Debunking the Anti-Recycling Narrative

June 16, 2022   |   Blog

In recent months, major publications have published articles questioning recycling. But many who truly understand recycling are pushing back. 

Judith Enck, the president of the anti-plastic group Beyond Plastics, recently published an anti-recycling article in The Atlantic titled “Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work.” This is quite a change of heart for the woman who brags about having “designed her town’s rural recycling program” before taking the reins at Beyond Plastics.

Enck made several misleading arguments in her piece, many of which are easily debunked. 

For example, Enck highlighted paper, which has a recycling rate of 68 percent, as proof that recycling works for some materials, writing, “The problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself.”

Enck failed to acknowledge, however, that many plastic alternatives are recycled at similar rates to plastic. Aluminum, for example, has a recycling rate of 34.9 percent while PET plastic, which is used to make clear bottles, has a recycling rate of 29.1 percent

Enck also argues that plastic is difficult to recycle because it’s flammable. She must have forgotten about her praise of paper recycling. After all, paper burns. 

Adam Minter of Bloomberg highlighted a few other errors recycling cynics have made in recent months. He notes that plastic recycling is not only effective, but it’s in high demand. 

“The US will need an additional 80 recycling plants to meet the 2025 California [recycled content] mandate, according to one recent forecast. Another analysis predicts that global demand for recycled plastics will reach $45 billion by 2025, up 30% from 2020,” Minter wrote. 

But there is one point at which Enck, Minter, and many others agree: Plastic recycling is too confusing. 

There are many types of plastic, but only a few are easily recycled in curbside recycling programs. Those plastics include plastic #1 (PET, used in soda and water bottles), #2 (HDPE, used in colorful detergent bottles and milk jugs), and #5 (PP, used in yogurt containers). 

Plastics like polystyrene foam can only be recycled in specialty facilities. Yet all these plastics are stamped with the same chasing arrows recycling logo. The only difference is the tiny number etched inside the logo – if you can see it. This leads to a lot of confusion.

The plastic recycling rate does need to improve. But critics of recycling are making matters worse. Instead of addressing the issue and coming up with solutions, they simply argue plastic should be banned – even though many alternatives have their own environmental risks. 

Instead of casting doubt on recycling, environmentalists would be better off advocating for a simpler recycling system that makes plastic recycling as easy as possible. 

One solution could be to change the confusing numbered recycling logo used today on many plastics with one that actually tells consumers if the product can be recycled in most curbside programs. A color-coded system that uses green for items that can be recycled everywhere and red for items that require specialty recycling would be a step in the right direction.

Additionally, environmentalists should be encouraging innovation. Plastic recycling was started in 1972 which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. New practices, including chemical recycling, could offer solutions for difficult-to-recycle items. 

But it’s not clear that getting everyone to stop using plastic – especially essential items like gloves, syringes, or water bottles – is much easier than boosting the recycling rate in the United States.