Corporations that spew out plastic packaging want us to pay no attention to the man behind the (plastic) curtain. The consumer brands that thrust the barrage of plastic pollution on the world seem determined to confuse and mislead people into believing plastic packaging is good for the environment even though the facts are undeniably to the contrary.
Honesty really is the best policy when it comes to plastic. In some ways plastic has been beneficial to society with certain applications for safety, transportation, and technology manufacturing, and for medical devices and other durable goods that improve our lives.
However, despite industry propaganda, those benefits don’t apply to single-use plastic packaging, which makes up about 40% of the 380 million tons of plastic produced by the fossil fuel industry each year—the vast majority of which ends up in landfills, trashing our environment, or harming wildlife. This plastic waste leaves a trail of toxic destruction from cradle to grave. And it’s totally unnecessary despite what corporate marketing campaigns are trying to make us all believe.
The plastic industry also shamefully engages in disaster profiteering, promoting plastics in times of crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic even though scientists and public health experts provided clear evidence to the contrary. Plastic manufacturers and their lobbyists are desperate to paint plastic with a broad, favorable brush whenever they can, but there is no more misleading tactic than their claim of plastic’s recyclability.
The oil and gas companies who make plastic have always known that most plastic can’t and won’t be recycled but promoted it anyway because they know recyclability sells. The truth is that recycled plastic is not a valuable commodity, and it’s cheaper to just make new plastic. A big reason for this economic failure is that there are way too many kinds of plastic, which makes sorting them into their types nearly impossible.
Bottle redemption laws are an example of where it works, because those containers are largely uniform, clean, and pre-sorted, making recycling them into new containers possible. And minimum recycled content standards for plastic beverage containers, like Maine’s, help with making the economics work. We should celebrate those successes, but know that the real solution is to drastically reduce our use of single-use disposable plastic packaging.
Plastic packaging is slowly but surely losing the social license granted to it by recycling, and the industry is trying hard to distract us from the facts with false solutions. But we know that estimates of overall plastic recycling rate has never exceeded single digits. And we know that plastic is made from fossil fuels and is a major contributor to our climate crisis through production and incineration. We also know that the ocean is on pace to contain more plastic than fish by 2050. And all these devastating problems disproportionately impact marginalized, poor communities all over the world.
Since regulations regarding the labeling of plastic packaging can be compared to the lawlessness of the Wild West, most of it is adorned with images of the earth, flowing blue streams, freshwater springs, green leaves, trees; words like eco-friendly and sustainable; and the most confusing of all: the recycling symbol.
ICYMI, the chasing arrows on a package do not necessarily mean its recyclable locally. This symbol is exploited by the industry for its own benefit, but it creates a huge disaster for the rest of us. The confusion about labels makes sorting extremely difficult, and ultimately degrades the quality of all recycled plastic, leading to more landfilling and plastic pollution. It also puts more costs on the taxpayer. If it’s even possible to find a silver lining to our plastic pollution crisis, it’s that people are paying attention to the man behind the plastic curtain now; eight out of ten Maine voters support laws that reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment.
All this willful deception and legal lying makes people distrust corporations and the governmental institutions that are supposed to regulate them, and it’s polluting our world in the process. Only one third of Mainers trust that corporations will do the right thing, and 90 percent of them want to support businesses that they believe are doing the right thing for the environment. Then perhaps we need to mandate accurate package labeling, and only allow the ethical, sustainable businesses to tout their accolades?
Consumer protection laws should be expanded to include recycling and other environmental labeling and strengthen guidance by the FTC. The states of California and Oregon are leading the way. The fight, of course, will be how to determine whether or not a material is recyclable, and make sure that the industry’s last gasp attempt to deceive us with “chemical recycling” doesn’t count. Maine’s EPR for Packaging law, which is supported by 8 out of 10 Mainers, will identify a list of “readily recyclable” materials in Maine in department rulemaking over the next couple of years.
It just makes sense that only the packages that can be recycled should be labeled and promoted as such. That means a lot of plastic shouldn’t have a recycling label. But time will tell if our lawmakers can ignore the theatrics of the plastics industry and look at plastic packaging for what it is: a blight on society that threatens the health of our planet.
—Sarah Nichols, NRCM Sustainable Maine Director