The New York Times

The New York Times 9 Dec 2019

Is Your Plastic Actually Being Recycled?


The greatest trick corporations ever played was making us think we could recycle their products.

In the Video Op-Ed above, we debunk a recycling myth that has lulled us into guilt-free consumption for decades.

This holiday season, the United States Postal Service expects to ship almost one billion packages — cardboard boxes full of electronics and fabric and plastic galore. And the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans generate 25 percent more waste in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's than during the rest of the year, an additional one million tons per week.

But hey, most of it is recyclable, right?

Well, not really.

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… show captions ↓
Everyone knows recycling is pretty easy.
So I throw the bottle into the blue
bin, into a blue bin, in the recycling bin.
They throw it into some kind of truck
all sorted nice and neat. It goes
to a separate place, to a plastic recycling plant,
to a factory, something akin to the end of "Toy Story 3"
where they're all heading to this big incinerator.
Then I imagine that there's some large machine that just
squishes everything together.
Everything then is melted down.
It's somehow melted, maybe they melt down
the plastic or something. From there,
it can be reshaped into sheets of plastic,
a park bench. You hear about sneakers being turned
into a basketball court. And that turns
into new things. Recycling!
Turns out, that's not the whole truth, especially for plastic.
This is actually propaganda we've
been spoon-fed since we were kids
in commercial after commercial.
Who's behind a lot of this messaging? The industry
that produces plastic and the retailers who sell it to us.
And it makes perfect sense that they'd
want to trick us into thinking we can use as much plastic
as we want so long as we recycle.
Why not pass the responsibility
for a big corporate mess onto individuals like you and me.
But here's the big secret.
Entire categories of papers and plastics
are rarely recycled. Of seven types of plastic
that people put into blue bins, five whole categories hardly
ever get recycled at all.
According to the E.P.A., in 2017 as little as 8.4 percent
of our discarded plastic went through that magic recycling
process. What happened to the rest?
You probably guessed it. Minus the plastic
that ends up in the ocean. To make it worse,
we used to export a third of our recycling,
a whopping 20 million tons a year,
and pay countries like China to deal with it for us.
That game's over.
China's basically told us no more
followed by the Philippines and Malaysia.
This recycling shutout has caused
hundreds of American municipalities
to cut down or totally cancel their recycling
programs. In Eugene, Ore.,
we can't even recycle our milk cartons or yogurt containers
You might be thinking, if so little is actually
getting recycled,
why does everything we buy seem
to have that symbol on it?
Great question.
Let's ask the F.T.C.
That's the entity set up to protect American consumers
like you and me by setting rules on consumer labeling.
But their guidelines around recycling
are a bit confusing.
Basically, to earn this symbol, 60 percent of the people who
buy that product should be able to recycle it,
which seems to mean 60 percent of buyers of that product
would live in a place that can break down and reuse
that thing.
But then it gets more complicated.
Like if a shower curtain package says recyclable
but either the curtain or the package
isn't recyclable, then that's considered deceptive.
But if it's a bottle instead of a curtain
and it's the cap instead of the package
that's not recyclable, then it's
totally fine unless the bottle has a nonrecyclable wrapping
or is contaminated with food.
Is anyone else totally lost here?
With such complicated regulations,
companies can get away with stamping a recyclable label
on products that aren't likely to be recycled.
Like this. Or this. or even this.
And most of us wouldn't even know.
But somehow Kathleen Smith figured it out.
Kathleen is a resident of Northern California.
She loves coffee -- so much so that her grandkids call
her Grandma Coffee. And she loves being eco-friendly.
So someone gifted her a Keurig machine.
The pods had that nice little recycling symbol
and the box even said, "Have your cup and recycle it, too."
But those pods weren't actually recyclable.
She took Keurig to court to sue them for false advertising.
Keurig changed some of its labels,
but then they tried to dismiss the case, essentially claiming
what had happened hadn't hurt Kathleen.
But the court disagreed.
Kathleen could have been hurt
if she was misled
and paying more for something she thought was recyclable.
And now a whole bunch of other Kathleens are lining up
in a potential class- action suit against Keurig.
This lawsuit might eventually cause one company to clean up
its act, but short of millions of crusading Kathleens
and court cases,
how are we going to clean up the entire plastic-pushing
What we really need is the F.T.C. to write some clearer regulations
and introduce costly penalties.
And we need companies to stop hiding
behind their green marketing ploys
and actually deal with the plastic crisis they
Now you may be thinking,
so should I not even bother recycling anymore?
The point of this video is not to take
all the responsibility off of individuals like you and me.
Please keep recycling stuff that's recyclable.
But we've been made to feel that as long
as we put our plastic in the blue bin we've done our part.
And that's just not true.
The best thing we can really do
is start buying as if nothing gets recycled. Because that's
pretty much what's going on.
It's ridiculous that we had to pull this out
of the trash can for this video.

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