About three months after the lockdowns began, I got an email that our favorite coffee shop in town was reopening its doors. The news came with some precautionary measures; reusables would be temporarily suspended. My funky metal mug would be quarantined indefinitely. It is evident that COVID-19 has suddenly spurred demand for single-use plas
tic, ranging from personal protective equipment to packaged food and groceries–turning the clock back on long-standing efforts to decrease plastic pollution. But at least they're recyclable, right?
This is where it gets complicated. The pandemic has also brought into focus the weaknesses and inefficiencies of America's current recycling system. Earlier this year, National Public Radio and PBS Frontline released a joint investigation about the challenges with plastic recycling, stating how consumers might have mistakenly considered a products' recyclability for decades.
The misconception is attributed to the use of Resin Identification Codes (RIC), a system created by the Society of Plastics in 1988 that identifies but does not guarantee that a resin can be recycled (CBA, 2019). Although the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) revised the coding system in 2010 to better address plastics materials' advancements, the confusion among consumers remains. As public awareness of environmental issues and demand for transparency increases, more challenging questions are asked only to find ourselves with some sobering answers. Proper waste management (including sorting and cleaning items at home) was deemed a sustainable solution to stop plastic waste from entering our lands, oceans, and waterways. But environmental scientists and economists have struggled with this idea for years.
Recycling, the way it occurs today, is not a viable solution and is not likely to be viable without some serious innovation. "Presorting of plastics before recycling is costly and time-intensive, recycling requires large amounts of energy and often leads to low-quality polymers, and current technologies cannot be applied to many polymeric materials," writes Jeanette Garcia in an article for Science Magazine. This complexity is partly why the U.S currently recycles only 8.8 percent of its plastic waste (EPA, 2017).
Furthermore, COVID-19 and other factors have brought down oil prices worldwide, making recyclables materials difficult to compete with cheaper virgin plastic. But it's not all so grim. A younger generation, fueled by fear of global warming, is paying attention to these numbers and is helping pave the road to a more circular economy. Studies show how the quest for sustainability and demand for sustainable products strengthens with each generation – even if this means paying a premium (Nielsen, 2018). The ultimate goal, however, should be for sustainability to be accessible to all. Paying higher prices for sustainable packaging is only putting a band-aid on a bullet's wound. Experts in the field say we need to invest in recycling infrastructure that simplifies the process for consumers and makes it more cost-effective for companies to migrate from virgin plastic. A bill introduced this summer by U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio calls for the federal government to invest in developing recycling technologies and the authorization of millions of dollars in 2021.
Shortly after the PBS documentary series release, The American Chemistry Council released a statement noting that large plastic makers have set a goal for all plastic packaging used in the United States to be reused, recycled, or recovered by 2040. That is an ambitious goal considering our current state of affairs and incredibly difficult to digest when the same organization predicts that the plastic industry will quadruple by 2050. How do these environmental goals align with companies' growth goals and stakeholders' interests? Petrochemical companies are currently investing billions of dollars into new factories intended to pump millions of more plastic than they do now. Sure, there are societal and environmental benefits of plastic that can't and should not be dismissed. Still, the underlying question remains: how will post-consumer materials compete with raw resources, especially when oil is at an all-time low? We can't expect companies to cede a profitable market in the name of climate change– or can we?
When big-name manufacturers, including Unilever and Coca-Cola, say they will continue their commitment to post-consumer materials regardless, the room gets a little brighter. How long this optimism will prevail, I believe, will be directly related to how fast we can expand recycling technologies. Public pressure will need to remain strong to keep investments and resources flowing in. And lastly, accountability from the sources that got us to our current predicament will remain key to the future of recycling in the United States. The quest for global sustainability is complicated, especially with other pressing issues demanding our immediate attention. But the cost of delaying change and turning a blind eye to our current environmental degradation might prove to be the second biggest mistake in human history—the first we already made.