The word “scam” gets thrown around a lot these days. Basically if someone is making money from a thing, someone’s going to call it a scam.

We tend to be a bit flippant with that word.

But look, if you’re providing a good or a service for people and you make a profit from it, that’s not a scam, that’s just… participating in an economy. There’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s only when you profit off of willfully deceiving people or misrepresenting the facts that it becomes a scam.

And as much as it pains me to say it… it’s true. Plastic recycling is a scam.
In fact, it’s the worst kind of scam, because not only is someone profiting off of it, it’s damaging the planet and poisoning our bodies and worst of all… We kinda have to participate in it.

Because not participating in it is even worse.
It didn’t start off this way. In fact, plastic was created specifically to be more environmentally friendly.

That… sounds weird to say. But keep in mind, everything that today we’d make with plastic, we used to make from natural materials. And a lot of those materials were animals.

Like in my video about airships, I talked about how the ballonettes, or the air sacs in the British R101 airship were made out of ox secum. Secum is basically a gross word for the stomach lining.

But for the R101, it required over fifty thousand ox secum to make those air sacs. Fifty thousand oxen had to die to make one airship.
And don’t even get me started on whale oil, we almost extincted an entire species for lamps.

And then there was the ivory trade. Elephant poaching for ivory is still a problem unfortunately but that ivory is used mostly in luxury goods and decorations now, back then, ivory was basically the material you used when you wanted anything to be white. From door handles to pens to piano keys.
Yeah, the phrase “tickling the ivories” used to be a very literal term.
And in the 1860s, one place you might find people tickling the ivories was in bars and pool halls, where people played pool with ivory billiard balls.
Billiards was a hugely popular game in those days, which led to a shortage in the ivory supply, which is another way of saying the world was running out of elephants.

Enter a guy named Michael Phelan.

Michael Phelan was the world’s first billiards superstar. He migrated to the US from Ireland in 1823 as a young boy and his father ran a few pool rooms in New York City. From there he became obsessed with the game and went on to become one of the foremost experts, even publishing the first book on the subject called Billiards Without A Master in 1850.

He would publish a few more books over the years but along the way he helped standardize the design of the pool table, including the diamonds and the cushion. He later formed a company called Phelan and Collender where they manufactured pool tables and, of course, billiard balls.

He was almost single-handedly the reason pool became such a popular game in the 1860s. And… why the elephants were disappearing.
So in 1869, Phelan and Collender created a contest, offering up $10,000 – roughly 136 thousand in today’s money – to anyone who could create a substitute material for billiard balls.

Did he do this out of the kindness of his heart or for a love of animals? No. It’s because the price of ivory had gotten so high that it threatened their profits, so they had to find another solution. (beat) That concept will come up again in this video.

Many inventors and chemists entered the contest, but nothing quite had the right weight and strength needed to replace ivory, until American businessman John Wesley Hyatt entered the picture.
Hyatt created a billiard ball out of a material he called Celluloid, which was made of cellulose nitrate.

Cellulose nitrate, which today goes by nitrocellulose, is made by mixing nitric acid and sulfuric acid with cellulose, which is what makes up the cell walls of plants.

He basically found a way to turn plant material into a hard, moldable plastic. And by the way, he borrowed heavily from the work of a UK chemist named Alexander Parkes, who invented a similar material in 1865 that he called Parkesine, but he wasn’t able to find a commercial application for it.

The only problem with Hyatt’s balls is that nitrocellulose has a little habit of exploding and catching fire. If you thought nitrocellulose sounded a bit like nitroglycerin, well… There’s a reason for that.
Yeah, nitrocellulose is extremely flammable. Luckily nobody ever smoked in pool halls back then.

But, it was cheap, the materials to produce it were abundant, and no baby elephants had to lose their moms. So Hyatt started a business manufacturing celluloid pool balls and the rest is history.

Bakelite and Beyond

Plastic production took another step forward in 1907 with the introduction of Bakelite. It was invented by chemist Leo Baekeland. So yeah, it’s actually Bake-eh-lite, not bake-lite.

The cool thing about Bakelite was that it was fully synthetic. Nothing natural involved. It was used to make knobs, dials, and radio cabinets, as well as auto parts and costume jewelry.

The next big leap happened in 1932, when Imperial Chemical Industries out of Britain created the first petroleum-based plastic called Perspex, which is basically acrylic glass.

Other companies like DuPont got on board the plastics train and invented Nylon and Teflon. Plastics as we know it were officially part of the manufacturing landscape. They were the wonder materials of the 1930s, nobody had ever seen anything like this before. It felt modern, it felt like… the future.

But like a lot of technologies, it took a war to make them really explode.

The Boom of WW2

Production of plastics skyrocketed during World War 2 to support the war effort. Nylon was used to make parachutes, Perspex, also known as Plexiglass, was used on periscope covers, as well as thousands of other uses.
In 1939, 213 million pounds of plastic was manufactured in the US. By 1945, production hit 818 million pounds.

Plastics manufacturers were making record profits during the war, but that war did, thankfully, end. And they needed a way to keep the gravy train rolling.
So DuPont and others pivoted into designing household goods. From flooring to fake flowers to dishware to furniture, even clothes. It was cheaper, lighter, available in all kinds of colors, and could be made into form factors people had never seen before. There was seemingly nothing plastic couldn’t do, and people went nuts over it.

This was a major part of the post-war boom. High-tech plastic items flooded every American household. This miracle material from just a decade before was now everywhere, ushering in a new age of abundance. And this energy carried on right into the sixties…

As the 60s drew to a close, plastics had been a part of the world for roughly 100 years. It helped save the elephants, win World War 2, and transformed the homes and lifestyles of people all around the planet. It was only in the seventies that we began to realize all this plastic bacchanalia had a major, major downside.

The Problem

In March 1972, a paper was published in the journal Science by Edward J. Carpenter and K.L. Smith, Jr, warning about plastic washing up on beaches and microplastics found floating in the Sargasso Sea.

It warned that without some kind of mitigation or recycling effort, plastic waste would continue to accumulate in the environment because unlike paper and wood products that break down in a few years, plastics take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to break down, depending on the type of plastic.
And even when they finally do break down, they leave behind chemicals that could be harmful to ecosystems and human health.

The report recommended either strict regulation on the use of plastics and the types of plastics produced or an expensive campaign to properly recycle or dispose of plastic waste.

And in response to this report and the public outcry it created, the plastics and petroleum industries stepped up and took dramatic measures to fix the problem.

Denial and Deflection

That’s right kids, they took the bold step of blaming the consumer!
The infamous Crying Indian commercial was produced by the Keep America Beautiful campaign whose origins actually go back to the 1940s because littering has been a problem for a long time – and obviously there’s nothing wrong with wanting to cut down on litter, litter sucks.

But they do have a history of taking funding from the very companies that produce the disposable litter in the first place, so they’ve been accused of “greenwashing” because they kinda shift the responsibility to the consumers instead of holding those companies accountable.

Keep America Beautiful is still around today, and their legacy is… mixed at best.

And yes, the “Indian” in the commercial is an actor named Iron Eyes Cody, who had been playing Indian roles in Hollywood movies for decades. He actually took his name from a role he played in the Bob Hope movie The Paleface in 1948.

His real name, though, was Espera Oscar de Corti. And if you think that’s a strange name for a Native American, that’s because he was actually Sicilian. He wasn’t even a little bit Native American, he just pretended to be his whole career.

Nothing 👏gross 👏 about 👏 that.

By the way, Keep America Beautiful has been catching heat about casting him in this commercial for a long time but to be fair to them, nobody knew his actual ancestry until after he died, so they had no idea at the time.
Although even if he was an actual Indian the whole concept of the commercial still smacks of appropriation and exploitation.

But that might just be applying modern standards to it, it was actually a very effective commercial at the time, the Ad Council claims it reduced litter by 88% in 39 states. Make of that what you will.
It also has to be said, he advocated for Indian causes, and he actually married a woman named Bertha Parker Pallan, who was a prominent Abenaki-Seneca archeologist and activist.

But still the fact that this guy became known as “the face of the Native Indians” while he was actually just an Italian in cosplay the whole time is super cringe – I’m gonna step away from this rabbit hole—

Because all that aside, the biggest problem with Crying Indian commercial is it implies that people can fix pollution by throwing away their trash the right way.

When the fact is,
Even if that schlub in the car at the end of the commercial, and every schlub like him worldwide, put their trash in a can, there still would be too much trash, much of it plastic, for the world to handle.
The rallying cry from the environmental community for decades has been Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. An acronym that was immortalized in a banger Bollywood movie last year.

In 1970, just before that damaging report on plastic waste came out, the first Earth Day was celebrated. It was proposed at a UNESCO conference with the aim being to promote peace and environmental awareness.
As part of the event, the Container Corporation of America sponsored a contest to create a symbol to promote recycling. Container Corporation was a large producer of recycled paper products.

The winning entry went to a design and architecture student named Gary Anderson. It features a Möbius loop depicting a cycle of… well, you know what it looks like, you’ve seen it.

You’ve seen it because it’s everywhere, it’s universal, in fact, it’s known as the Universal Recycling Symbol. Just one look at it and you know, this is about recycling. And you’ve probably seen lots of different versions over the years, and the reason for that is because it’s not trademarked. Nobody owns it. It’s in the public domain. Anybody can use it. Which gave the plastic manufacturers an idea…

The Problem With Recycling

At the same time that they were running a successful anti-littering campaign in the 1970s, the plastic manufacturers and the petroleum industry were paradoxically pushing single-use plastics.

Like I talked earlier about plastic household items being a revolutionary thing in the post-war years, that’s all well and good, and they made a lot of money off of it, but I mean, I’ve had this colander for like a decade now. Probably paid five bucks for it. That’s not going to buy a lot of executives’ yachts.

It’s the recurring purchases, the things you have to keep buying over and over again, that’s where the money is. That’s how the razor blade companies get you, that’s how the keureg cups get you, that’s why all the apps and software is on a subscription model now.

It was the expendable plastic items, the plastic cups, the plastic drink bottles, the plastic bags, this was their cash cow. And they knew this going all the way back to the 1950s.

At the national conference of the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1956, participants were told
that “developments should be aimed at low cost, big volume, practicability, and expendability.” And that producers should aim for the majority of their products to end up, “in the garbage wagon”

The problem was that people still valued plastic items and reused them over and over. The idea of just using something once and throwing it away, especially something as permanent as plastic, just felt gross to most people back then.

Keep in mind, well into the 80s, most sodas were sold in glass bottles and aluminum cans. I’m old enough to remember going to the store with my mom and carrying in the glass bottles we’d used that week and returning them for a nickel each. My mom would let me use it in the gumball machine.
Then we’d load up on gingham, re-shoe the horses and ride the coach out to Cheyenne, drinking a sarsaparilla – I am old.

Back in the 50’s, people used to keep and reuse their plastic dry cleaning bags, but a major scandal erupted when it came out that over 80 children suffocated while playing with the plastic bags.

Regulatory agencies began pushing for plastic bag bans, which of course would have cut into the industry’s profits. So in the spirit of never letting a good tragedy go to waste, they pushed people to do what they already wanted them to do in the first place – throw the bags away.
They promoted the disposability of plastics in a public relations campaign that involved pamphlets that said, “never
keep a plastic bag after it has served its intended
usefulness. Destroy it: Tear it up … or tie it in a knot
… and throw it away.” To do otherwise “is the worst
mistake a mother could make.”

Slowly but surely, people got used to this idea of throwing away plastic items. And more and more one-time use plastics were made. Most of it wound up in landfills or were incinerated in what was called WTE, or Waste to Energy process.

Neither of which the general public was particularly thrilled about as cities became overrun with garbage in the 70s and the idea of burning plastic and putting all those chemicals into the atmosphere was becoming more of a heated issue.

So in the 80s, as more calls for bans on single-use plastics were floated about, they pivoted toward promoting the recyclability of plastics. In 1985, the SPI, the Society for the Plastics Industry, created the PRF, the Plastics Recycling Foundation.

They began lobbying states and municipalities to invest in mechanical plastic recycling operations. At the taxpayer’s expense, of course.
The problem is, they knew over two decades of trying and failing, that there was no real solution for mechanical plastic recycling.

What I mean by mechanical recycling is the separating out of plastics by resin type so that they can be chopped up, melted together and reused. Which sounds great… But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

First of all, all that separating out the different resins has to be done manually. Yes, over time it’s become more automated, like everything but it’s still a laborious task, made even more laborious by the fact that there are literally thousands of different types of resins.

Granted these fall into different categories of resins that combine better than others, but even if you have the same resin types together, they often use different plasticizers and stabilizers and coatings that reduce the effectiveness of recycling.

And that’s when you can actually get the same resin types together. Often, packaging and other plastic items are made with different types of resins molded together that can’t be separtated.

Because of this, recycled plastics age faster, are less stable, and are basically just an inferior product to that of virgin resins. Oh, and it costs way more to make. So if you’re a packaging company, are you going to spend more money for a lower quality product? It’s just not a viable solution.

And the plastics industry was well aware of this problem. In 1986, a spin-off group from the SPI called the Vinyl Institute, issued a report on the recycling problem and concluded that the most valuable use for discarded plastic was incineration for energy production, saying:
“Unlike other components of the waste stream whose useful lives are best extended by recycling,
many plastics contribute the most to resource conservation when they are burned for their energy content.” And ended by saying “recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution, as it merely pro-
longs the time until an item is disposed of.”

So they knew there was no real path forward with mechanical recycling. But the alternative was producing less plastic and making less money. If only there was a way to make it look like there was…

Which brings us back to their clever idea.

Introducing RIC

In 1988, the SPI introduced the Voluntary Plastic Container Coding System, which broke down the thousands of different resins to a handful of resin types, and encouraged producers to stamp that type into their products.
Because you see, this would help the recycling centers to separate out the various types of plastic so that they could more easily recycle these obviously recyclable plastic items.

Now if only there was a symbol they could incorporate that automatically said, “recyclable.” Preferably something that’s not trademarked and in the public domain and you know exactly where I’m going with this.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Resin Identification Code. Chances are you’ve seen this stamped on your Starbucks lid hundreds of times, and maybe you knew what it stood for, there’s a lot of smart people in my audience, but the average person just sees a recycling symbol. With a number inside of it.
What do these numbers mean? Well they stand for different types of resin, big acronyms for even bigger words, it’s really for the recyclers and not the consumers. The only ones you need to worry about as a consumer is these two. Number one and number two. And the reason is because um… They’re the only ones that are recyclable. Like… at all.

Yes, five of the seven “recycling” symbols are completely not recyclable.
The good news is, most of the single-use plastics that we deal with are in these first two categories. So a lot of it actually can be recycled… very expensively. Into an inferior product that there’s no real market for.
But it worked. The RIC codes, combined with a massive PR campaign throughout the 90s and lobbying by various industry front groups convinced the general public that if you throw your plastic waste into a recycling bin, it’ll get melted down and made into another Starbucks lid. The great circle of plastic life.

But today, 30 years later, still only 5% of plastic is recycled into other plastic products. The other 95% gets incinerated.
By the way, if you want to know just how shameless these guys are, some of them have tried to make the argument that incinerating plastic IS recycling it… into energy.

A 1986 paper from the Vinyl Institute said quote:
the “practice of incinerating or burning solid waste to recover energy is really
another form of recycling, with heat or light being the final product rather than reprocessed

In fact, SPI tried to make this argument to the Oregon attorney general in 1994 to get around not meeting their required recycling targets. It didn’t work.
So where does this leave us? After over 50 years of willfully misleading the public about the viability of plastic recycling, and succeeding, we’re drowning in more plastic waste than ever. And the problem is still getting worse.

Most of our plastic is burned in incinerators, or even worse, open pits, releasing harmful chemicals into our atmosphere like greenhouse gasses and even worse, cancer-causing agents like dioxins and furans. Which even if we don’t breathe them in first-hand, they get into our food supply.
Much of the plastic that isn’t burned is carried by ocean currents to one of Earth’s five “garbage patches”. The best known is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and Southern Pacific all have country-sized gyres of plastic trash that wreck havoc on ocean ecosystems.

Plastic waste is so ubiquitous that it’s literally on the summit of Mt. Everest and and it’s been found in the Marianas Trench.
And if you’re really ready to be horrified, one study estimates that humans ingest up to five grams or the equivalent of one credit card worth of plastic every week.

And it truly is a problem that’s only getting worse. Studies have estimated that the amount of plastic waste in the US is expected to go from 73 million metric tons in 2019 to more than 140 million metric tons by 2060.
It’s become such an obvious problem that once again, people are starting to call for regulation on single use plastics. And once again, the plastics industry has responded with obvious greenwashing. And this might be the worst one yet.

Advanced recycling

They call it Advanced Recycling, or “chemical recycling” and the idea here is instead of just melting down the plastic, they break the polymers down completely into their basic chemical elements through processes like pyrolysis, gasification, hydrolysis, methanolysis, and more.
Then once those basic chemicals have been extracted, they can be remade into everything from fuels to feedstock, or back into plastic. And the best part is, it’s not just limited to a couple of different resins, a lot more types of plastics can be recycled with this method.

And of course this sounds like a good idea, it sounds like the natural progression of technology, like of course in the 2020’s we’d finally have the ability to do this… But there’s actually nothing new about it, they’ve known about this since the 70s.
And they knew in the 70s that this wasn’t a solution to the plastic waste problem.

In fact a research paper on chemical recycling from 1978 said:
“[i]t has yet to
be demonstrated that the energy obtained by combustion of [fuel oils obtained via pyrolysis]
is greater than the energy put into the pyrolysis furnace. What is indisputable, however, is that
the energy obtainable from the fuel is very much less than the energy used to manufacture
the polymer in the first place.”

In other words, you get a lot less energy out than you put into it. Energy and money for that matter. So it’s still not economically feasible, just like mechanical recycling.

A report by the consulting firm Arthur D. Little, Inc, in 1973 pointed out another similiarity to mechanical recycling in that the process requires “very pure” plastic stock in order to produce a usable oil byproduct. So again, you still have to separate out all the different resins, which makes it cost prohibitive.

Now you might be tempted to say, hey, that was 50 years ago and technology has come a long way since then. But, they’ve been working on this the whole time and even as technology has progressed, it’s never made sense.

In 2003, a long-time industry consultant named Alan Griff laid into the idea of plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling, calling it “another example of how non-science got into the minds of industry and environmental activists alike.”

His report described chemical recycling as inherently “thermodynamically
And this is the part that cracks me up:

“Didn’t anyone know this already? It’s disgraceful either way—either people knew it was an energy-loser and didn’t want to let it be known, or else they didn’t bother to figure it out at
That’s a lot of shade for a boring industry report.
But the thing is, they did know it wasn’t viable. In fact in 1994 the Vice President of Exxon Chemical, Irwin Levowitz, was meeting with the American Plastics Council and told them that chemical recycling is quote:

“a fundamentally uneconomical process.”
It has all the same problems as mechanical recycling, but they kept pushing it as a solution, not because they genuinely wanted to make it work, but as a smokescreen, just like they always have.

In 2020, a group called the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives looked into these chemical recycling efforts and found that there have been 37 chemical recycling facilities proposed or built since the early 2000s. Of those 37, only three were operational, and none were successfully producing new plastic. Not. One.

An even more recent report last year by the groups Beyond Plastics and IPEN found that only 11 chemical recycling
facilities have been built in the U.S. and only four of those are operational. But even if they were fully operational, their combined capacity would handle only 1.3% of the plastic waste produced in the U.S. each year.

Now, there’s a part of me that wants to show a little grace, and some of you may be thinking this, that these things take time, that you’ve gotta start somewhere, and that we should support those efforts. Fair enough. And the industry has set some very bold targets in the coming years.
ExxonMobil, Dow, and Chevron Phillips Chemical have each announced that they plan to process at least a billion pounds of plastic waste through chemical recycling, with ExxonMobil saying they’ll do it by 2026.

Dow has promised “a series of planned facilities,” that would process 1 billion pounds a year by 2030.

Shell claims to be building a “pyrolysis oil upgrader” facility with the “ambition” to process
over two billion pounds by 2025.

That’s… next year.
Look, I want to believe all that. Of course I do. I want to think that there’s this banger new technology that’s going to solve this problem, and that they’re serious about solving it. That’s why these PR campaigns are so successful, we want this to be true. But as I’ve shown in this video, they have a history of making bold claims in public while admitting in private that it won’t work. And it’s hard to believe that this is anything more than the same smokescreen they’ve been running since the 1950s.

One person who agrees with my skepticism is a guy named Lewis Freeman.
Lewis Freeman was the Vice President at the Society of the Plastics Industry from 1978 to 2001, you could call him the ultimate plastics industry insider. And in a recent interview, he talked about how the industry has always seen this as a public perception problem and not a technical or economic one. Saying:

“In 30 some-odd years, there have been some slight improvements in the amount of plastics recycling, but for all the effort and the money they spent, they haven’t moved the needle hardly at all. If they used the same measure of success and failure they do in running the rest of their business, they’d be out of business.”

So a lot of this video came from a report that just came out last month from the Center for Climate Integrity, they did an excellent job and there’s a lot more where that came from, I’ll link it down below, definitely go check it out if you have a minute.

It’s Time To Reduce

All this is… well, it’s a lot. But what’s the actual solution here?
Well the phrase is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Those words are not in a random order.

We have to do the one thing the plastics industry doesn’t want to do, and that’s reduce the amount of single use plastic.
Look, plastic isn’t going to completely go away, it makes our lives immeasurably better, in a lot of ways, it’s still a wonder material.
I mean imagine what going to the doctor was like before plastics, I don’t think anybody wants that.

But especially now that we buy most of our stuff online, we have to cut down on plastics in our packaging, like do we have to wrap literally everything in multiple layers of plastic?

Actually, I want to show you something

This is a boom pole I bought recently. Actually we used it for the first time on the sketch at the beginning of this video, but when I got this in the mail, it was in the shipping box, I opened that up, there was plastic padding on the inside that protected the actual box which was, for some reason, inside a plastic bag.

I opened up the box to find more plastic padding, and another plastic bag covering this carrying case… which is made of some kind of plastic… which I opened up to find the boom pole, wrapped in yet another plastic bag.

Guys, it’s a boom pole. It’s not made of milk. It’s not King Tutankhamen. It doesn’t need to be hermetically sealed. It’s a friggin’ boom pole.

Seriously, start paying attention when you open packages you bought online, at how much unnecessary plastic is used in these things, it’s ridiculous. And remember, each one of these has a 95% chance of getting burned and releasing chemicals into the air and into our food supply. There is no such thing as disposable plastic. It doesn’t just go away.

Different forms of plastic take 20 to 500 years to decompose. As of 2021, more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic had been manufactured, and over half of that was in the 21st Century. Plastic waste exists on Mount Everest and in the depths of the Mariana Trench.

What’s in your bin?

If I asked you to check your recycling bin right now, what would you find? No judgement if your answer is “nothing”. I understand being skeptical that recycling programs do any good.
So let me start on a positive note. Worldwide, there are huge wins in recycling. Success varies by material, with some materials being more recyclable than others.

The Recycling Kings

Depending on how you measure, the most recycled material in the world is either asphalt, concrete, steel, aluminum or lead batteries. I know lead batteries are a product, not a material, but go with me here. Why no clear winner?

Because some statistics are based on percentage, while others are based on volume. For instance, in the US, lead batteries achieved a 99% recycling rate from 2017-2021. 99% of lead batteries amounts to about 160 million batteries per year.

Compare that to concrete, with a 70-80% recycling rate. The volume of concrete consumed in the US was 120 million metric tons in 2022. 160 million batteries weigh about 2.7 metric tons, so you’d only have to recycle 3% of US concrete to beat lead batteries by volume.
If you want a material with both high percentage and high volume, steel is #1. Statistics vary by source, but if we want to be optimistic, 88 percent of steel is recycled in the US. That amounts to between 54 and 72 million metric tons of recycled steel per year.
You’ll have noticed I stuck to US numbers on this stuff. Global statistics are hard to find, and what one country does well, others do badly. In 2019, Brazil recycled 1% of its concrete, while Japan recycled 90%.

About Aluminum

You may also have noticed I haven’t talked about aluminum recycling. Aluminum is one of the most recycled materials in use today. Nearly 4 times as much aluminum is produced from recycled aluminum than virgin materials.
Unfortunately, most recycled aluminum is used in drink cans, and nearly all those cans are coated on the inside. Until recently, most of the coatings contained BPA, an industrial chemical that can disrupt hormones and cause cancer. BPA is now being phased out of food packaging, but it’s unclear if the alternatives are truly safe, or just a lesser evil.
Also, the linings aren’t recycled, so every time an aluminum can is melted down, the chemical coatings go into the air. I’m not saying don’t recycle your aluminum cans. I’m saying that we, as consumers, need better options.

The Planet v. Plastic

OK. Now we know what’s being done right and some of what’s being done wrong with other materials, where does plastic fit in? Short answer: It’s complicated.
But if you thought every plastic bottle you put in the recycling bin, or every plastic bag you returned to the supermarket, was a win for the environment, sorry. It’s really not.

According to Greenpeace, only 5% of discarded plastic was recycled in 2022. This is actually down from an estimated 9% in 2020. The 2022 breakdown goes like this: 460 million metric tons of plastic used, 353 million metric tons discarded. Out of that 353 million, 174 million went to landfills, 67 million was incinerated, and 55 million was slated for recycling.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. 22 million metric tons wound up as residues. Add in losses from processing and we’re left with 79 million metric tons of plastic waste floating in the environment. And I do mean floating, because a lot of it is in the ocean.

You’d be excused for thinking incineration was actually the better way to go, but according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, fumes from burning plastic contribute to millions of premature deaths each year. This is especially true in poorer countries and on tribal lands. No surprise there.

But let’s be clear. The problem is global. Burning plastic releases greenhouse gases on the order of 16 million metric tons per year. That’s similar to the greenhouse gasses emitted to power 2.7 million homes.
Impacts on Marine Life
Much of the plastic that isn’t burned is carried by ocean currents to one of Earth’s five “garbage patches”. The best known is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and Southern Pacific all have country-sized gyres of plastic trash.
The impact on wildlife is awful. The last time I covered plastic trash in a video, I included footage of a sea turtle getting a straw removed from its nostril. Here’s a trigger warning, ‘cos I’m going to show it again.
Loggerhead sea turtles are one of 700 species known to eat plastic or get caught in its litter. They’re also an endangered species, as are others on the list.

Fish ingest tens of thousands of tons of plastic in the North Pacific. Seabirds are also impacted. In 2015, 60% of seabirds were estimated to have eaten plastic, and the number has since grown to 90%.
Whales and sea lions have been known to die by getting entangled in plastic debris. Whales get a double whammy, as they also eat plastic. And, you know, same, since the plastic in fish makes its way to fish markets, where humans buy it to eat.

At this point you’re probably pretty depressed. But you’re also probably wondering how we got into this mess. And how do we get out?

What RICs Mean

If you said 2, congratulations. And, that sucks.
There are two types of plastics that are commonly recycled, provided they’re colorless, or dark. More on the color issue in a moment. First, let’s look at the codes.
According to an article by Thomas Parker, published on the industry website, here is what the codes stand for.

Out of all these, it’s it’s only types 1 and 2, PET and HDPE, that are commonly recycled. Clear PET packages can be recycled infinite times. HDPE, which is used to make cleaning and personal care packages as well as milk jugs, can be recycled up to 10 times before it loses its properties.
Quick caveat. “Infinite” and “up to ten times” are aspirational goals. In practice, recycling any piece of plastic more than once is an achievement.

Recycling Challenges

On the molecular level, contaminants are one of the major plastic recycling hits the wall. PET is broken into flakes, the flakes are dried and melted, and the molten PET is formed into something new. If a contaminant like an acid gets mixed in, it can start a chain reaction that severs the polymer chains.

And then there’s the color thing. Basically, once you mix color into a plastic, it’s there for life. I know plastic fades, but the color is still there.

That’s why clear PET is king of the plastic recycling kingdom. PET is sturdy, and barring accident, it can be broken down and reconstituted a theoretical infinite times. Experiments have proven that HDPE can hold its properties after recycling 10 times.
Aside from codes 1 and 2, only code 5, polypropylene, is considered worth recycling by most recyclers. I wrote this part of the script while eating out of a polypropylene bowl, so vested interest, here. There are engineering challenges that stop some recyclers from accepting polypropylene, but with the right equipment, and chemical additives, these can be overcome.

The same can’t be said of other plastic types. #3, PVC, is known to leach chemicals into the environment. #4, Low-density Polyethylene, is too flimsy to recycle. #6, Polystyrene, is both flimsy and leaches chemicals. It’s really the worst of two worlds.
What about code 7 plastic? 7 is a catch-all code for all the plastic that isn’t a 1 through 6. Code 7 is almost never recycled, because it’s often a blend of plastics that can’t be separated.
But there is a silver lining. Code 7 also includes bioplastics. Some bioplastics are recyclable. Others break down on their own.

The Business of Plastics

Which brings up the question, why aren’t all plastics made of safe, biodegradable ingredients? For two reasons. The first is, biodegradable plastics are far from perfect.
There are different kinds, and each has its drawbacks. The short version is, bioplastics only break down under the right conditions. Bury them in a landfill or toss them in the ocean and they can be just as bad as petroleum plastics.

Reason number two is all about the benjamins, baby. a When making money is the goal, nothing beats single-use, disposable plastic. The global plastics market was valued at 712 billion in 2023, and it’s expected to grow from there.

Manufacturers are making money. Without government intervention or a financial incentive, they’re not going to change course. Financial incentive has to come from consumers, and clearly it isn’t.
If you’d like to know the impact of your buying decisions, does a brand audit of highest polluters. Their latest report covers the period 2018-2022. Want to guess the top polluting brands?

Here’s a hint: it’s Coke and Pepsi. As of 2022, Coca-Cola and Pepsico were producing a combined 5 times the plastic of third place polluter, Nestle. Coca-Cola alone produced 3.2 million metric tons of plastic in 2021.
All the top polluters regularly participate in greenwashing efforts. Break Free From Plastic cites Coca-Cola’s extensive lobbying efforts and Pepsico’s participation in numerous false solution projects. The aim of most of these is to push responsibility for plastic waste off manufacturers and on the public.

Those garbage patches are your fault. You don’t recycle enough, or you don’t recycle right. When was the last time you rinsed a shampoo bottles?
Again, for those with faulty sarcasm detectors, there is no way consumers can recycle away the plastic problem. Blaming consumers for poor recycling is like blaming smokers for cigarettes being addictirve. As the Break Free From Plastic report put it, “Plastic pollution is a crisis caused by plastic production, and must be addressed by capping production.”

Quick side note. When I started researching this topic, I expected more blame for our plastic problems to be placed on rich countries exporting their excess waste to poor countries. The poor countries are less-well equipped to handle the waste properly, thus more goes into the environment.
That is part of the problem, but it’s a smaller part than it used to be. See, back in 2018, 78% of plastic waste exports were going to countries with poor waste management. China, India, and Malaysia were high on the list.
China banned imports of plastics in 2017. That major development and some other shifts in policy have caused a sea change in where exported plastic ends up. In 2022, a solid 18.4% of global plastic imports went to the Netherlands.

Most plastic is traded within a region, rather than shipping oversees. In Asia, India is still a big importer. Brazil handles a lot of imports in South America.

In North America, most exported plastic waste goes to Canada. If there’s one thing the Canadians are into, it’s hockey. If there are two things, it’s hockey and beer. But if there are three things, recycling makes the list.

According to Dr. Hannah Ritchie of Our World in Data, under 2% of plastic waste was traded in 2022. Two-thirds of that 2% went to rich countries with decent recycling programs. That doesn’t make plastic export a universal good, but at least it’s less evil than it used to be.
Long story short, we can’t blame exports for plastic waste pollution. The blame should go to plastic manufacturers, governments that fail to regulate them, and suckers like me who buy their products.

Hope for the Future

But hey, there is hope. New techniques for recycling plastics are being rolled out. There are also new types of plastics being developed with recycling in mind.
In 2023, a company called Mura Technology opened a plant in Teesside, UK. It uses high pressure, high temperature water in a process that can help recycle plastics that had been considered unrecyclable. In theory, the process can be used to recycle the same plastic an unlimited number of times.

On the new plastics side, an “infinitely recyclable” plastic called polydiketoenamine should soon be on the market. The polymer chains in PDK, as it’s also called, can be broken into monomers with the help of an acid. They can then be reassembled without a loss of quality.
Researchers are looking at ways to manufacture PDK from sugar, using bacteria to make chemical changes. Different bacteria have been known to break down PET plastics with an enzyme.

It’s hoped the enzyme can be used to clean-up plastic pollution.
There’s also a fungus that breaks down plastics, and certain nano-materials are being tested that can break down microplastics when arranged as magnetic coils. And finally, I’d like to highlight the ongoing efforts to clean up oceanic garbage patches.

In my previous video, I mentioned Boyan Slat, a young entrepreneur with big cleanup plans. His company has since launched several iterations on their Interceptor and System technology. Both are basically giant nets that skim the surface of the ocean for plastic trash.
As of this video, they have removed more than 8 million kilograms from the ocean. You can keep watch on the progress by visiting and clicking on dashboard.

But wait, Joe! I thought you said production caps were the solution? I did, and they are.

Plastic waste is too big of a problem for any of the efforts I’ve outlined to solve. We need manufacturing caps so the scientists and recyclers have time to catch up. I’d like to say I’m optimistic that will happen, but I’d by lying if I did.

Plastic companies have deep pockets, and they don’t mind money spending to stay in business. For over fifty years, they’ve used lobbying and misinformation to delay meaningful action. And they’ll keep doing that so long as they get away with it.

What can you or I do to reverse the trend? Step one is getting educated. Don’t assume all the plastic you add to a bin will be recycled. Ask your local recyclers what they handle and see what answers you get.
Step two is changing your behavior. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is a nice slogan, but only one of those three is both effective and in your control. You should prioritize reusability in your purchases.

And no, I don’t mean reusing plastic bags as cheap beach balls. Consider investing in reusable drinking bottles, dishware, and shopping bags. And for the love of God, quit with the coffee pods!

Step three, consider getting involved in legitimate, grassroots efforts to fix the plastic waste problem. Don’t believe the greenwashing. Recycling is important, but it won’t save the planet.

It’s only by acting globally and locally that scenes like this…can become a thing of the past.

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *