Friday, January 28, 2011

Recycling the Myth

When I hit the beach, and the plastic confetti of life hits me, I stop. And I think, why? Why is there so much plastic in the sea, in the world? Why is it everywhere? In everything we do, everything we touch, everywhere we turn?

One word: "Recycling"

As I've shown here and here, little of the plastic that we "recycle" actually returns again as the same kind/quality of plastic. It's just a downward spiral. But it only recently dawned on me what that means. I mean, the true scale of what that means. It hit me last week, when I saw this on the side of a toy package:
#1 plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, "PET"
This is the packaging for a set of Zoobles -- silly little plastic creatures with magnets inside. They fold down into spheres and "pop" back up into animals when you put them on another magnet. My daughter had a Target gift card from Christmas/Hannukah, and she picked them out. She played with them for 5 minutes.

Zoobles are made in China. The packaging is made in China. In 2011, this is no surprise. But the #1 stamped on the side was a surprise. Remember, #1 plastic is held up by the industry as a shining symbol. Buy a bottle of soda, recycle it, get another bottle of soda. Yay!

So what's it doing in this cheap package? Maybe this chart can help.
Natl. Assn. for PET Container Resources 2009 report, p. 4
Accessed at
Since 1999, the amount of #1 plastic bought by U.S. reclaimers has gone up 9.2%. The amount bought for export (mostly to China -- p. 3 of the NAPCOR report) has gone up 438%. That's right. All that extra recycling we're doing, all those marketing campaigns? They've created a bumpercrop of #1 plastic, the vast majority of which is now being shipped off overseas.

And that exported plastic is not becoming new #1 bottles. The reason: the LNO (see "The Triangle Is a Lie"). The U.S. FDA's "Letter of No Objection" is only given to plastic recyclers who meet the strictest quality controls. It costs a lot, there's a lot of regulatory hurdles. As this FDA list shows, a total of -7- companies in the world received an LNO in 2010; none were developing nations.

FACT: High-quality plastic is very, very hard to recycle into a new version of itself. Even #1, the golden child. It's extremely rare. But don't take my word for it. Here's a summary of the "Best Practices and Industry Standards in PET Plastic Recycling," from NAPCOR's Web site.*
  1. Non-bottle PET items, like laundry scoops, or microwave trays, should be excluded. These materials introduce contaminants or create technical or economic problems.
  2. Pigmented PET bottles and containers... can cause technical or economic problems.
  3. Lids, caps, closures... [and] safety seals... introduce aluminum and plastic materials that are not made from PET and can contaminate or add cost to the PET recycling process.
That's 3; there's 4 more.

Moreover, food plastics that aren't bottles shouldn't be recycled either. Check this out:
"Made with 100" Recycled PET from Post Consumer Bottles"
This is a "clamshell" tub of blueberries in my fridge. Score, right? 100% recycled PET, the system works, hooray?

No. This particular kind of #1 has been "thermoformed." Its shape, makeup, and susceptibility to contamination means that, in NAPCOR's own words, "a variety of technical issues have prevented existing PET bottle reclaimers from including PET thermoforms in the bottle stream" (same report, p. 10). A lot of the so-called "bottle-2-bottle" recycling ends up actually making stuff like this clamshell. From there? Mostly a dead-end. Tubs like this will, at best, become part of the cheap "mixed stream" of junk recycled plastic.

Funny, isn't it. Companies know the tiniest bit of contamination means a batch of #1 isn't good for food anymore. Yet more and more plastics manufacturers are stamping a big #1 on their detergent, cleaner, oil bottles, etc. What possible benefit can there be to confusing Joe Consumer about what to put in his bin?

What possible benefit can there be to a company in China stamping a big #1 on the side of a cloudy, gunky Zooble package? It's junk. Its only path is down.

And there's the answer. The Downward Spiral. Here, again, on NAPCOR's site is the list of things they like to make from your recycled #1 plastics:
How much of -that- will ever be recycled again?
The point of plastic recycling isn't to close the loop. It never was. The point is to provide free labor and a cheap resource. The industry has spent the past 30 years thinking up ever newer ways to repackage and resell plastic to us. All the while they've been thinking up ever newer ways to repackage the idea of recycling as somehow earth-friendly.

And we've bought it.

So now we have plastic Zoobles packed in plastic packages, wrapped in plastic wrappers, shipped with plastic strapping, carted through the aisles in plastic shopping carts, sent home in plastic bags. We sit down to play with our daughters on plastic chairs, thumbing through their plasticized books. We eat fresh, healthy yogurt from plastic tubes and drink from plastic sippy cups. We tap away on plastic-bodied computers with plastic keys. We admire the plastic plants we don't have to water and the plastic picture frames on the wall. We buy plastic jackets (polyester is just another variety of #1 PET plastic) and plastic gloves to keep off winter's chill. We put on our boots with plasticized rubber soles, so we can walk down the plastic composite steps of our plastic-sided condo, and step into our plastic cars, gently pulling their plastic door handles closed. When we get home we scrape our feet on the plastic welcome mats so that we don't track dirt into our polyester carpets (also made from recycled #1 PET). Maybe in the summer we go to the beach and buy plastic shovels and plastic pails and wear plastic sunglasses and throw plastic frisbees to each other. We open a plastic tub of cheese & crackers by peeling off the plastic cover. We dip our chicken nuggets into a plastic sauce pack and drizzle ketchup from another plastic pack onto our fries. We get home and brush our teeth with plastic toothbrushes, run a plastic comb through our hair, click the plastic remote control and turn on the plastic TV set. We order a pizza with that stupid little plastic "crush protector," and a metallized plastic bag of chips. We pre-wash our dishes with a plastic scrub brush, then pull the plastic handle of our dishwasher to open it. In the evening we play with our kids again, this time maybe the plastic model train set with the plastic Stop signs we want to paint using plastic brushes. Before bed we take a shower in our plastic tub-and-shower surround. We squirt out shampoo from a plastic bottle, shave with a plastic razor. When we're done, we step out, put our towel up on the plastic countertop, put on deodorant from a plastic tube. We toss our plastic recycling into the plastic recycling tub. And at last we lie down on our nice, polyester Blank-o-Pedic mattresses.

And we wonder why there are plastic oceans and plastic beaches.
photo by Rick Loumis
part of "Altered Oceans" series
The triangle is a lie.

* This document was originally crafted in 1996-97, but it appears that it has never been bettered. It has been updated with modern URLs, and is still listed as the best practices at many plastic advocacy sites.


  1. Will you please keep this up, write a book, go on a national speaking tour and blow the top off this damn thing!! In your spare time of course :)

    You totally rock!!
    thank you thank you -

  2. Do you think, do you have hope, do you consider that the number of individuals like me, like you, like Sara, who have deliberately chosen to reduce the amount of plastic in our lives, by maybe buying bulk mushrooms in a paper bag or wearing wool and cotton, who have paid attention recently if not earlier to the incredible detrimental impact that plastic has on the planet, who have been trying to incorporate some gentle espousal in our daily lives... do you believe we might be the start of a huge tsunami of Powerful People whose voice will be heard by the world? I do!

  3. Hey Laura. You know, I do have hope. For one thing, the alternative just doesn't work for me! But I think we're all starting to realize that each of our actions, no matter how small, adds up. That the choices we make -- good and bad -- live beyond us, beyond one moment. After all, it just takes a walk along the beach.

    I've said it elsewhere, but it bears a repeat: I'm an optimist; I have a little girl who will inherit my world, so I have to be!

  4. EXCELLENT series of posts. Thanks for your indepth investigation and synthesis of this information. Thanks for helping me to see recycling with more discerning eyes.

  5. We just can't understand the myths of plastics; we just only have the information that plastics are non-biodegradable products. Therefore instead of throwing outside we should take good advantage from it by recycling. It is quite easy to recycle plastics and utilize it for further use and from different sources we are able to learn the recycling process of plastics. Thanks for such wonderful topic to debate.
    Recycling Tennis Balls