Every Thursday I dump on the street for collection the laboriously sorted, washed and specially-bagged plastic rubbish my family has assembled over the course of the previous week. And every week the same niggling, cynical voice tells me this is an entirely pointless activity. What is the likelihood, this voice whispers, that any of this mound of plastic, the mere sight of which fills me with a vague and troubling sense of guilt, ends up being melted down and repurposed instead of mouldering in a heap or washed into the sea either here or on the furthest edge of the world?
So it’s with a strange sense of satisfaction that I read this horrifying piece this week from NPR and another by Politico about the plastic recycling myth. All along, American consumers were purposely misled about the value of the time and effort they devoted to recycling their used plastic, urged to save the world by carrying out this weekly ritual of middle-class self-mortification, when in fact:
The economics of recycling plastic simply don’t work, and the quality of the little recycled plastic produced from our ever-growing piles of refuse is so low as to make the entire ritual almost completely pointless. The whole thing was simply a way for the big oil companies who make the plastic in the first place to shift responsibility, and guilt, onto us, making us feel that our token efforts were somehow helping solve the problem they refuse to stop making. Instead of producing less new plastic, they tricked us into consuming ever more of the stuff, by lying about recycling it.
And this isn’t just an American issue. A Greenpeace investigation two years ago found plastic waste, still wrapped in the recycling bags of British councils, heaped up in vast piles in open-air dumps in the Malaysian forest. The recycling scam means we transport our plastic waste to the other end of the world — itself an immensely pointless and wasteful use of fossil fuels — to find its way into rivers and then the open sea where they will degrade and poison the natural world for centuries to come.
So what should we do instead? Obviously, the government should ban the production of single-use plastics immediately, but until then, counterintuitively, I propose we just burn it. The arguments against burning plastic are that — in an ideal world — recycling’s a better solution, but now we’re fully aware of what actually happens to it all, that no longer stands.
Sure, it’s less efficient than other means of power generation, but that’s looking at the problem the wrong way: the energy derived from burning plastic would just be a bonus, the real purpose would just be to get rid of it all.
Visceral horror at plastic waste and at the growing absorption of tiny particles of degraded plastics by every living thing on earth — including us — is a rare subject of cross-party consensus, and a political push to actually solve the problem once and for all would surely be rewarded by voters. Let’s stop sorting, washing and dumping our plastic crap and just burn the lot — and make Big Oil pay for it.