The reprocessing of plastic waste – when it is possible – remains terribly harmful, first affecting geographically and economically disadvantaged communities.
“Plastic is fantastic”, sang the group Elmer Food Beat. And it is true that he was. Material carrying all the promises of the triumphant consumer society: economical and practical, complying with all desires, marrying all functions, shapes or appearances, malleable and disposable at will… In fact, plastic has adapted everything – hence its name – except for one thing: its recycling.
“Plastic is fantastic”, sang the group Elmer Food Beat. And it is true that he was. Material carrying all the promises of the triumphant consumer society: economical and practical, complying with all desires, marrying all functions, shapes or appearances, malleable and disposable at will… In fact, plastic has adapted everything – hence its name – except for one thing: its recycling. This is demonstrated by Judith Enck, professor at Bennington College, and Jan Dell, engineer and founder of the association Last Beach Cleanup, in an article in The Atlantic: plastic recycling does not work and will never work. According to them, it is neither the concept nor the process of recycling that are in question. These work great for paper, glass, or canned goods. The problem is the plastic material itself. Firstly, because plastic is not an entity: there are actually thousands of different plastics, each with incompatible compositions and characteristics, making them unsuitable for recycling together and, in fact, making it impossible to sort trillions of plastic pieces for recycling. High density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), low density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP) and expanded polystyrene (PS) all need to be separated for recycling. Better yet (or worse), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles cannot be recycled with PET shells just as green PET bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET bottles. For example, a fast-food meal can involve no less than five types of single-use plastic: cups, lids, shells, trays, bags and cutlery (respectively in PET, HDPE, LDPE, PP and PS) which cannot be recycled together. Then, because the reprocessing of plastic waste – when possible – remains terribly harmful, first affecting geographically and economically disadvantaged communities. Unlike metal and glass, plastic is not inert. And, finally, because recycling plastic is simply not economical. Recycled plastic costs more than new plastic. The cost of collecting, sorting, transporting and reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitant, while the booming petrochemical industry manages, in a worrying scissor effect, to always lower the cost of plastic. However, despite this obvious failure of recycling – whether mechanical or chemical – the plastics industry continues to perpetuate the myth of the material’s recyclability. An attitude that is reminiscent, according to the authors, of the efforts made by the tobacco industry to convince smokers that cigarettes with filters were healthier than cigarettes without filters. Hopeless? Without a doubt. But Judith Enck and Jan Dell are careful not to want to plunge us into despair. Getting out of denial allows us to collectively free ourselves from this comfortable alibi of recycling which allows producers to produce in peace and us to consume without too much remorse. But it is better to face reality and stop deluding yourself. We, consumers, have a spurring role to play vis-à-vis companies so that they stop offering single-use plastics, preferring reusable and better-packaged products. And if we must continue to recycle our papers, cans, cans or glass bottles – because it works – we must, on the other hand, stop recycling the false idea of recyclable plastic.