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Everything you've been told about plastic is wrong – the answer isn't recycling

Recycling is an easy cop-out for governments and large corporations, but the truth is that we have to take very different action if we want to stop irreversibly poisoning the planet

Sirena Bergman
Saturday 22 September 2018 16:39 BST
Wave of floating plastic in Dominican Republic shows extent of ocean pollution

Head to the kitchen, open your fridge and cupboards, and take out everything that’s made of plastic. Bags of pasta, rice (or quinoa, if that’s your jam), bottles of olive oil or soy sauce, blocks of cheese, cartons of milk and juice, packaging around meat and fish, bags of spinach, two-packs of avocados, punnets of cherry tomatoes, herb and spice jars (at the very least the lids), washing up liquid bottles, sponges (the packets and, often, the sponge itself). The list goes on – and that’s just one room.

It’s fine though, right? Because you recycle. Or so goes the story we’ve all been brainwashed into accepting: that if we all just get a few containers and separate out our waste, it will be taken by some nice people who will magically make it go away without any negative consequences. Recycling is the grown-up version of squeezing our eyes shut, sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting “lalalalalala!”. Meanwhile our marine life is fast becoming extinct, our air is so polluted that limits and benchmarks are becoming laughable, natural disasters are more devastating than ever and, of course, the planet is hurtling ever closer to “disastrous” levels of global warming.

Today, though, some of us have received a wake-up call. The news that the government is considering changing the way plastic is recycled in England has prompted questions about how exactly it is recycled, the answer to which is not very effectively at all.

Of all that plastic you found in your kitchen, two thirds cannot be recycled (if you carefully inspect the packaging, you’ll see much of it states “not currently recyclable” somewhere in microscopic text). Even the thermal paper your shopping receipts are usually printed on contain BPA and cannot be recycled.

We need to open our eyes to the reality of how much plastic ends up in landfill, but perhaps even more importantly, we must reframe the idea of recycling. When it comes to plastic, it is not a solution – it’s the last resort.

Recycling is not something that governments or charities do out of the goodness of their hearts – it’s an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars globally. A drop in oil prices or a shift in environmental policy in China has the power to render recycling plastic much less profitable for the companies doing it, often making it not worth their while at all. As a result, 70 per cent of potentially recyclable plastic in Europe ends up in landfill, in oceans or are incinerated, leading to the release of devastatingly harmful toxins into the environment.

Plastic – unlike glass or metal – cannot be recycled infinitely, and after a handful of times it will be discarded, where it will take centuries to degrade. One single water bottle will remain on the planet in some form for a minimum of 450 years.

Even if plastic were easily and infinitely recyclable, it is still manufactured from crude oil often obtained by methods such as fracking, one of the most environmentally damaging processes in existence, which produces carbon emissions and contaminates the surrounding areas, putting people’s health at immediate risk.

It’s clear that something needs to change, and it’s not about recycling. If we want to truly address the devastating impact of single-use plastic the answer is simple: governments must focus on stopping its production entirely.

Single-use plastics should be immediately banned, or at the very least heavily taxed. This is not radical: the British government legislates against self-inflicted danger all the time. The continued illegality of cannabis is based on the off-chance a minuscule percentage of people may develop health issues as a result of using it, while tobacco, alcohol and sugar are subject to punitive taxation based on the idea that they’re not very good for us so we should have to pay as much as possible for the pleasure of poisoning ourselves.

Yet plastic is poisoning the planet, and shows no sign of stopping. The impact of climate change is largely irreversible, but not unstoppable – all it takes is a choice to put the future of the human race above a bit of convenience. Plastic bags, straws and disposable coffee cups are a start, but until the manufacturing of single-use plastic is truly penalised, we won’t be able to end its ubiquity.

There are a small number of contexts in which single-use plastic is unavoidable, but the vast majority of it thoughtless and unnecessary. If corporations’ profits were increased by using other types of packaging – or none at all – we would see a real change in the environmental impact of our waste. Consumers can already choose to opt out of plastic, but it’s not easy. Sourcing things like food, toiletries, household products and electronics without plastic packaging is time-consuming and can be expensive. Living a sustainable life should not be a left-field choice for the elite, it should be the norm for us all. The onus is on political leaders to make it impossible to profit from manufacturing single-use plastics.

Recycling is not a solution to our plastic problem: it’s just an easy cop-out for cowardly governments, greedy corporations and lazy consumers to hide behind. We must acknowledge the true scale of this mess we’ve landed ourselves in if we want to see environmental change – and we have to do so before it’s too late.

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