The insanity of plastic recycling

Plastic Straws by Stock Catalog is licensed under Flickr CC BY 2.0
It was been said that insanity can be defined as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Yet here we are, after decades of failures and broken promises, convinced that we’ll recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

This misguided approach was in full view on Wednesday, June 17, when the Senate Environment and Public Works committee gathered to discuss the topic of recycling, and, in particular, recycling plastic. Witnesses representing consumer brands and plastic initiatives promoted the same, tired narrative: With more time and more money, we can capture the mystical value
of a material that has been discarded ever since it was created. We can recycle the non-recyclable.

Recycling as a concept is wonderful. It works for materials like glass and aluminum that retain value over time. Your glass bottle can be easily reused or re-molded into another glass bottle within days, ad infinitum. 

Plastic, however, doesn’t retain value and therefore cannot participate in the same circular economy of infinite reuse. Most plastic items — bags, foam containers, straws and lids — are simply the beginning and end of the line. They have no aftermarket, nowhere to go. Best case, your plastic bottle is converted into a lower-value product, maybe a carpet, only to be replaced by another bottle made from virgin plastic. The carpet, of course, will eventually become trash after its value is exhausted. Best case, landfill. Worst case — ask a sea turtle, or any of the hundreds of marine creatures that have ingested or died from our plastic pollution.