Reducing Plastic Demand vs Recycling

We ran across a fascinating article published by CNET in early December, 2022. Author Erin Carson took no prisoners, putting forth a shocking idea in her title. Her title read, “Plastics Recycling Misses the Point. Here’s What We Can Try Next”.

Being in the commercial plastic recycling business, Carson’s premise is not surprising to us. We get exactly what she is saying. But people who do not understand how plastic recycling works may be shocked to read her thoughts on recycling. They might also be left wondering what the actual point is.

We will lay out her main point and then offer our own explanation. Here is what Carson was trying to say in her piece: rather than obsessing over plastic recycling, we should look for ways to reduce demand for it. Note that most of her piece dealt with consumer plastics.

Recycling Single-Use Plastics

More than 90% of the world’s single-use plastics never get recycled. Most of us already know that. Moreover, no amount of public education is going to solve the problem. What is so hard for most people to understand is that single-use plastics are hard to recycle for the simple reason that recycling them was never the intention. They are called single-use plastics for a reason. You use them once and throw them away.

Though there are legitimate ways to effectively recycle all these plastics, it is not practical or profitable. To make it so, consumers would need to be actively involved above and beyond throwing plastics in a recycling container destined for the curb.

If consumer plastics were recycled the same way industrial scrap plastic gets recycled, we could make it work. But the chances of that happening are slim to none. Therefore, while we continue to recycle things like plastic purge, baled PET bottles, and industrial plastic totes, things like milk jugs and plastic food containers will continue going to the landfill.

Reducing the Demand for Consumer Plastics

Carson spent a lot of time in her piece outlining two particular alternatives to plastic recycling, alternatives that would actually accomplish something. Before getting to those however, it must be pointed out that eliminating plastic altogether is neither practical nor doable. Plastic permeates the manufacturing process. You are not going to get rid of it the matter how hard you try.

All of that said, we can reduce our collective dependence on consumer plastics. Carson offers the following two suggestions:

  1. Choose Reusable Alternatives

At the top of the list is choosing reusable alternatives whenever possible. We could eliminate plastic grocery bags by choosing reusable fabric bags instead. It would require a minimal financial investment for most people. It would also require a willingness to carry the bags to and from the store.

We could trade in the daily foam or paper coffee cup for a reusable metal travel mug. Restaurants could replace plastic food packaging with paper and cardboard alternatives.

  1. Learn to Fix Things

Carson’s next suggestion is a bit more challenging: learn to fix things. We live in a disposable society that is too quick to throw things away. It wasn’t always this way. Back when our grandparents were young, people used to fix things as often as they could. We are less apt to fix things because consumer goods are so cheap and most of us have never learned how.

Let us assume Carson’s main argument is right: obsessing over plastic recycling is to miss the point. The actual point is that we can reduce our need for consumer plastics by choosing alternatives and learning to fix things. She is not wrong.