by Becca Stallings

You may have noticed that curbside recycling programs are accepting fewer types of plastic containers in recent years.  You may have heard rumors that your local recycling program just tosses stuff into the landfill or incinerator instead of recycling it.  You may have noticed ads for non-plastic packaging using slogans like, “Plastic recycling is a myth.”

But why?  Plastic is made from petroleum, a limited natural resource that has many other uses; plastic never biodegrades; plastic garbage in our oceans is a serious problem!  Isn’t it in everyone’s best interests to recycle plastic so that every bit of it is as useful as possible and we minimize the damage to our world?

PASUP recently screened two films from the Why Plastic? series exploring the realities of plastic-recycling endeavors.  If you missed them, here are brief summaries:

  • Coca-Cola’s Plastic Promises explained how a major beverage corporation replaced glass with plastic bottles, claiming that the plastic would be recycled and that Coke products would be bottled in ever-higher recycled content…but it hasn’t reached any of its targets, and that’s sort of good news because recycled plastic leaches even more endocrine-disrupting chemicals into beverages and foods than new plastic does.
  • The Recycling Myth addressed the claim printed on many plastic packages, “recyclable where facilities exist,” and investigated TerraCycle, a company that gets consumers to pay them to recycle items that aren’t accepted in municipal recycling programs–but it turns out that, at least in one documented case, they are selling the items as fuel to be burned in cement plants!  TerraCycle was sued for misleading consumers in 2021.

Both films addressed the inconvenient truth that plastic recycling is a complicated, inefficient process in which only a small fraction of material can be recycled into high-quality products.  Less than 6% of plastic discarded in the United States in 2021 got recycled.  The rest could not be recycled because it was in configurations or material combinations that recycling equipment cannot process (for example, many pouch-type packages are made from layers of different types of plastic, and some include layers of metal), it was contaminated by being mixed with unrecyclable products or broken glass in a recycling bin, it was too dirty or weatherbeaten, or people threw it in the trash instead of trying to recycle.

Some of this could be improved by standardizing packaging into a few recyclable types and requiring consumers to sort them instead of throwing plastic in with metals, paper, and glass . . . but even under ideal conditions, plastic just doesn’t recycle well.  It is flammable, gives off harmful pollutants at every stage of processing, loses quality when it is reworked, and requires large amounts of energy and water to process.  Recycling plastic is much more expensive than making new plastic.

That’s why plastic discarded in the United States has been more likely to get burned for energy than to get recycled at every point in history.  That’s why so many Pittsburghers are against single-use plastic instead of striving to recycle 100% of single-use plastic!

What should we do?

The prevalence of plastic in our daily lives is daunting.  It’s become very difficult to buy a cart full of groceries without getting any plastic, or to get through a day at home without throwing any plastic in the trash.  Here are some key ideas to help you push back against the tide of plastic:

Insist that elected officials regulate plastic production.

Write to your legislators and sign petitions urging

  • regulation of how much new plastic is produced,
  • bans, fees, and other policies to reduce SUP like shopping bags and food servingware,
  • mandating packages that actually can be recycled and will be collected in ways accessible to all people,
  • requiring businesses that hand out “recyclable” or “compostable” items to collect those items and actually recycle or compost them,
  • incentivizing businesses that use refillable packaging,
  • a “bottle bill” as a financial incentive to recycle beverage containers,
  • municipal composting of paper that can’t be recycled, as well as food waste.  Most businesses and some households aren’t able to do their own on-site composting.  Paper plates, paper napkins, etc., are greener than plastic in that they’re made from renewable resources, but when these plant-based materials decay in landfill, they produce methane, which causes climate change; when composted, they don’t!

Our individual actions won’t be enough to solve this huge crisis; we need the support of government and industry!  But we also need to make individual choices showing that we as citizens and consumers want less plastic in our lives:

Reusing is better than recycling.

If you can buy a product without a package, placing it in a container that you’ll use again or return to the manufacturer for refilling, that’s always the greener option.  Any single-use package, even if it’s compostable or recyclable, was manufactured using some energy and creating some pollution.  Here are some examples of unpackaged products available in Pittsburgh:

  • Many foods and some household products can be purchased from the bulk section at East End Food Co-op, using containers you bring from home to hold exactly the amount you want!  The Refillery and Sol Refill also offer home and body care product refills.  Some supermarkets offer bulk items, too.  Here are my tips for bulk-section buying.
  • Milk in returnable glass bottles (you pay a deposit, which you get back when you return the bottle) is sold at the Co-op, some Giant Eagle stores, and other retail locations.
  • Almost all restaurants where you serve your own beverage (from a soda fountain or coffee urn) will allow you to fill your own reusable cup.  Most coffee shops also are willing to fill your cup behind the counter.
  • Bars of soap and shampoo without wrappers are sold at the Co-op and some supermarkets.
  • At farmer’s markets, some vendors display items in reusable baskets or crates, which they’ll empty into your reusable bags upon purchase.
  • Most of the fresh produce in grocery stores can be purchased without a bag, or you can put it into your washable cloth bag.

Use washable dishes instead of disposable, cloth rags instead of wet-wipes, canvas tote bags instead of plastic grocery bags, etc.  Check out PASUP’s Recommended Reading page for lots of ideas!  Our Children Our Earth is a local business selling innovative reusable products and greener options like plastic-free laundry detergent.

Choose other materials when you can.

A paper or cardboard package that will break down in your backyard compost bin is a much better choice than plastic: It’s made from some combination of recycled paper, wood scraps, and trees (a renewable natural resource)–not from petroleum.  If you don’t have access to composting, most paper and cardboard can be recycled.

An aluminum, steel, or glass package that you’ll recycle also is greener than plastic because these materials are more efficient to recycle.

A package that you can reuse is even better!  I find the occasional plastic container that’s served me for years, but glass jars with screw-on lids are the real winners in this category.

Less packaging per product.

The largest size package typically uses less material per ounce of contents, and it’s usually a better value for the money.

A more dramatic reduction in packaging is possible when a product is concentrated or tightly packed.  See some examples in these product reviews by a PASUP member!  Here are reviews of some concentrates from Grove Collaborative that are sold in Target stores as well as Grove’s online shop.

Demand better products and packages!

All of the above are choices you can make in the existing marketplace, but you’re still getting stuck with a lot of plastic, right?  Not all shoppers have the time or money or intellectual energy to choose greener products when SUP is cheap and convenient.  We all deserve better!

Email corporations asking them to reduce SUP packaging.  Email restaurants asking them to serve food on washable dishes.  Post pictures of wasteful SUP products/packaging on social media, and tag the company.  When completing a store’s online survey, comment about the durable, minimally packaged, plastic-free products you’d like to buy there.  If you order food with an app that doesn’t let you say, “no utensils; no sauce packets,” and you find a lot of SUP in the bag, contact the company saying you won’t order again until they give you this option.

Speaking to workers, even the manager, is likely to be most effective when you’re dealing with a local business rather than a big corporation whose workers have little say in policies and may feel attacked by your criticism.  If you do mention your concerns to a server or salesclerk, be specific: “No straws, please, and my child would like a real glass, not a plastic cup.”

Recycling is better than not recycling, but follow the rules!

At those times when, despite your best efforts, you’re left holding the bag–or some other plastic item that’s reached the end of its useful life–should you recycle it?

YES!!  If that item is accepted by a recycling program you can access, then prepare it as requested (Do you need to rinse it? Lid on or off?) and put it in the bin!  Recycling is not as effective a way to handle plastic as it is other materials, but it’s still better than not trying.  Everything that’s made of recycled plastic reduces demand for new plastic.

Visit Recycle This Pittsburgh for detailed guidance on what’s collected in the city’s curbside recycling program and what other items are collected at sites in our metro area.

When you need to buy something that has to be made of plastic (or at least, all the options on the market are plastic), look for recycled content.  Some manufacturers of swimsuits, fiberfill stuffing for pillows and coats, polyester fleece clothing and blankets, pens, rulers, yarn, garbage bags, and other items are using recycled plastic.  Help reduce the impact of SUP by making long-term use of that plastic after its first, single use.  (Garbage bags are a second single use of the plastic–still a little better than making new plastic to hold garbage!)

green plastic handle for carrying two jugs of olive oil
This gizmo, which connected two large plastic jugs of Costco olive oil, is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. That’s better than making it from new plastic…but even better would be not having this gizmo at all and buying glass bottles of olive oil. (I cut the rings before discarding this so that if it escapes into the water, it won’t strangle animals!)

Recycling usually means turning used material into another useful item.  But some “plastic recycling” programs turn out to be “chemical recycling,” which is not an environmentally friendly process!  Sometimes it means simply burning the plastic to produce energy.  That’s only a small improvement over burning virgin petroleum–it’s a slightly wiser use of resources but creates a similar amount of dangerous pollution.

Point out the pain points.

The strange thing about the prevalence of plastic is, most of this plastic stuff isn’t that great!  Packages aren’t always durable enough to do their intended jobs even for the comparatively short time we expect–like the bag you can’t get open until it suddenly rips so far that the potato chips are going to get stale.  Many plastic packages have sharp edges that dig into your fingers when you’re trying to open them.  Plastic shopping bags have thin handles that hurt your fingers, and heavy or sharp-cornered items bust right through the bag.  Plastic bags of rice and pasta are easily chewed through by weevils and rodents.  “Convenient zip-top” seals often don’t stay closed.  Plastic-foam cups suddenly rupture and spill hot coffee, burning your skin and staining your clothes.

Notice the flaws of the plastic products you encounter, and talk about them with others.  This boosts your awareness of why you want to avoid plastic and nudges you to brainstorm alternatives.

One of my pet peeves is plastic utensils, especially when used by young children.  Biting too hard on a plastic spoon or fork can break it into small, sharp pieces in your mouth!  That’s more than inconvenient; swallowing a shard can cause serious internal injuries.  My daughter only got a bleeding cut in her mouth when she spit out a bite of fruit cup and we reassembled the spoon fragments on the airport-food-court table to make sure she hadn’t swallowed any.  But her big brother had attended a preschool where children as young as 18 months were given plastic utensils with lunch (because the school thought buying instant garbage was easier than paying a person to run a dishwasher…) and had seen a classmate taken to the hospital after swallowing a fork tine!  That brings us to our next tip:

Demand change.

Ask the places you eat and drink to use washable dishes or, where that’s not possible, recycled-paper serviceware and beverages in aluminum cans.  Ask them to serve condiments in big dispensers instead of individual packets.

Ask the stores where you shop to offer refillable products, minimal packaging, and non-plastic recyclable or compostable packaging.

Ask businesses to take back the packages they sell and refill, recycle, or compost them.

Ask legislators at every level to regulate single-use plastic and incentivize alternatives.

We can change to a less trashy, more responsible, cleaner and greener society!  But none of us can do it alone.  All levels of the economy and government need to step up and do the right things!