Greenpeace USA rocked the Green world in late 2022 with a report declaring that post-consumer plastic recycling is a dead-end. The report was a follow-up to a similar report published a year earlier. Combined, the two reports had nothing good to say about plastic recycling. But perhaps they missed the point entirely.
We often think of recycling in terms of sustainability. We think of it in terms of protecting the environment by keeping dangerous chemicals out of soil and water. But thinking of recycling in such terms is reactionary. It is trying to make the best of a situation that doesn’t even have to exist.
At its core, recycling isn’t about protecting the planet or making the world more sustainable. It is about dealing with waste. We have things to recycle because we generate waste. It is no more complicated than that. Reduce the amount of waste that we produce and we reduce the need to recycle.
The Single-Use Plastic Bogeyman
Anyone who studies the plastic waste issue knows that single-use plastics are a significant part of the issue. They are the plastics that everyone focuses on when talking about environmental damage and sustainability. But here is a question: for whom are single-use plastics made? They are made for consumers.
Order take-out from your favorite restaurant and the chances are pretty good that it will be packaged in a single-use plastic container. If you order take out six days a week, you are putting those containers in the trash six days a week as well. You can eliminate most of that waste by cooking at home.
Another example of frivolous waste and spending is a coffee addiction. If I stop at the coffee shop to get my favorite beverage every Monday through Friday, I’ll end up with five foam cups that go straight to the trash when I’m done with them. I can eliminate every single one of them by making coffee at home and putting it in a reusable travel mug.
Our Plastic Waste Is Tied to Convenience
The uncomfortable truth is that much of the waste humanity produces is tied to our thirst for convenience. We don’t like work. We do not like discomfort. So instead, we build our world around making life as easy as possible. You cannot do it without generating waste.
All human activity generates waste. It is unavoidable. The more we try to make life convenient and easy, the more we end up with processes, strategies, and objects that add to the waste stream. If we really want to tackle single-use plastics, we must change the way we live. Blaming corporate America isn’t going to get it done.
Not All Plastic Is Bad
For the record, not all plastic is bad. There are a lot of things we enjoy today that would not be possible without plastic. Jumbo jets and cell phones are two prime examples. We are willing to accept plastic manufacturing in these particular areas because we want the benefits of commercial air travel and mobile communication.
We also accept the fact that companies like Seraphim Plastics can successfully recycle scrap industrial plastic at a profit. In so doing, they keep tons of plastic out of landfills. But what about us? We still generate waste regardless of what Seraphim Plastics does.
We recycle because waste is part of life. We can ban all sorts of products we don’t like and it will not solve the waste problem. The only solution to waste is to stop producing it. And the only way to do that is to change the way we live. Good luck with that.