Plastic Recycling Was a Myth. We’re Living the Consequences

A few weeks back, Brett Pogostin, my friend, showed me an image of Angie, his girlfriend. It was taken at Padre Island National Marineshore, Texas Gulf Coast. From Houston, they drove 200 miles to reach this stretch of undeveloped barrier island that stretches 60 miles south towards Mexico. But when they stopped and got out of their car, they found the shoreline littered with plastic—old diapers, water bottles, and plastic detergent jugs. The beach was littered with plastic, including old diapers, water bottles and detergent jugs. Children made sand castles in the trash while they bathed. Angie and Brett drove for close to thirty miles to try to find unpolluted beaches. They finally gave up. Brett snapped a photo of Angie, smiling under a grey sky with bits of plastic trash mixed in the sand.

We are currently facing a crisis in plastic waste. The world generates around 400 million tonnes of plastic each year. Only 6% of this waste was recycled in the United States last year. This is down from 9% in 2018. It has been declining since 2018, when countries like China stopped using U.S. plastic. The majority of that waste ends up in landfills.

For years, the fossil fuel industry has been turning oil and natural gas into plastics in massive, heavily-emitting “cracker” plants. In anticipation of shrinking fossil-fuel demand, it is currently investing $400 billion to expand plastic production—including a $10 billion ExxonMobil-Saudi Basic Industries Corp. facility being built a few dozen miles from Padre Island, across Corpus Christi Bay. According to a 2020 study, there will be 1.3 billion more metric tons of plastic in the environment by 2040.

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For years, the folks selling that plastic have avoided blame for the ecological mess their products have caused, mainly by promoting a largely false set of promises about our ability to recycle plastics, along with a narrative—advertised in countless anti-litter commercials—that dealing with plastic waste was the responsibility of consumers, not producers. This may soon change. Last week, California’s Attorney General opened an investigation into fossil fuel and petrochemicals companies, accusing them of perpetuating a decades-long disinformation campaign.

This type of inquiry is unprecedented. This will add to the increasing pressures that have been placed on the plastics industry in recent years. The plastics industry has a “target on its back,” Tony Radoszewski, president of the Plastics Industry Association, told attendees at an event last summer. “Some people are trying to put us out of business.”

According to an Ipsos poll, 71% believe single-use plastics should be banned around the globe. Since recent years, many African nations have made plastic bags illegal. The E.U. has not. Many single-use plastic products were banned last summer. Last month, Los Angeles County blocked restaurants from selling food in plastic containers that can’t be composted or recycled.

I’m fascinated by the question of what causes a person, city, or country to change their view towards plastics, given how difficult it can be to accept that there is something monstrously wrong with the world you take for granted. The evidence accumulates and is relegated to the dusty corner of our brains reserved for those terrible aspects about the world we are too overwhelmed or all-encompassing to think about. Then, some new bit of information, a thought, a feeling, hits from a different angle, cracks the dam, and suddenly the sheer awfulness of the whole situation—of a world clogged, in every crevice, with plastic junk—spills out into the open.

For some, that moment came back in 2015, when a video of researchers yanking a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose went viral. For others it was reading about the plastics industry’s deception campaign around recycling. My editor Kyla Mandel was concerned by new research that showed microplastics in blood increased anxiety. Brett’s trip to Padre Island was what did it. After returning home, he got rid of every single piece of disposable plastic in his house. He bought sheets of dissolvable laundry soap and toilet paper in a cardboard case. “Hope you enjoy that meal,” he’d say, seeing a coworker sit down with a pile of plastic containers, “because the planet is going to be enjoying it forever.”

Brett’s right on that point. The plastic we put into the world will be with us for hundreds of years, floating up on shores and circulating through our bodies—and those of our children, and our children’s children. There’s hope of stemming the flow of new plastic pollution if we manage to hold off corporate plans to keep expanding plastic production until we choke on it. However, the tragic reality of an irreversibly-changed world already exists.

“There was more plastic on that beach than anyone could ever pick up,” Brett said. “And even if you did, there’s infinitely more out in the ocean, and more would just wash up.”

It was that grief for what we’ve lost that woke me up. Brett has always loved the world’s wild places, and he spoke of Padre Island with a tone of indignation. However, there was also pain under the anger. There was even a hint at heartbreak. It was a sound that broke my heart.

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