As summer draws to a close, many of us can look back on vacations filled with road trips, adventures, and scenery of all kinds. While traveling just before the Labor Day holiday, albeit for work, I was greeted on a highway in Minneapolis by a gigantic billboard that read “Plastic Recycling is a Myth” . As someone who spends a significant portion of his time discussing the merits of recycling, having publicly testified to the need to greatly expand recycling in America, I couldn’t help but take serious offense.
I might have expected such a “public” message to be endorsed by one of the usual suspects, like Greenpeace, which uses these types of claims to raise money through reactions to buzzwords similar. This fictitious exclamation happens to have been provided by a private company trying to sell its products in reusable plastic containers.
Here’s a slogan you’ll hear regularly in our industry: we love plastic; we hate plastic waste. To that end, we applaud the reuse and recycling of all plastics. There’s a reason ‘reuse’ is an important part of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, and we encourage people to reuse products wherever possible. But to simply tell people through the equivalent of highway tweets that recycling is “wrong” is simply environmentally irresponsible, and doing it for tax profit is unconscionable. It’s a lie that undermines the system. And so, this is where the road, or in this case the roadside, took the environmental discussion.
The plastics industry has invested billions of dollars in recycling technology with the goal of increasing recycling rates with billions more announced. Getting recyclable materials to the right place is key to increasing the overall amount of materials we recycle. As a country, we have slept behind the wheel for too long as we exported too much of our recyclables to foreign countries. Meanwhile, we haven’t modernized our recycling infrastructure enough to keep up with the incredible innovations in products and packaging. Now we have to catch up.
The good news is that we recycle billions of pounds of plastic every year and that number is only growing. If you had ever been inside a real recycling plant and seen the process up close, you would realize the possibilities before us if our company is ready to take the next step and recycle any further. The bad news is that the main reason we don’t recycle is the lack of recycling infrastructure: from receptacles to collection to sorting, we are limited in our ability to get materials to where they need to go for be recycled. By working with other industries in the recycling stream, we need to make it easier for consumers to recycle and get more materials to our recyclers and keep this valuable plastic in the economy instead of in a landfill.
Our friends at the Association of Plastics Recyclers) shared a report just a few weeks ago showing recycling rates might not be as low as some would have you believe. In the same report, APR estimates that plastic recycling supports over 200,000 American jobs, which doesn’t strike me as a myth. Additional research, provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, found that in a single year, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 681,000 jobs and $37.8 billion in wages in addition to 5, $5 billion in tax revenue. I’ve heard tall tales, but I’d say those statistics aren’t one of them.
The onslaught on plastic recycling has really gotten out of control. In fact, just a few years ago, activists who previously touted the need for recycling to combat plastic waste in the environment and landfill diversion shifted the proverbial goals just as new technologies were developed that promise to unlock access to previously difficult-to-recycle waste products. Effective solutions that achieve mutual environmental and economic goals have been replaced by hyperbole and attractive motivators. While the plastic recycling process can, does, and continues to work, misrepresentations and soundbites don’t. Simply put, recycling is real and has already had an impact real impact on solving one of our most important environmental challenges.
American companies recycle 4.8 billion pounds of plastic every year, and we can do better. I’ve seen every step of the recycling process – trust me, this is the real deal. We box recycle and must invest more in the infrastructure needed to make it easier for our communities to achieve the recycling rates that we are capable of. In many cases, the biggest hurdle to recycling more materials is simply placing them in the correct receptacle after use. Now imagine yourself a consumer, finishing a soda (it’s a “pop” in Minnesota.), and, after calling back the billboard, you choose not to recycle, instead of throwing your plastic in the trash and possibly a landfill. How the hell does that help?
If those who want to dispel the essential value of recycling want to debate, let’s do it. Offer real and reasonable solutions and weigh in on the merits of “renew, reuse and recycle” rather than espousing harmful claims on a billboard. In the meantime, let’s stop suggesting that recycling is “a myth”. Such baseless claims only hurt the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose families are supported by the recycling industry and cause damage to our environment. Recycling is real.
Matt Seaholm is President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, Washington, the only association that supports the entire plastics supply chain, including recyclers.