew the campaign would have minimal positive effect on the environment, it was enough to skirt the bans and restore faith in plastic as a ‘green’ material. People began to believe there was nothing wrong with buying lots of plastic, so long as it got recycled.

Today, we continue to see plastic through green-tinted glasses. We toss our takeout container in the blue bin expecting it to magically be reborn as something useful, then pat ourselves on the back for protecting the Earth.

Recycling that takeout container? No problem. Unless it contains food debris—then it’s straight to landfill. Or, if sorting machines cannot detect it—which is the case for all black plastics—to the dump it goes. Finally, if the container was previously recycled, its plastic is now too degraded to be used again and is as good as garbage. 

Even if a container passes all these tests—most don’t—recycling plastic is still a costly and inconvenient process. The unfortunate reality is that plastic is cheaper to make new.

Just six per cent of plastic waste in Canada will actually be recycled—a tenth of the proportion of paper and aluminum.

Aluminum never degrades. It’s infinitely recyclable and saves 95 per cent of the energy required to produce it new each time it’s recycled. However, its cost of production—25 per cent more than plastic’s—deters companies from purchasing packaging. 

As long as it’s cheap to make plastic, it will be made; current projections estimate plastic waste to nearly triple by 2060.

When the unsustainable option is most profitable, responsibility to regulate lies with governments. Plastic must be made less economical; taxing companies on the plastic waste they produce would allow for funding to subsidize greener products like paper and aluminum. 

Buyers need financial incentive to choose sustainable packaging, because no matter how urgent the climate crisis gets, it will always be second to money.

Soon we’ll have no choice but to shed our unhealthy plastic dependency anyway, as oil used to produce it is expected to become unprofitably scarce by mid-century. Let’s begin phasing plastic out now to avoid three more decades of irreparable damage to the environment.

Curtis is a third-year Computing student and The Journal’s Senior Photos Editor.

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