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Recycling Plastic: What a Waste

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Our Toxic Burden from Plastics

Every day, single-use plastics ("SUPs" bottles, bags, packaging, utensils, etc.) made from petrochemicals are thrown away in huge quantities after one use, but they will last virtually forever. SUPs are the largest component of landfills and ocean pollution. While Fresh Kills landfill in New York was once known as the planet's largest man-made structure, with a volume greater than the Great Wall of China and a height exceeding the Statue of Liberty, our oceans are now known to contain the world's largest dumps. These unintended landfills in our seas may cover millions of square miles and are composed of plastic waste circling and concentrating in the oceanic gyres.

Even more disturbing than the quantity of this permanent plastic waste are its toxic qualities. Phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), chemicals that are commonly found in plastic products, are known toxins. Recent scientific studies have connected exposure to these chemicals with altered hormone levels, reproductive effects, and increased incidence of chronic diseases, including cancer. Styrene, which may leach from expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam, is also linked to cancer, birth defects, organ failure and reproductive problems.

These toxic petrochemicals are released during the entire lifecycle of plastic -- from production through use and disposal -- and appear to be inflicting terrible health consequences on wildlife and on us. Not only do plastics release chemicals used in their manufacture, they also act like sponges in the marine environment and accumulate toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT from the surrounding water. Toxic plastic fragments have even entered our food chain as they are consumed by fish. Even more directly, plastic bottles, BPA-lined cans and "microwavable" containers are leaching their toxins into the food and drink they contain, serving consumers a potent petrochemical punch.

Though the human petrochemical experiment occurs outside the laboratory, we know one thing for sure. Every one of our bodies contains a petrochemical burden. 93% of us have BPA in our bodies.

Even babies in the womb are dosed with these toxins as demonstrated in a shocking study on industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in umbilical cord blood. Furthermore, a study showed that 80% of babies in the United States were exposed to measureble levels of at least nine different phthalate metabolite. The likely source: their baby "care" products.

A Cynical Strategy: Why the American Chemistry Council Spends Millions Promoting Plastic Recycling

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) spends millions to defend the chemicals produced by their members to make plastics. They have hired the same advisors who defended the tobacco industry to formulate a strategy to promote and defend the petrochemical industry. If measured by the difficulty in passing legislation to curtail SUPs, and the positive press generated on the issue of plastic recycling, the strategy seems to be working.

At the center of ACC's strategy is its promotion of recycling as the solution to plastic pollution. This band-aid approach allows the industry to look environmental while continuing with business as usual, making SUPs out of virgin -- not recycled -- petrochemicals. The ACC knows well that only 5-7% of plastics are recycled, and that this figure will probably not grow substantially.

However, SUPs, the majority of plastics, are not designed to be recycled. Instead, SUPs are designed and promoted to be used on the go, and to be dumped whenever and wherever their contents are consumed. Even if SUPs are discarded into a recycling container, they are often contaminated by food waste and rendered unsuitable for recycling, or made of a type of plastic that have no recycling infrastructure. Spending relatively little on promoting recycling plastics offers a big public relations payoff with no real threat to an industry that earns billions pushing SUPs as the foundation of our throw-away consumer culture.

The ACC also knows that even if more plastics are recycled, there is not a big market for recycled plastic. It is usually cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin petrochemical material. Furthermore, the downgraded recycled by-product is routinely sent overseas to China, where it may also end up in a dump or incinerated, after the most recyclable fraction is "cherry picked" out. In short, recycling will never put the ACC members out of business.

All along Southern California beaches, the ACC is promoting recycling with slick advertisements adhered to trash -- not recycling -- cans. The ad covering the trash cans shows a young girl happily drinking from a plastic water bottle. The text reads: "Plastics. Too Valuable to Waste. Recycle." The cans are routinely overflowing with SUPs. The rest of the SUPs can be found left behind in the sand and blowing around the parking lot if not already washing into the waves.

However, the insidious part of ACC's promotion is that trash cans are trash cans -- the contents of which are destined for eternal resting in the landfill -- and are not the city's designated recycling bins. Apparently, the plastic the trash cans contain is not valuable enough to the ACC to warrant the effort of recovery because the SUPs in these trash cans are not collected by the ACC for recycling. Furthermore, the ACC has lobbied against bottle bills that would add a few cents to each plastic bottle to encourage returns and recycling efforts.

Petrochemical Companies in Battle Formation

The ACC must continue to sell the possibility, however remote, of cleaning up the maritime mess created by plastics, or face the ultimate consequence: legislative bans, environmental lawsuits and consumer boycotts that may turn off the lucrative petrochemical pumps putting out the source of the pollution. A challenge to the chemical industry's way of doing business is brewing in California where the Green Chemistry Initiative, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008, directs the Department of Toxic Substances Control to reduce toxics going into our oceans, including those from plastics, with biodegradable, non-toxic substitutes for these plastics on the agenda.

But do not expect the ACC to back away from petrochemicals without a fight. Each year the chemical industry produces about 6 billion pounds of BPA alone, generating at least $6 billion in sales. As preeminent endocrine researcher Dr . Frederick vom Saal observed: "If information [about toxics in plastic] had been known at the time that this chemical was first put into commerce, it would not have been put into commerce....But because it already is in commerce, and chemical industries have a huge stake in maintaining their market share using this chemical, how do they now respond to evidence that it really is not a chemical that you would want your baby to be exposed to? We're still in the attack phase."

REFUSE SUPs: Make less REFUSE

We have all been schooled in the following "three R" sustainability plan: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Not many people know that these three tenets are meant to be practiced in that order as well -- with recycling as only the final recourse. The ACC is effectively marketing to shift the order of the three R's to place Recycling first because Reducing and Reusing curtail their profits.

Instead of following the ACC's "plastic recycling plan," a different strategy should be implemented by the public that designates a new number-one priority to the R's of sustainability: Refuse SUPs.

Thus, in order to put the use of plastics in their proper place, and to reduce the negative impacts of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, the most sustainable strategy is the following, in order of priority:

1. REFUSE single-use plastics. Instead, bring your own shopping and produce bags to the market. Use reusable bottles. Bring your own containers for take-out or ask for non-plastic disposable packaging.
2. REDUCE waste. Choose products with the least plastic packaging. Cut back on plastic disposable goods like razors, straws, cups, plates and silverware.
3. REUSE preferably nontoxic containers and goods to make less waste.
4. RECYCLE plastics as a last option, after exhausting the first three options.

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