If recycling plastic is basically a myth, WTF do I do now?

Plus: What’s the lesser evil when it comes to pre-packaged vegetables?

Getty Images/Dewey Saunders
Temp Check
ByDevi Lockwood
Originally Published: 

Welcome to Temp Check, Mic’s new climate advice column. The news about climate change can be extremely overwhelming, we know, so we enlisted Devi Lockwood, author of 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement from Around the World, to help. She’ll be part ethicist, part knowledgeable friend, here to guide you as we all try our best to prevent a climate apocalypse. Read on for this week’s advice, and then submit your questions to tempcheck@mic.com.

Dear Temp Check,

I recently heard that recyclable plastics are a myth created by oil and gas companies, which absolutely devastated me. I consider myself environmentally-conscious, and I’ve been recycling for so long, but now I feel guilty about my use of plastics. I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with it. Was all of my recycling for naught? How can I move forward if recycling plastics ultimately isn’t a real thing? Is there anything I can do instead?


Down in the Recycling Dumps

Dear Down in the Recycling Dumps,

Facing down the fossil fuel industry and realizing you’re but a speck — that the problems are systemic, and that despite your best efforts to sort and wash and separate your recyclable plastics from other forms of waste for years, over 90% of it is never recycled? Yes, that’s a good reason to despair. It would be strange, frankly, if you were feeling anything else.

For the uninitiated, here’s the issue. It’s damn expensive to sort and melt down plastic, and each time it’s reused, the material degrades. Making new plastic from oil and gas, in contrast, is cheap and better quality. Big Oil has spent decades misleading the public by paying for advertisements about the benefits of recycling plastics, all the while knowing (even in the 1970s!) that recycling plastic was more or less futile. Companies like Exxon, Chevron, and DuPont have pumped tens of millions of dollars into these ads. The result is that we collectively have been duped.

A lot of money is on the line for these companies. The oil industry rakes in over $400 billion a year from plastics, and they see the plastic industry as a way to hedge their bets as renewable fuels are on the rise. Analysts have forecasted that plastic production could triple by 2050. And the environmental impacts of plastic pollution are dire. It is estimated that more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, about 60% of which ended up in a landfill or in the environment.

Now, the easiest way to get out of this funk is to get up and do something about it. And you don’t have to go it alone. Get involved with organizations like Plastic Free July, which has existing groups around the world that put on events like plastic-related movie screenings, plastic free picnics, or park clean-ups. You could also organize a group to remove plastic pollution from your local beach or waterway. If you’d prefer to donate to or join up with organizations that are addressing the issues of plastic waste, there are many to choose from, including the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, and the Plastic Soup Foundation. You can also read up on efforts to design out plastic waste by creating a circular economy for plastic.

If you’re feeling fired up to take action closer to home, you might check with your local recycling center about the types of plastic they accept and speak with local authorities about ways to improve how they manage waste. You could also pressure your town or city to create bans on single-use plastics. It’s important to remember that systemic failures are not your fault. But if you get moving and join up with like-minded people in your community, you can be a part of the solution.

Dear Temp Check,

I really do try to buy foods in bulk or in minimal packaging whenever possible, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Take spinach, for example: We eat a lot of baby spinach in my household, and the bundles of fresh spinach sold at the grocery store are a lot more work to prepare than the pre-washed, packaged leaves. I’ve resigned myself to the latter variety for the time-being, but I’m not sure what the lesser of two evil packages is: the flimsy plastic bags, or the sturdier plastic containers. If I recycle no matter what (I try to take the bags to my local grocery store’s plastic bag recycling collection bin), are they pretty equal, or should I choose one over the other?


Going Green with Greens

Dear Going Green with Greens,

Isn’t it the ugliest tradeoff? I loathe that the easiest options are often the least sustainable. And really (see above) it’s the fault of Big Oil that we’re in this predicament in the first place. But I digress. Let’s talk about spinach.

Even though it might be printed with the recycling symbol, spinach bags are almost never recyclable, so the sturdier plastic box is the winner in this scenario. But let’s consider that clamshell box. Is it made from plastic that has already been recycled? If not, call up the company and ask for it, or choose to move your business to another company that uses recycled materials. You should also call up your recycling center to make sure that they accept clamshell packaging.

Another environmental impact to consider is water. Prewashed greens use loads of water, and if the washing is happening in drought-prone areas, it’s bad news. Of course, the best choice would be to bring a reusable bag or container to the grocery store or to the farmer’s market, and to buy spinach in bulk that comes with no packaging. Then, back home, cut off the dry ends, break out the salad spinner, and make sure the leaves are fully dry before storing them in the fridge in a glass jar, tupperware container, or a reusable product like The Swag Bag. All together, this only takes about five minutes, which, while it isn’t as fast as putting your plastic clamshell in the fridge, gives you the peace of mind of knowing you’re doing your best. If you’re curious about other reusable products, Package Free is a Brooklyn-based store that stocks all sorts of reusable items for the kitchen.

And don’t forget to freeze any extra spinach you have on hand before it goes bad. No one wants to be a produce tosser.