Exploding Plastic Inevitable

Following the waste stream to its illogical conclusion


On a hot Wednesday afternoon in late August, I loaded a plastic bag of rubbish into the car, along with paper bags filled with theoretically recyclable materials—newspapers and glass and plastic—and drove to the transfer station maintained by the department of public works of Northampton, Massachusetts. That’s a weekly ritual for me, since the city of Northampton doesn’t fund curbside trash collection. But on this day, I had a second trip planned, to follow the garbage: I had arranged to take a tour of the Materials Recycling Facility twenty miles down the highway in Springfield, where our theoretically recyclable items get sorted before getting theoretically recycled.

At the transfer station, I heaved the bulging bag of trash into the dumpster.

We are required to use special pay-as-you-throw bags, which are expensive, so I tend to fill them to the max and risk a hernia when I make the toss. There’s another long dumpster for the glass, plastic, and tin, and a third one for paper and cardboard.

Does your “recycling” end up on a barge to Indonesia where it gets dumped illegally to be picked over by the wretched of the earth? Who knows? Who cares?

I walked past a person on a bicycle with a long metal trailer attached, which held a dozen plastic bins packed full of trash. This is the work of an outfit called Pedal People, which offers private waste-hauling with a reduced carbon footprint. Dumping out my collection of wine bottles and plastic milk jugs and yogurt cups, I noticed that someone had discarded into this bin a few of those soup cartons that are mostly a paper product. It seemed wrong.

Driving down Interstate 91 to Springfield, the judgment festered. The inability of Americans to learn the most basic facts about the solid waste stream irks me. Probably the majority of people discard their garbage and never give it another thought once it leaves the house. It’s the great American privilege to buy whatever you want, throw stuff away, and pretend it magically disappears. Does it go to a landfill, or to an incinerator? Does your “recycling” end up on a barge to Indonesia where it gets dumped illegally to be picked over by the wretched of the earth? Who knows? Who cares? On the other hand, we’ve got a subculture of recycling fusspots who seem to believe that the careful sorting of their hummus tubs and coffee lids makes some kind of difference for the planet. Though I’m one of the fusspots, I half-believe that recycling makes fools of us. It directs our attention to our own miniscule actions. If you think you are doing something virtuous, you don’t understand how dire the earth’s waste pollution problems are. If you can’t be bothered to sort your trash because you think it doesn’t matter, you’re just another American pig.

Every State Has a Springfield

So that was my mission in Springfield: What is happening to these items that (theoretically) don’t need to be buried or burned or shipped across the oceans?

Inside the Materials Recycling Facility, I met Chris Lucarelle, who handed me a yellow hardhat and a yellow high-viz vest. The MRF is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but is operated by a subsidiary of Waste Management, the giant Houston-based waste-hauling company. Lucarelle is the area director of recycling operations for WM. He said that when he tells people where he works, they usually say something like, “You mean you guys really do recycle that stuff?”

Before touring the plant, he led me out back, where we regarded nine rows of sorted and baled materials, ready to be forklifted onto waiting trucks. “Everything leaves in bales,” he said. Pointing at one row of plastic, he said, “This is worth more than aluminum right now.” He referred to the contents as “smoke jugs,” meaning the opaque plastic often used for milk. Lucarelle said the current price for that HDPE plastic is about a dollar a pound, while aluminum goes for about eighty cents a pound. There was another row of PET clear plastic (mostly water and soda bottles) that goes for closer to twenty-five cents a pound, and a row of colored HDPE (laundry detergent bottles, etc.), and a row of compacted tin cans. He noted that there was one row of bales that contained miscellaneous soft and hard plastics that were not recyclable. That one is destined for the landfill. About 5 percent of what comes in meets this fate, he said.

Inside, we moved around on a series of metal stairways and walkways, first looking down on the mountain of unsorted recyclables that are dumped on the open floor. The more than sixty communities that send material here use dual-stream sorting, meaning that paper and cardboard are separated out by residents from the get-go. Here, the mix of plastic, tin, and glass move onto a series of conveyer belts that start the sorting process. A magnet that uses reverse polarity separates the metals. Glass gets sifted from plastic. There are sixteen workers, some who hover over the lines and some who keep the machines running. And Lucarelle described with some pride a new feature: an optical sorting machine—just installed four months ago—that uses spectroscopy to recognize different varieties of plastics and separates the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) from the PP (polypropylene), leaving the HDPE (high-density polyethylene) on the conveyer belt to be sorted by hand.

To expect a recycling solution for plastics is to fail to understand how overwhelmed the planet is with ever-increasing production of a wide variety of plastics.

When we went back down to the office level of the plant, we stood in a hallway with our hardhats on, discussing the current economics of recycling. Waste Management is one of those companies that strikes a relentlessly upbeat tone about “investing in sustainability” and “safeguarding our planet” through “environmental stewardship.” (“Think Green Every Day” said one of the posters on a hallway wall.) I told Lucarelle that I’d read that in recent years, when the price for recycled plastic had bottomed out, it was cheaper for waste-hauling companies to send baled waste to landfills rather than to try to recycle it. “Yeah, that doesn’t factor into our belief system,” he said. Those low ebbs in pricing came after a game-changing event in early 2018, when China stopped accepting recyclables from the United States. Lucarelle acknowledged it took more time to move bales onto trucks after that happened. But because Waste Management was the nation’s largest residential recycler, it had working relationships with a wide network of recycling mills. “We were always able to get our milk jugs and water bottles into a secondary market for processing,” he said.

Those decades of exportation to China allowed industry and government to neglect the recycling infrastructure in the United States. Now there are signs the market is adjusting—partly due to new laws, such as one in California that requires some plastic products to have recycled content. “Brand owners are finally starting to demand recycled content in the products they put on their shelves,” Lucarelle said. “So those sustainability initiatives are causing brand owners to demand it.”

There was one other thing I had to straighten out with Lucarelle. What about those soup cartons I’d seen in the bin for plastics and glass? It turns out that the MRF accepts the cartons as part of the plastic waste stream, separates them out manually, and currently sends the bales to a company in Connecticut that pulps them and turns them into fiberboard. The cartons—which are most often the Tetra Pak brand—are excluded from the recycling stream in much of the nation. They often carry the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol, with fine print that says “recyclable in some communities,” but they are a mix of cardboard and plastic and aluminum. The brands that use such cartons—including Flow Alkaline Spring Water, a brainstorm of an entrepreneur who decided at a Burning Man festival to provide an alternative to plastic water bottles by developing “eco-friendly packaging”—benefit from the desire of some consumers to use less plastic. As with so many products, the chasing arrows are deceptive: it’s much more common for clear plastic and milk jugs to find a second use than mixed-material cartons. Lucarelle said the cartons make up less than 1 percent of the materials they sort. That means they are not yet causing much of a problem at the MRF—but it also suggests most cartons are being thrown out with the trash.

Song of the Styrene

The MRF felt vaguely like a factory you’d imagine in the Soviet Union, circa 1980. All cinder block and steel, somewhat dark and dingy, it was built in the late 1980s, when Massachusetts had an ambitious plan to set up multiple recycling plants around the state. The Springfield MRF started operations in 1990; the others were never built. At the time, state officials told the Boston Globe the facility was “the largest such facility in the country.” Now, in installing its first optical sorting machine, it is belatedly catching up with the bigger, newer plants that are already using more robotic technologies to handle the materials moving through the system.

For a day or two, the upbeat, can-do attitude conveyed by Waste Management’s Chris Lucarelle had me feeling the recycling picture wasn’t as bleak as I thought. With prices for some recycled plastic now at record highs, one might think it’s only a matter of time before market solutions could recharge the recycling industry. It’s happened with certain metals, for example. Nobody is discarding copper—it’s valuable and easily reusable. Though the market for recycled glass is currently weak, glass doesn’t present much of a technical challenge: it can be recycled, made into new products, and be back on the market within weeks, and can be recycled again and again. Paper recycling has improved in recent years, as more products use recycled paper content.

But the plastics problem is vastly more complex. To expect a recycling solution is to fail to understand how overwhelmed the planet is with ever-increasing production of a wide variety of plastics. It was significant that when Lucarelle told me that Waste Management continued to sell bales of plastic even after the China ban, he specified “milk jugs and water bottles.” Those happen to be the plastics that most commonly have a secondary use. Unless you live in an especially recycling-conscious city, such as San Francisco or Seattle or Denver, chances are that much of your plastic will be discarded as waste. Though plastic manufacturers use “resin codes” with the numbers one through seven inside the chasing arrows, it’s mostly the ones and twos (PET and HDPE) that get recycled. Only 21 percent of all plastics produced are currently recyclable, and only about 15 percent of that small segment makes it to a recycling center. And what about those clear PET water and soda bottles that are higher in value and simpler to recycle? About 29 percent of them were recycled in the United States in 2018.

These figures come from a special section in the July 2, 2021, Science magazine that introduced several articles with an overview titled “A Devil’s Bargain.” Considered together, they give a hellish view of what’s happened in the last fifty years as the global plastics industry has exploded. Though plastics manufacturing made important advances through the 1940s and 1950s, an arresting chart in Science shows the cumulative global plastics production suddenly taking off right around the late 1960s—and from there, the curve upward looks like the side view of a skateboarder’s half-pipe. (The beginning of this trajectory coincides almost exactly with the 1967 movie The Graduate, in which Benjamin Braddock is advised, “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”) By the early 1980s, cumulative production hit one billion metric tons, and it was twice that about ten years later. There are now more than eight billion metric tons of plastic on the earth. About 30 percent of it is still in use, with more than 55 percent discarded (either buried or piled up or floating in rivers and oceans), 8 percent incinerated, and 6 percent recycled.

About 47 percent of plastic waste generated worldwide is from packaging. But the last fifty years has seen plastic used in almost everything that’s part of our daily lives—polyethylene in Ziploc bags and food packaging film; polypropylene in food containers, furniture, carpets, and auto parts; polyvinyl chloride in garden hoses, pipes, and window frames; polyethylene terephthalate in beverage bottles; polystyrene in meat packaging, disposable cutlery, and Styrofoam packaging; polyurethane in insulation and pillows and mattresses; polyester and nylon in clothing and textiles; all kinds of durable plastics in electronics and touch screens, as well as in surgical devices. If I get that hernia from hoisting my pay-as-you-throw bags, doctors will want to repair the damage with polypropylene mesh.

The primary materials for the synthetic polymers that make plastic, of course, are oil and natural gas. (And cheaper natural gas in recent years has led to cheaper plastics.) But there are more than one thousand five hundred additives that “have been identified as chemicals of concern in plastics,” according to one Science article, including hazardous substances such as phthalates and bisphenols. The presence of toxic chemicals is one more factor that complicates efforts to recycle plastic.

In recent years, a great deal of activist concern about plastics pollution has focused on how much plastic finds its way into the oceans. The oceans have long been treated as a convenient waste dump: from 1946 to 1970, for example, the United States dumped almost ninety thousand barrels of radioactive waste into ocean dumpsites. By international treaty, it is now illegal for ships to dump plastic wastes into the seas. “Nevertheless, the practice is believed to be widespread, and there is evidence that it has increased over the past fifty years in tandem with the growth in commercial shipping,” according to one recent report. Meanwhile, plastic still finds its way into groundwater and river systems all over the world, and then into the oceans. Though plastics are not biodegradable, they usually disintegrate over time, and the result of ocean salinity and pressure is smaller and smaller particles. Even microplastics from clothing can be dispersed by washing machines into wastewater and end up in marine ecosystems, which means they enter our food cycle by way of seafood. A report called “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” released last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq (an environmental-change-oriented corporation), described the increasing per capita plastic consumption around the world and forecasted that at current rates “annual plastic flows to the ocean are expected to grow from 11 million metric tons (range: 9 million–14 million metric tons per year) in 2016 to 29 million metric tons in 2040 (range: 23 million–37 million metric tons per year).” In other words, it could double in the next twenty years.

The Pew report estimates that four billion people on the earth will live without organized waste collection services by 2040. But even with widespread recycling around the globe, systems would not be able to handle ever-increasing plastic production, which is now expected to grow by 70 percent to six hundred million tons per year by 2050. New companies sprout up all the time, without any apparent concern about the effects of plastic in the environment: a representative of the Keurig company admitted to a Frontline documentary crew last year that they are producing about eleven billion K cups per year, and a way of effectively recycling them is not yet in place. The Frontline crew demonstrated that the plastics industry, in fact, has long promoted high hopes for recycling, as a way to make their products seem benign. Whether the plastics do get recycled isn’t their concern as long as consumers feel reassured by the “recyclable” symbols.

Whether the plastics do get recycled isn’t their concern as long as consumers feel reassured by the “recyclable” symbols.

Both the Pew report and the Science magazine package stress the limits of recycling and the need for a comprehensive and multifaceted approach to plastics overproduction and pollution. Some of what’s required is preventative—redesigning products without plastic, or with more recycled content, and designing plastic products from the beginning to make them easier to recycle—and some involves remediation to deal with the existing pollution. None of it can take place without government interventions in the marketplace. “The fallacy of mechanical recycling has already taught us that technology alone will not and cannot solve the plastic pollution crisis,” write two British scientists. In the measured language of Science, they note that “the accumulation of plastic waste points toward a design flaw in the plastics value chain and the need to think systemically about closing the loop in the circular economy.”

Commoner’s People

“Designing plastics for a circular bioeconomy” and “closing the loop” are the kind of phrases you see everywhere when reading about the plastics dilemma. Those ubiquitous chasing arrows are meant to suggest the kind of circularity that plastic products, by their very nature, have always defied. Anyone who has stood on a beach and seen the variety of plastic flotsam that washes ashore knows that these synthetic polymers made of chains of carbon fused together to be practically indestructible do not belong in the natural world. The striking thing is that this violation of the Earth’s cycles was well understood at the beginning of the modern environmental movement, a full fifty years ago. As Barry Commoner explained in his 1971 classic, The Closing Circle, “We have broken out of the circle of life, converting its endless cycles into man-made, linear events: oil is taken from the ground, distilled into fuel, burned in an engine, converted thereby into noxious fumes, which are emitted into the air.” (He explained, as well, the greenhouse effect, in which carbon dioxide levels were rising because of the use of fossil fuels.)

It was obvious from the start that plastics violated the most fundamental laws of ecology, the first of which, Commoner wrote, is that “everything is connected to everything else,” and the second being “everything must go somewhere.” In nature, Commoner wrote,

there is no such thing as “waste.” In every natural system, what is excreted by one organism as waste is taken up by another as food. . . . Nothing “goes away”; it is simply transferred from place to place. . . . One of the chief reasons for the present environmental crisis is that great amounts of materials have been extracted from the earth, converted into new forms, and discharged into the environment without taking into account that “everything has to go somewhere.” The result, too often, is the accumulation of harmful amounts of material in places where, in nature, they do not belong.

Commoner was writing in response to the widespread protests in April of 1970, when the first Earth Day was organized. He was by this time an accomplished scientist, ensconced at Washington University in St. Louis. Educated in biology, he sought to apply the “everything is connected” insight to specialized disciplines—science was not separate from economics, technology, and politics. In The Closing Circle, he describes a project he conducted with colleagues to analyze huge volumes of governmental statistical data to determine what kind of economic growth the United States experienced in the decades after World War II. Their study concluded that it wasn’t population growth or affluence that led to such dramatic increases in pollution—it was the development of particular technologies. Over the period from 1946 to 1968, for example, the economy as a whole grew by 126 percent, measured by GNP. The growth of synthetic fibers was up 5,980 percent, mercury used in chlorine production increased 3,930 percent, and plastics were up 1,960 percent. And, he marveled, the highest postwar growth rate was in production of nonreturnable soda bottles, which increased about 53,000 percent in that time. This figure is all the more remarkable when you realize he was writing about glass, which had become accepted as a disposable product. A plastic bottle that was strong enough for carbonated beverages was not yet on the market. Shortly after, it was invented by Nathaniel Wyeth, a DuPont engineer (and the brother of the painter Andrew Wyeth) and patented in 1973. One hardly needs to check government statistics to know that the growth in plastic bottle production over the next few decades also far outstripped the general rate of economic growth.

It will require a multi-front war, based on the understanding that the plastics industry and the fossil fuel industries are the common enemy of an inhabitable planet.

Commoner recognized the beginnings of individual consumer-minded rejection of the wasteful, polluting society, even before people started deliberating about what to put into recycling bins. Cutting down on automobile miles, using returnable bottles and phosphate-free detergents, and even having fewer children, he wrote, are “the rudiments of a new, ecology-minded personal lifestyle.” These individual responses suggested “two alternative routes of environmental action: action of the public and action by the public.” But, he noted, when it came to “the counterecological design of production technology,” taking effective action would have to be social, rather than personal. It would require a public that intervened—through government—at the front end of industrial and technological innovations to insist that “the ecosystem is necessarily a social rather than a private good,” and therefore production has to be regulated by social criteria, not private and commercial interests.

Since Commoner wrote those words, personal actions among the public are more widely practiced than fifty years ago—there is more effort among consumers to recycle, and there are more businesses turning to “bioplastics,” such as restaurants switching to packaging and coffee cups that are made from plants rather than petrochemicals. I’ve even heard of affluent consumers who pay a service that will take all of their plastics that don’t get municipally recycled and direct them to specialty recyclers. One could argue, as well, that actions by the public—in terms of basic government regulations restricting toxic waste and air and water pollution—have corrected some of the pollution problems that were so alarming in the 1960s and 1970s.

Too Much Plastic

But the United States has moved even further away from understanding the ecosystem as a social good that must be governed by collective decision-making. We’ve come through a crucial fifty-year period in which the fossil fuel industries—just when they should have been phased out—have run rampant. In the Frontline documentary, “Plastic Wars,” Annie Leonard, the co-executive director of Greenpeace, says, “I think we were overly optimistic about the potential of recycling. And perpetuating that narrative led us astray.” Now it will require a multi-front war, based on the understanding that the plastics industry and the fossil fuel industries are the common enemy of an inhabitable planet.

“We can’t delay this for another ten, twenty, thirty years,” Leonard said. “For the oil and gas industry, the stakes are higher, too, because single-use plastics is their plan B. They’re not going to be able to continue to drill that oil and gas and burn it for energy anymore, because the climate can’t sustain it. So this is their lifeline. They are going to double down on single-use plastic like we have never seen.”

A spokeswoman for ExxonMobil confirmed as much in an interview last year with Reuters: “Over the next few decades, population and income growth are expected to create more demand for plastics, which help support safety, convenience and improved living standards.” Reuters cited a study that found the oil and gas industry is already in the midst of spending around $400 billion over five years to expand the supply of raw materials to make more plastic. Lately, it’s been widely reported that most plastics are not being recycled because the economics don’t work—most companies don’t want to buy heaps of used plastic when it’s cheaper to use the brand-new materials. If you have that thought in mind, do you not get a pang every time you drop a shampoo bottle into the blue bin, as you go through the motions that are meant to prevent waste?

Dave Denison is a senior editor at The Baffler.

You Might Also Enjoy

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.