Commentary: Railing against recycling won’t solve the plastic waste problem

July 17, 2023
The current system is flawed and much more remains to be done, but recycling is a necessary part of the solution.

From the summer 2023 issue of Plastics Recycling

By Ron Shinn 

The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) ran an ad campaign on National Public Radio (NPR) this spring promoting recycling, but not everyone got the message. The anti-plastics group Beyond Plastics asked NPR to stop running the ads. 

It seems ludicrous that anyone would be against recycling more plastic. 

Beyond Plastics, in a letter to NPR, said promoting plastic recycling is confusing because most plastic is not recycled. 

This is what the ads said: “The Association of Plastic Recyclers, whose member companies recycle plastic packaging into new products. Working towards a world where everyone uses less by recycling more.” The ads were designed to reach both consumers and policy makers, according to Kara Pochiro, VP of communications and public affairs at APR.  

Beyond Plastics was founded in 2019 at Bennington College. It says that the U.S. plastics industry is a major driver of the climate crisis; chemical recycling is just greenwashing for burning plastic; and bio-based plastic produces more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil-based plastic. 

There are a lot of broken parts to the plastic recycling chain. Already-low recycling rates took a dive during the COVID-19 pandemic but are starting to rise again. But railing against all plastic recycling seems to be a poor solution to the big problem of plastic waste. 

The use of plastic in everyday life is not going to go away. In fact, the amount of plastic is going to increase as technology finds more applications as well as ways to replace other products. 

So screaming to get rid of plastics seems to be fruitless.  

When you consider the plastics circular economy, the critical step is for brand owners to want to use more recycled material in their products. When demand increases, recycled resin becomes more valuable and the pull for more feedstock trickles down to communities, incentivizing them to step up their collection efforts. 

It is true that far too much plastic still ends up in landfills. It is also reasonable to believe that the advanced recycling plants just now coming online or still under construction will need that feedstock. Another key point is that these new plants plan to focus on plastic that is difficult for mechanical recyclers to process. 

APR supports chemical recycling as a way to “accelerate the plastics circular economy and reduce dependency on non-renewable resources,” according to the group’s website. 

Recycling is part of the solution to end plastic pollution. That has long been a belief for APR, and it seems reasonable the organization would promote recycling in the national media. 

Some of Beyond Plastics’ arguments seem to echo the 2020 PBS documentary, “Plastic Wars” by “Frontline” and NPR. A key point the filmmakers tried to make is that the plastics industry long paid little more than lip service to recycling because increased use of recycled resin would have hurt demand for virgin resin. 

History has proved that to be wrong. Chemical companies are investing heavily in their own recycling operations and partnering with established recyclers to produce the recycled resin their customers are demanding. The virgin resin makers could eventually play a huge role in recycling.  

Anti-plastics groups will keep railing against the use of plastic in any form, calling for shuttering of plastics plants, eliminating single-use plastic products and generally grabbing headlines any way they can. 

In the meantime, APR and organizations like it must keep chipping away at the problem. APR walks the walk. 

There is another way to think about this. NPR, which just three years ago co-created the “Plastics Wars” documentary, now accepts advertising promoting plastic recycling. I guess you can call that progress. 

Ron Shinn, editor

[email protected]

About the Author

Ron Shinn | Editor

Editor Ron Shinn is a co-founder of Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing and has been covering the plastics industry for more than 35 years. He leads the editorial team, directs coverage and sets the editorial calendar. He also writes features, including the Talking Points column and On the Factory Floor, and covers recycling and sustainability for PMM and Plastics Recycling.