The tide is turning on how Americans view responsibility for plastic pollution. This year’s updated survey on plastic waste and consumption from WWF found that more than 50 percent of consumers want businesses to be held accountable for how the reduce and recycle that waste. This shift in attitudes toward prioritizing the role of plastic producers in pollution should finally signal to policymakers that this is a problem that needs to be tackled at its source.
There’s a reason the phrase goes reduce first, reuse second and recycle last. Yet, by putting the onus on the consumer instead of the producer, the first two have been all but forgotten in favor of a largely ineffective market-based recycling system. Until recent shifts in consumer sentiments, manufacturers have had little motivation to reduce plastic production, especially packaging. And why should they? Packaging can act as advertising — the bigger and more colorful it is the more attention it can draw away from competitors on the same shelf — and as a theft deterrent, such as with clamshells.
So not only does recycling after the fact instead of reducing at the source make no logical sense, but successful recycling is dependent on a whole range of factors. Consumers have to care enough not only to recycle but to educate themselves about how to do so correctly. Contamination from unwashed food containers leads to whole batches of recyclables being thrown out. "Wishcycling" items that are not actually recyclable can wreak havoc on sorting machines, require extra labor to resolve and add to more contamination in the system.
There also has to be a market for all of those recyclables — somewhere for them to go after they are collected. The U.S. lacks an internal recycling infrastructure that can handle the sheer volume produced, which historically meant selling our recycling to China. Except that doesn’t mean the materials were all recycled even after reaching the other side of the ocean. Thirty percent of all recyclables (not just plastics) sold to China were contaminated and unable to be processed, effectively exporting U.S. waste and pollution to the Chinese landscapes and seascapes. The logistics of that all changed in 2018 when China switched up its standards and was no longer willing to accept most plastic. The U.S. tried to send its waste to other Asian countries, including Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia after that. However, those nations’ governments quickly instituted bans of their own after communities were inundated.
Still, the U.S. continues to ship off over a million metric tons of plastic each year. So, where does it go now? Cambodia, Ethiopia and Senegal are a few examples of countries that are being overwhelmed by the deluge, of which it is estimated that 20 to 70 percent is actually trash. Once the plastic is overseas much of it is burned or ends up in a landfill, whether it is actually recyclable or not. The environmental and health costs of this are not only staggering but point to our present system of curbside recycling as more feel-good for American consumers than it is effective.
In its State of the Planet report from 2020, Columbia University quoted Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, an adjunct professor at their Sustainability Management Master’s Program, as saying: “It will only ever make economic sense to recycle a small subset of materials, which means we will have to look beyond recycling alone to solve for our broader waste. We need to tap into new business models that allow us to reduce our consumption in the first place, and re-use materials where we can.”
With only 9 percent of plastic produced ever having been recycled, it’s obvious that we are approaching the problem from the wrong direction. Policymakers must deal with the overwhelming amount of plastic being made at the source by encouraging a huge reduction in production and a transition to reusable containers and products. It is time for producers to take heed of shifting consumer opinions and not only reduce the amount of waste they produce but look towards making as much packaging as possible reusable. This creates an opportunity for new ways of doing business, including refill shops and returnable container programs — the latter of which are viewed favorably by 50 percent of survey respondents. The fact that only 20 percent viewed them negatively, begs the question: why aren’t more widespread programs already in the works?