I love recycling — seriously. Nothing indulges my inner environmentalist more than rinsing a dirty plastic container and tossing it into a recycling bin. I once felt assured that my recycling habits had prevented immense amounts of plastic from ending up in a landfill. One can imagine my dismay when I learned that not even a third of waste in the U.S. gets recycled.
This fact shocked me, as it likely did most people who have been duped by the all-too-familiar triangle of interlocking arrows imprinted on plastics. This symbol does not denote universal recyclability. It’s actually just a resin code indicating which type of plastic the object contains. Although they feature this misleading symbol, items like bubble wrap, shrink wrap, and plastic grocery bags cannot be placed in ordinary recycling containers. EcoCycle, a nonprofit recycling organization, explains that these plastics — numbers three, four, six and seven — clog and slow their recycling plants, resulting in 10% of collected plastic ending up in landfills.
But what about the plastics that are successfully recycled? Where do they end up? In order to actually reuse recycled plastics, recycling organizations must sell the material back to companies, who then use the repurposed materials to package their products. However, our 32% national recycling rate proves that this is not the case. The chief issue is that manufacturing companies don’t want to purchase recycled materials because it’s cheaper to produce new plastic. Lisa Ramsden, senior plastic campaigner for Greenpeace USA, an environmental nonprofit organization, explained to NPR how “more plastic is being produced, and an even smaller percentage of it is being recycled.” With the plastic industry projected to triple its production by 2050, the crisis will reach even greater extremes.
This frightening statistic demands action. Legislators must regulate plastic production and reform our waste management system, but companies and institutions should also address the issue at its source, perhaps opting for biodegradable alternatives, which, after processing, become reintegrated into the Earth. Dartmouth produced 594 tons of recycling waste in 2022, accounting for 35% of total waste. The College works with Casella, a local recycling organization, using their Zero-Sort collection system. The company pledges not to ship its recycled materials outside of North America and is “dedicated to establishing new, responsible, domestic partners.” However earnest their pledge may be, Casella doesn’t specify its domestic partners, which leads me to believe that the company may suffer from the same difficulties as most other recycling organizations: a lack of buyers.
We want to believe that our actions, however small, help to mitigate pollution, but this delusion is “greenwashing at its best,” according to Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation. An NPR report from 2020 unearthed the disturbing reality that oil and gas companies, the primary manufacturers of plastic, had been pouring tens of millions of dollars into ad campaigns portraying plastic as 100% recyclable, even though they knew this information to be incorrect. In recovered industry documents, NPR found statements from top industry officials claiming that “the cost of using oil to make plastic is so low that recycling plastic waste ‘can’t yet be justified economically.’” Basically, plastic manufacturers have understood since the 1970s that recycling requires complicated, costly processes that can be easily avoided by churning out new plastic.
So, where does this leave consumers? Nearly everything we consume is packaged in plastic, and it’s found in almost everything in our homes. An EPA report found that, in 2018, the U.S. generated 35.7 million tons of plastic, amounting to 12.2% of municipal solid waste generation. I shudder just thinking about all the food, drinks and basic commodities packaged in plastic that I’ve consumed. The solution isn’t as simple as boycotting plastic in favor of reusable containers; the products we rely on for daily functions are all encased in plastic.
Yet, we can’t abandon recycling. In a 2023 New York Times article, Oliver Franklin-Wallis explains that, for all of its misgivings, recycling is a much better solution than the alternative: burning. For example, he explains how recycling steel uses 72% less energy and 40% less water than producing new steel. Instead of abandoning recycling, industry and government need to work together to reduce and more effectively regulate plastic production. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have already passed laws to “help increase recycling rates and drive investment into the sector,” with the hope that other city governments follow suit.
By no means should Dartmouth abandon recycling, but it should also invest in strategies to reduce single-use plastic waste. A possible solution might be to invest in biodegradable plastic packaging. The EPA outlines that biodegradable plastics must be collected and sent to appropriate processing facilities to be biodegraded, and Dartmouth could largely eliminate plastic waste on campus if it invested in establishing this process. It’s true there would be some initial logistical difficulties in doing so, but this method would undoubtedly be simpler than the full — and currently broken — chain of plastic collection to recycler to new manufacturer.
To solve any issue, we must first identify and acknowledge it, but we’ve been conditioned to view recycling as a flawless solution due to an ingrained history of greenwashing and capitalist-oriented policy. As consumers, we can try to reduce our plastic consumption and pay attention to which plastics we toss in the recycling bin, but our real power rests in our voices, our capacity to demand change from our government and the institutions that perpetuate our broken recycling system.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.