Transparency is the enemy of the plastic packaging industry. In the 1980s, Big Oil (aka the plastics industry) began to purposefully lie about the recyclability of plastic so they could keep making and selling more plastic, and it worked. Plastic production has exponentially increased, and recycling rates for plastic have never exceeded the single digits. If things don’t change, then we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.
Companies that make plastic packaging know they need the social license granted to it by recycling if they are going to keep reaping profits from producing plastic. They know that people feel ok about using plastic so long as it gets “recycled.”
Confusing, misleading claims of recyclability placates consumers and teaches them to put non-recyclable stuff in the recycling bin. This mislabeled, non-recyclable plastic ends up where it shouldn’t and degrades the quality of all recycled plastic, leading to more landfilling and plastic pollution. Corporations shouldn’t be allowed to use the recycling symbol to intentionally mislead consumers. Use of the coveted recycling symbol should only be granted for truly recyclable materials that have an established collection system and market.
All signs point to our need to turn off the tap on rampant production of wasteful and non-recyclable plastics. Yet instead, we face an even more insidious plan by these corporations that are trying to corrupt what it means to recycle by creating false solutions through “chemical recycling.” Make no mistake, they are not saving the day. All they want to do is create even more plastic and more money for themselves; the rest of us be damned.
“Chemical recycling” is a term that covers a wide array of high-heat chemical processes such as purification, depolymerization, and conversion technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis. And save for purification, these processes consume an obscene amount of energy and produce a whole slew of toxic chemicals and dirty waste-derived fuel (which, despite what it’s called, is not recycling, nor renewable energy, for that matter). And it would be many years before any of this faux recycling could be done on a large scale, anyway.
It’s clear that corrupting the definition of recycling to include “chemical recycling” is the latest cunning ploy by the plastics industry to pave the way for creating more and more plastic. They’ve pivoted to calling it “advanced recycling” because that sounds more innocuous and gone state-by-state persuading lawmakers that these toxic processes are not waste management but “manufacturing” and should be subject to weaker environmental regulations.
Maine people are saying we’ve had enough.
Driven by our strong ethic of not wasting stuff and valuing honesty, we have long led the nation in passing common-sense policies to tackle plastic and packaging waste, and we will continue to do so.
In 2024, Maine’s regulators and lawmakers will be making important decisions about what it means to be “readily recyclable,” which recycling methods are real and fake, and how to make sense of plastic recycling at home. We know corporate lobbyists will be working overtime, so Maine people will need to stand up for our health and environment to counter their pressure. (Sign our petition to hold plastic polluters accountable.)
Here’s our three-step plan for how Maine can build on our leadership in reducing plastic pollution and making recycling more effective:
- Clearly define recycling to block false solutions: We need to get rock-solid definitions of “recycling” and “readily recyclable” in Maine’s laws and regulations so corporations can’t promote false solutions meant to pad their profit margins and create more plastic waste.
- Make lying about recycling illegal: Advertising false recycling solutions or labeling something as recyclable when it isn’t is causing confusion, fueling our plastic pollution crisis, and costing taxpayers money. Maine must act to make this practice illegal.
- Focus on waste reduction and reuse: We can’t recycle our way out of this mess. It’s time to double-down, no, triple-down on policies and local programs that eliminate unnecessary plastic waste and support reuse. Many local businesses in Maine want to do the right thing, but we need to build out our reuse infrastructure and help them make the shift so they can start saving money and reducing waste ASAP.
Hopefully you’ll join NRCM as we work to create transparency and accountability within the waste and recycling system in order to hold big corporations accountable for fueling the plastic pollution crisis. In Maine, we all need to work together to fight for systemic changes that empower local businesses, residents, and towns to implement healthier solutions for reducing plastic waste and supporting our communities.
—Sarah Nichols, NRCM Sustainable Maine Director