Why John Oliver is right, plastic recycling is a broken system and what we should do about it 

‘Our personal behavior is not the main culprit here, despite what the plastics industry has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to convince us,’ the TV host said

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Monday 22 March 2021 19:24 GMT
The plastics industry is lying about recycling, says John Oliver

John Oliver tackled the failure that is plastic recycling during Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, pointing out that the United States recycles less than 9 per cent of items but “the plastics industry has managed to convince us all that it’s our fault”.

Plastic production is booming with more than half of all plastic ever made created within the last two decades.

Vast amounts of plastic aren’t recycled for reasons including its complex mix of resins; contamination or difficulty in sorting; or the simple fact it’s cheaper to make virgin plastic.

The pollution ends up in landfill, is incinerated or shipped overseas to less wealthy nations.

In 2018 China said it would not longer accept large volumes of plastic waste. And while 180 nations signed an agreement last year to set limits on plastic pollution being shipped to poorer countries, The New York Times reported that US exports remained much the same and that scrap plastic exports actually increased.

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Additionally, an estimated 10 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean annually - the equivalent of a garbage truck every minute.

This plastic breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics, of less than 0.2inches (5mm), which endanger marine life and birds who often mistake them for food. Microplastics have invaded all corners of the planet, from Antarctic sea ice to Arctic snow. The small pieces travel through the food system, making their way to our dinner plates. By one estimate, a person eats more than 40lb of plastic during a lifetime.

But Oliver pointed out that despite spending millions of dollars in ad campaigns that highlighted consumers’ responsibility for recycling, the plastics industry was aware that large-scale recycling would not work.

He noted that “our personal behavior is not the main culprit here, despite what the plastics industry has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to convince us”.

(One industry executive told NPR that campaigns to encourage recycling helped to sell more plastic.)

Oliver claimed that the recycling movement is “often bankrolled by companies that wanted to drill home the message that it is your responsibility to deal with the environmental impact of their products.

“And honestly, it wasn’t all that difficult for them to convince us that all their waste is recyclable, because we so badly want to believe it”, he said. This idea has been dubbed “wishcycling” by the industry.

The TV host said that while it may seem that recycling is pointless, “it’s important to know that it’s not”.

“We should absolutely keep recycling paper, cardboard, and aluminum — and even recycling plastic, while it may be 90 per cent more pointless than you assumed, it can still have modest environmental benefits,” he added.

He went on to say that the “real behaviour change” has to come from those who make the plastic in the first place.

Oliver highlighted legislation called “extended producer responsibility (EPR)” which would shift more obligation to industry for the environmental price-tag of their products, with the hope of reducing waste and increasing how much is recycled and reused.

Oliver added: “It is obvious that meaningful change is only going to come from being able to force this very powerful industry to do things that it has shown for half a century it has absolutely no interest in doing. We have to make them change.”

Last year a federal bill, titled the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, was introduced in Congress to reduce unnecessary plastic and “reform a broken waste management system”.

In February, ten states launched a national network to establish a unified approach to EPR legislation.

“Pollution doesn’t know state boundaries. A piece of plastic, a poorly-thought-out, manufactured, single-use item that flows into California can easily end up in the waterways of Colorado. Maryland’s problem is also New Hampshire’s problem. Washington state is not separate from Oregon,” said California state senator Henry Stern told Spectrum News.

In California, a bill called the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act is being brought before the state legislature this session, the National Resource Defense Council reported, while other states including Oregon, Hawaii, Maryland and Washington are looking at similar measures.

And the issue is only growing more urgent. By 2050, global plastic production is expected to triple, and make up 20 per cent of all oil consumption. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which tackles ocean pollution, notes that in 30 years, the number of fish in the ocean will be outnumbered by plastic.

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