When it comes to plastics, less is more

You cannot actually recycle plastic sustainably.

Ridwell boxes are proliferating on Vashon Island and in other parts of our region, and that is a good thing. The Seattle-based recycling company is stepping in where municipalities have faltered, helping consumers recycle far more items responsibly and effectively.

But there is a troubling aspect to Ridwell’s messaging. “Don’t worry about your waste,” it says on its website. “Sustainably reuse and recycle your stuff with Ridwell.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to plastics, a huge part of the wastestream we pay Ridwell to address, this message is all wrong — because you cannot actually recycle plastic sustainably. And as a result, you should indeed be worried about your waste.

I recently took a seven-week course on plastics, taught by Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and founder of Beyond Plastics. Much of what I learned was sobering. I’ve been a cheerleader in my community for plastics recycling (and all other kinds of recycling) for years, but this class profoundly shifted my thinking. The fact is, we cannot recycle our way out of our plastics problem. The only real answer is reduction.

Part of the problem is that plastic, a product made from fossil fuel and thousands of chemicals, is not actually recycled. It’s downcycled, which means it gets weaker with each new iteration and ultimately outlives its usefulness as a product. As it degrades, it’s releasing microplastics, which have been found in so many things it would be impossible to list them all — our brains, mothers’ breast milk, wildlife, the soil, the air, glaciers, and more.

According to a recent peer-reviewed study, even the production of recycled plastics is harmful — six to 13 percent of the plastic processed is released into the air as microplastics. As Enck wrote in a column for The Atlantic, “The problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself.”

And here’s the rub: Even while we’re learning more and more about the health risks and environmental harms of plastics, we’re using more of it — not less — driven partly by the false belief that we can simply recycle all of that waste. According to one peer-reviewed paper, the myth of plastic recycling is leading to what some call “reduction neglect” — two nationwide surveys found “that people overlook waste reduction and reuse in favor of recycling.”

But we’re also using more of it because the industry itself — which is hellbent on a massive increase in plastics production — continues to peddle the myth of plastics recycling. Here’s what Rebecca Altman wrote in a recent piece for The Atlantic:

“For decades, the industry has created the illusion that its problems are well under control, all while intensifying production and promotion. More plastics have been made over the past two decades than during the second half of the 20th century. Today, recycling is a flailing, failing system – and yet it is still touted as plastics’ panacea. No end-of-the-pipe fix can manage mass plastics’ volume, complex toxicity, or legacy of pollution, and the industry’s long-standing infractions against human health and rights.”

Plastics production is predicted to increase exponentially over the next decade, becoming the biggest growth market for oil demand, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. It’s the industry’s stated business model, what Altman calls “one of the yet-unchecked drivers of climate change” in the 21st century.

What this means is that all of our efforts at fossil fuel reduction — driving EVs, installing solar panels, getting rid of gas-fed appliances — will do little to address our climate crisis unless we also find ways to reduce our plastics consumption and force the industry to reduce plastics production.

It also means that how we talk about the plastics crisis matters. One of Ridwell’s partners, By Fusion, says on its website: “Plastic as a material isn’t the problem; it’s the lack of planning for its lifecycle. We need to reshape the future of plastic waste.” It’s a message straight from the oil industry’s playbook.

Of course, we should continue to recycle plastic as responsibly as we can and address the huge volumes of plastic that are already poisoning our planet. That, too, is Ridwell’s message and business model, and I applaud the company for that. But without a huge reduction in plastic production, we’re using a spoon to empty a bathtub while the spigot is open full-force.

In an email exchange with Ridwell, an employee told me that the company “absolutely agrees that plastic production should be reduced.” If so, the company needs to change its messaging. Because unless we do something to stanch the flow of plastic, Ridwell will have plenty of business, but our planet will continue to overheat; our bodies will continue to be repositories for microplastics; and our natural systems will continue to decline.

Sorry, Ridwell, but I’m worried about my waste.

Leslie Brown is a former editor of The Beachcomber.