The Great Plastic Recycling Farce, and How To Address The Problem
I forget the exact date, and therefore the precise year, but one evening in San Jose, California - where I grew up - my Dad came home from work and showed my sister and I what had been delivered to our home. As a kid of about 10 in the circa 1990 Bay Area suburbs, the new arrivals were far from exciting: plastic bins in which we would separate our refuse into like kinds and place them on the curb once a week to be collected by the city. Some small kids might find this concept to be really super awesome and great fun, but my sister and I were not of this ilk, mainly because we knew instantly that it was going to mean more chores for us in order to receive our allowance!
But we took the new tasks more or less in stride, and each week would dutifully put the plastics in one bin, the paper in another, and the aluminum in a 3rd. It just became the norm. Yet I didn’t see the value in the exercise until I was well into my high school years as I then started to pay attention to the importance of respecting the planet, of not being wasteful, and of doing the small things that can make a difference. Through these years of repetition, recycling became an automatic part of my life, something that made me feel like I was, in a small way, part of an effort to help shape the future into a better world.
For me, this sense of purpose lasted for the next 20ish years, and in the case of paper and metal recycling, the results of those programs and their efficacy have been and still are fairly solid. But when it comes to the “recycling” of plastic, it has become clear that nearly all efforts of people from around the globe to reprocess the useful (but completely non-biodegradable) material have been nothing short of an abject failure. And the reasons why are shocking and disingenuous.
Less Than 5%!
Did you know that less than 5% of the plastic items that you attempt to recycle will actually be recycled? Five Percent. The United States, for instance, annually churns out 51 million tons of plastic waste with just 2.4 million tons recycled. The main reason why this is a fact comes down to a usual suspect for all things shady and immoral: money. You see, the plastics industry has known since the 1970’s that plastic is largely un-recyclable, due to the high costs involved with cleaning, sorting, and actually turning one plastic item into another. But in the 1980’s, environmentalist-uproar began en-masse as it became known that plastic refuse was inundating not just landfills, but was ending up in precious natural areas like the World’s oceans where it pollutes and kills a wide array of organisms, from tiny phytoplankton all the way up to apex predators like sharks.
This anger and dissatisfaction from those with concerns for the environment led to the plastics industry, run largely by the oil industry which makes the substance, to embark on a decades-long, $50 million per year campaign to convince the world that they should attempt to recycle plastics, even though the plastics/oil industries knew full well that such programs simply would not work. “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," says Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association.
And regarding the purely financial side of the equation, the plastics industry has always been hugely profitable, as making fresh plastic out of oil is exponentially cheaper than recycling and leads to a $400 Billion per year windfall for the two industries collectively. Quite simply, these industries do not want recycling to work, because the goal is to sell as much oil, and in turn, as much plastic as possible. "You know, they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material," continues Thomas. "Nobody that is producing a virgin product wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material — that's their business.” And their business is booming, as plastic and oil executives plan on tripling plastic production by 2050.
Plastic is not in and of itself a demonic product. This should be noted. In fact, it has myriad uses and purposes. But the path we are on regarding new plastic production, consumption, and the eventual jettisoning of it is clearly a recipe for environmental disaster. So what can we do? One area of focus needs to be the furthering of programs designed to educate people on the ability of many types of plastics to be reused and/or refilled. So many different types of containers, from soda bottles to milk jugs to restaurant take out containers, can be used again and again. The one-and-done concept that the plastics industry wants you to employ is what needs to be discarded, not single use plastics that end up swirling in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a subtropical mass of spinning debris located in between San Francisco and Honolulu whose primary component is, you guessed it, plastic waste.
What Can We Do About It?
There are ways to take things even further, to create even more positive outcomes for the environment. These actually do involve the wholesale removal of plastics from large swaths of our everyday lives. Which brings us to the mission of Canary Clean Co., an environmentally conscious startup company with centers in Oceanside, California and Orem, Utah. Canary sees the writing on the wall regarding the downward spiral we are headed into regarding runaway plastic consumption and the environmental degradation that results. The company’s focus? Begin removing plastic from our lives by removing it from our homes. An enormous portion of the aforementioned 51 million tons of plastic waste the US produces comes from plastic items like toothpaste tubes, mouthwash containers, soap and shampoo bottles, floss boxes and the floss itself, just to name a few of the many household items that contribute endlessly to the plastic waste debacle.
How will Canary help? By providing those products (and eventually many others) that are shipped in biodegradable paper packages and which contain zero plastic in all phases of the life of the product: from production to shipping, to the end user and finally where the paper packages will either be recycled or will properly biodegrade. For many products, a customer’s first order will see them receiving quite hip looking glass containers to serve as storage for product like the company’s toothpaste tablets and mints, or as containers to mix in concentrates like mouthwash or cleaning spray. It will eventually be a diverse array of products for the home, none of which will rely on plastic in any way whatsoever. Another environmental benefit of Canary’s mission and products is that no oil will be used to produce any plastics related to the products, and their carbon footprint will always be small in ways like shipping, as the products will be of such a lighter weight and will take up a much smaller portion of delivery truck space. In this way, when it comes to the environment, so much less is so much more!
The plastic recycling farce is a real, very unfortunate and ongoing chapter in human history. The 95% of worldwide plastic waste that is annually produced and not recycled will continue to choke off life on Planet Earth unless significant steps are taken to reduce plastic consumption, reuse plastic when possible, and begin supporting companies like Canary whose driving purpose is to see consumers embrace the very real concept of a plastic-free existence.