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Plastic Recycling vs. Climate Change: Part 4 – Seduced by Greenwashing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
February 24, 2023

This is the fourth column in a series in which I argue against municipal plastic recycling programs because such recycling does not work and there are negative consequences for the environment (here are links to the first column, second column and third column). This column discusses the consequences of municipal governments around the United States implementing aggressive residential plastic recycling programs without any reliable evidence that markets existed for recycled plastics or that recycling would offer tangible environmental benefits. (Just in case you doubt the lack of reliable evidence, I highly recommend this excellent investigative journalism by National Public Radio.)

The ultimate problem here regards public trust in government in the context of the increasingly dangerous consequences of climate change. As it becomes widely known that the claims made for plastic recycling were false from the start, and that municipalities endorsed those claims through their ramping up of curbside collection programs, the public will see this as an example of governments violating their social contract. What we cannot afford at this juncture is another reason for doubting government’s commitment to mitigating climate change. People naturally will ask why they should sacrifice to comply with government-sponsored environmental initiatives that might not deliver tangible benefits.

So why did municipal governments sign onto aggressive curbside recycling? We should not be surprised to know that the petrochemical industry promoted recycling as plastic waste began to pile up after 1960 and became a focus of environmental activism in the 1970s. The graph accompanying this column from the U.S. EPA (source) shows a nearly exponential increase in plastic waste in the United States through the year 2000. It also shows an increase in the burning of plastic with co-generation of electricity, something that goes directly against the imperatives of climate change. Burning all that plastic has the same climate impact as burning fossil fuels. As I have argued in this series, all that plastic would be far better off in landfills to sequester their carbon.

Industry promotion of recycling programs should not have been sufficient to get municipal governments to invest in those programs. There should have been considerable skepticism in part because the United States generally does not have a lack of landfill space especially when it is illegal to block the export of waste across state lines. On its own, the increase in plastic waste was not a real crisis in waste management. To the contrary, trying to divert U.S. plastic waste away from landfills created a severe environmental crisis around the world impacting some of the most vulnerable populations in Africa and Asia. But the burgeoning environmental movement in the United States deviated from the science of waste management and made plastic recycling into a cause celebre. Recycling thus became a political opportunity.

What appears to have motivated municipal governments to invest in curbside recycling was a combination of technological feasibility and seductive street-level politics. On the one hand, it was very straightforward to modify curbside trash pickup to separate out paper, plastics and other potential recyclables. There was a clear implementation path forward up until the point the mountains of recyclables piling up at waste depots needed to be sold on the market to recyclers. At that juncture, the easiest thing to do, until that route was closed, was to load the materials into shipping containers and send them overseas. This worked until the Great Pacific Garbage Patch became an issue and then China and other Asian countries stopped accepting U.S. plastic waste.

On the other hand, the elected leaders of municipal governments scored a lot of points with their progressive-leaning voters by pushing recycling programs. At the street level, every week, it looked like serious, systematic efforts were underway to protect the environment. Unfortunately, what actually was underway was one of the most widespread and pernicious examples of “greenwashing” in U.S. history.

Greenwashing is the phenomenon that dominates current responses to climate change worldwide. As I have previously argued in the PA Times, what a pragmatic approach to climate change requires is reductions in total global carbon emissions every year. Instead, everywhere around the world governments and the private sector are trying to dress up very limited carbon mitigation efforts as real change. They are not. We are on the path toward one of the worst case scenarios, one in which most of the coast lines and coastal cities around the world will be under water by the end of this century.

But people have the right to ask why they should sacrifice in the interest of the environment when governments previously sold programs like plastics recycling that were known to be useless from the beginning. If we are to turn the corner on climate change, real sacrifice as part of truly impactful initiatives will be necessary. How are municipal governments going to sell their constituents on those sacrifices? One start would be for an honest accounting of the failures of plastics recycling and the creation of institutions within local governments that would ensure the population of full transparency, accountability, and adherence to rigorous standards of reliable evidence.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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