Podcast / Tech Won’t Save Us / Mar 7, 2024

Plastic Recycling Is a Scam

On this episode of Tech Won’t Save Us, Dharna Noor on how industry lobbies invented the recycling myth.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Plastic Recycling Is a Scam, with Dharna Noor | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of Tech Won't Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Dharna Noor to discuss widely-held misconceptions about the effectiveness of plastic recycling and how industry lobbies invented them to protect the market for plastic products.

Dharna Noor is the fossil fuels and climate reporter at The Guardian.

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Man pours liquid into a bottle in front of a pile of bottles

A worker collects soybean oil from recycled plastic bottle in a plastic recycling factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on March 18, 2022.

(Kazi Salahuddin Razu / NurPhoto via AP)

On this episode of Tech Won’t Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Dharna Noor to discuss widely held misconceptions about the effectiveness of plastic recycling and how industry lobbies invented them to protect the market for plastic products.

Dharna Noor is the fossil fuels and climate reporter at The Guardian.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Generative AI is a Climate Disaster w/ Sasha Luchoni | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of Tech Won't Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Sasha Luccioni to discuss the impacts of AI on climate change.

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Paris Marx: Dharna, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Dharna Noor: Thanks for having me on the best podcast.

Paris Marx: Thank you so much, great to have you. I have been following your work for a number of years now, as you’ve been reporting on climate change, and so many other topics around this. You recently wrote a story about a new report from the Center for Climate Integrity, that went into this massive problem of plastics that we have the issues with recycling them and the complicity of the fossil fuel industry, in pushing these narratives around recycling for a very long time. So, I thought that this would be a great time to have you on the show. Because while it’s not about digital technology, there’s still a very clear technological piece to this, that I think is worth digging into, especially as this problem just gets worse and worse with every passing year. Before we dig into the substance of that report, I wanted to take us back a little bit, because we weren’t always so surrounded with all of this plastic. So where did this idea that we need to have all of this disposable plastic, that everything needs to be packaged in plastic? Where did this come from? When did industry really start churning out all of these plastic products?

Dharna Noor: It’s funny, when plastic first became really popular in the US, it was actually known for being durable. So, consumers would buy a plastic laundry bag, for instance, and use it over and over and over again — and that was really like a marketability claim. It was this idea that you could rely on plastic to be around for a long time, that it wouldn’t tear necessarily, and things like this. And then in the 50s, two things happened. One is that basically, plastic producers got together and came up with this idea of disposability, to ensure that they had a continual market for their products. No one is going to keep buying something that’s supposed to last forever. So there became this idea that in order to keep selling products, the plastic products could end up being made more cheaply, thinner plastics could be used and things like that. So that was a really big shift in the market and the market, or the producers responded to it immediately. 

The other thing that happened around this time is that tragically, a bunch of kids, dozens of kids around the US actually started choking and suffocating on plastic bags. And that was obviously a huge issue for plastic producers. Nobody wants to be implicated in the horrific, in some cases, deaths of children. And the plastic industry actually did something that the report that you mentioned gets into too, but the plastic industry really did like crisis PR around this, and basically blamed mothers. They said: Oh, well, really, these are meant to be thrown away, and so if you want to protect your kids, really, you need to make sure that you throw plastic bags away as soon as you use them. This is a theme that we continue to see today — this idea that like any problem with plastics, anyway that plastics are fucking up your life or just due to the consumer. And we should be the ones who are tasked with solving the problem, even if it’s literally about the horrific deaths of children.

Paris Marx: That is absolutely wild! I did not realize that piece of it, and of course, these plastics become everywhere, become much more common. Of course, there are going to be repercussions to that that are unexpected. Of course, the waste one is one that we’re still dealing with now, which is not so unexpected, but I’m sure back then when it was just getting started, they were like: These will go to the landfills and then we won’t think about it anymore, because of course anything that goes to the landfill just disappears. And we never have to think about it again. But of course the effect on kids, the effect on families, the broader changes that came with that. And this notion that plastic is durable, which is still something that is around today. It’s still this notion that we have, that plastic is going to last, it’s not going to break down like these other products that you have. But then also reframing it as disposable where: Okay it lasts, but also you can throw it out after a single use.

Dharna Noor: Exactly. Now the durability seems to be a problem, like a marketing problem for the industry, where nobody really likes that plastic sticks around or doesn’t break down in landfills. That basically every plastic bottle you’ve ever used, every plastic toothbrush you’ve ever used, is still out there somewhere unless it’s been incinerated, which has its own environmental problems. So where that used to be a big talking point, now it’s something that they’re really trying to move away from.

Paris Marx: Wow, that’s wild. It’s fascinating, too because I imagine this is just another one of these shifts that coming out of the Second World War, there’s all this productive capacity and stuff that was going on then and being produced then. That all these producers were like: We can’t wind down everything that we’ve been doing, we need to figure out a new use and a new way to redeploy this technology into a consumer use so that we can keep making profits and stuff, or whatever. That we were achieving through the war, I’d imagine there’s some connection there too.

Dharna Noor: Totally. Around that time, and in decades previously, there was a need for cheap products that were really accessible. There was a desire for a democratized market, in some sense, and having cheap products that you could buy over and over again. But that, in some ways, gave the feeling that the engine of the market was always running, that people were always going out. And everyone was able to buy things over and over and over again. I think that was a really big selling point for the industry, it’s something that they tried to push out to consumers too.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. I imagine this is also associated with, especially in the United States, this push towards suburbanization. Everyone is moving into their, or at least all the white people are, moving into their single-family home. You’re going to fill it with all these goods. There’s a big push even around plastic furniture and stuff, as you move into the decades after that. And of course, once you are so spread out like that you’re not close to things in the way that you would have when you were in a city. So, if you need to travel to pick things up, if you need to go buy groceries or something like that, you’re buying more at one time, so they need to be packaged in a way that is going to last longer or whatnot. In a way that wasn’t as expected before, because you might be picking up food every day or two from a local bakery and a local grocer or whatever. But of course, as suburbanization happens, and you have these large big box stores, malls and things spring up that also changes consumption patterns. So, they’re working more plastic into that consumption that people ultimately do.

Dharna Noor: It’s interesting, though, because within a few decades, there was this really big consumer backlash to this idea, because Americans were not into the idea that plastics could just be incinerated or landfilled. And so that’s where this early push from the industry that recycling is the answer came from. But it’s interesting that this was marketed as something that was so good for consumers, but consumers really were kind of like: We just don’t buy it. We don’t really want more things in our landfills. We’re concerned about more incinerators being in our neighborhoods and things like this. So it didn’t really have the PR effect that the industry wanted, it seems, at least not for very long.

Paris Marx: It’s a great point. I’d like you to dig down on that further. Because in the piece, and I’m sure coming from the report that you mentioned, there’s discussion about how, especially by the 1980s, there’s this real shift in the public mood and even the mood of governments around plastics, you have municipal governments seeking to ban plastics and whatnot. And of course, the industry feels a threat to this large market that they’ve created. And they feel a need to respond. So, what is happening around that period? What drives this backlash, as you’re saying? Then how does the industry look at ways to make sure that their product is not regulated out of existence?

Dharna Noor: So, a few things happen around the late 70s, early 80s, I guess it was, people start getting really concerned about littering. More plastic stuff in your house, more plastic, especially food packaging which became popular in the 50s and 60s, I believe, meant that more people were dropping their plastic around cities, around their neighborhoods, and things like that. Also that coincided with this broader interest in environmentalism, or conservationism, or whatever, coming out of the Free Love movement and all these things. But then the suburbanized populist American version of that took off in the 80s. And municipalities started considering banning lots of plastic products, primarily grocery bags, that was a big thing that a handful of municipalities were considering. And the industry really quickly clapped back at that. They started launching these pilot programs in different areas that were considering regulations on plastics, there was one ban on Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, that was being considered in Minnesota. 

In the 80s , this industry group called the Council for Solid Waste went there and set up this so-called pilot project where they were like: Oh, we’re going to fund plastic recycling center here; we’re going to see how it goes. We’re, of course not going to stick around to ensure that this is actually a viable solution to taking care of plastic waste. But we’re definitely going to promote our funding of this project, and we’re definitely going to come here and lobby against plastic regulation and show what a great job we’re doing and taking on the problem by ourselves and things like this. That was, in many cases, actually pretty effective. They really ramped up their advertising around plastic recycling. At this time, too. There was this group in this women’s interest magazine, Ladies Home Journal that said: A bottle can come back as a bottle over and over and over again. But we obviously know that’s not true because every time plastic gets recycled, it actually gets degraded. You can only really recycle plastic one time or twice, and you can’t make a bottle into a bottle over and over and over again. It’s just not true. That’s something that they’ve known also for quite a while which we can get into.

Paris Marx: Definitely. There’s a quote from a report in your piece, a 1986 report, from The Vinyl Institute, which is a trade association, where they say that, “Recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution to plastics as it merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of.” So these companies, in this industry is pushing out this idea of recycling as the solution to this problem. Even as internally, they’re admitting that this is not actually the solution. This is not addressing this problem that increasing numbers of people and governments are concerned about. In that moment, is also when even this logo of the arrows representing recycling rolls out. And we’d imagine that this is today, as we’re thinking about recycling, that this is something that this is developed by government that is part of this environmental program. But as you explain, this is very much a corporate practice, part of their marketing campaign for this. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Dharna Noor: It’s something that actually there’s been quite a lot of crackdown on recently. Federal regulators, actually, right now are looking to at the very least regulate how this sort of chasing arrows symbol has been used. And again, that’s that triangle logo that has three arrows, and that’s supposed to indicate that a material can be recycled. The thing is that it doesn’t actually mean that material can be recycled at all. It definitely doesn’t mean that a material is being recycled. On the one hand, this is because there’s not been public policy to really make sure that plastic is getting recycled. Just a couple of years ago, there was a report that showed that only 5% of plastic used in the US was actually recycled. But it’s not just a policy problem, it also actually is very technically difficult to sort and recycle plastic. 

There’s thousands of different kinds of plastic, and most of them can’t be recycled together. So they have to be sorted and that’s really expensive, obviously, because somebody needs to do that. Also, again, the material actually degrades every time it’s used. So it can generally only be reused once or twice, there are these actual material problems with plastic recycling. And that’s something the industry has known about for a really long time. And so the chasing arrows symbol really takes off as a way to skirt all of that and say: Oh, well, don’t worry about the costs, don’t worry about the technical difficulties, just look at this arrow that shows that everything is going to be fine. But I think really, right now public awareness is increasing that everything’s not fine, and plastic is not being recycled the way that we’re told it is.

Paris Marx: Exactly. I feel like even when, obviously, a lot of people still do recycle plastic. And there are these symbols for plastic recycling on a number of these products. There’s different numbers associated with the different types of plastic. And I feel like even then there are instructions from cities, oftentimes, I’d say, numbers, this, this and this are recyclable. But actually, the ones that have this number are not actually recyclable, and don’t give them to us, because we can’t do anything with them. So even then there’s this kind of flaw in the idea of this notion, but then when you even go behind the scenes, you see that even those products that do have the numbers, that are recyclable, are still not very recyclable.

Dharna Noor: It’s totally true. The other thing is the industry has done nothing to ensure that they’re making products that are recyclable. Not only like prioritizing the use of the materials that we know how to recycle and have the actual infrastructure to do so. But also, I’ll give you just one example. There’s a really popular brand of juice right now. The bottle itself is made of one kind of plastic, the logo and the wrapping around it are made out of another kind of plastic. If you throw that into the recycling container, no one is going to sit there and remove meticulously that sticker from the plastic bottle. They’re just going to throw it out because you can’t recycle those two kinds of plastics together. And that’s really really pervasive like a little plastic sticker, a little plastic and foil wrapping. The way that plastics are mixed with other materials in day-to-day household items just makes it really really difficult to do anything with them besides toss them into a landfill or into an incinerator.

Paris Marx: And then I imagine the lid on the bottle was probably another type of plastic as well. that would require a whole different process to recycle to. One of the things that you mentioned in, I don’t know if it was this piece or another piece that I wrote, was that even when some of these plastics can be recycled, and as you mentioned, a very small number, even make it into the recycling system in the first place. That even if that that happens, that they can only be recycled a few times, because they very quickly degrade to a point where they’re not really usable again, and again. Unlike, what was said in that women’s magazine that you quoted where the bottle just keeps coming back, and back and back.

Dharna Noor: Exactly. That’s why sometimes you’ll see things like building insulation or things like this that are made of old plastic bottles. That is a use that you can actually get out of a plastic bottle after it’s been recycled once or twice. But another material that you can actually hold in shape in your hands that can either be a vessel for something or can be made into a plastic toy you get in a Happy Meal or something like that, you’re not going to be able to recycle a plastic bottle into anything like that, more than once at the very most.

Paris Marx: As you describe all of that one thing that really stands out to me is just how effective this campaign has really been. Iff we think about how in the 1970s and 1980s, people were really angry about plastics, were looking at plastic bag bans and things like that, and wanting some action on this, it seems like this campaign to push recycling as the alternative instead of these actions to reduce the use of plastic have been actually very effective, because I think back to how a lot of plastic bag bans that we’ve seen have only really come into force in the past decade. So that’s pushing it out several decades from when many of them were first proposed. And before there’s a greater consciousness around these things, and governments finally start to wake up to it again. 

But it feels like in general, the issue of plastic waste, and the problems with plastic recycling, while they are recognized, they’re still not necessarily a widespread thing, like when there are actions from governments to reduce the plastics that are available, these disposable plastics, there’s often a sizable backlash to this, which I’m assuming in some cases is funded by the same lobbies. But in other cases, are people just annoyed with the fact that this convenience is being taken away, I guess.

Dharna Noor: I think both of those things are true. Climate related and environmental issues have always been ripe for culture war fights in the US. And I think especially in the past two decades or so, there’s definitely been a contingent of so-called American traditionalists or whatever, right-wing people who are pushing this idea that actually, it’s really, really great that we are drinking out of bottles that you can buy for an increasing amount of money, but still for pretty cheap. Even though those are doing things like exposing you and your children to PFAS, which can cause hormone disruption, and polluting our oceans, and the production of them is contributing to the climate crisis and things like that. So, certainly, I think that people have gotten used to a level of convenience and then also some people who are attached to the idea of plastics as an American right or something. But the other thing is we’re just producing a lot more of this stuff, generally. And a big reason for this industry push around recycling is that the US, a few decades ago, started hugely wrapping up fracking. Plastic is made from byproduct of oil and gas, more fracked gas in the US has created a glut, and there’s a pretty convincing argument that the industry has ramped up plastic production. In fact, it’s said this in some cases, as a sort of plan B for what to do with oil and gas.

So there’s a lot more interest in clamping down on the use of fossil fuels for energy. But the industry wants to ensure that it has a market for oil and gas and so it’s pushing this idea that we need to be producing more oil and gas so that we can have plastic in our lives. And that means that we’re getting more, frankly, propaganda for the use of plastics. And it also means that we’re seeing more concern around things like ocean plastics, around things microplastics getting into our food supply and into our clothes and things like this. There’s more public concern about this, because there’s more plastic around. But I think we’ll also, as the years go on, see that the industry has been working to assuage those fears, and it’s safe to bet in ways that don’t actually tackle the problem, but nonetheless, trying to assuage those fears.

Paris Marx: I want to come back to some of those things in just a little bit to dig into those further and probably some of those false solutions that are coming up around the modern issues and concerns that we’re seeing there. As you describe the fracking boom and how that has contributed to this. It just brings to mind that image of Barack Obama saying it was me or whatever when he was talking about the massive increase of oil and gas production under his presidency. Meanwhile, he was also trying to position himself as a climate leader and whatnot. How much of the oil and gas that is extracted is produced today actually goes into plastic production and on that climate side of things, when we’re thinking about emissions. And when we’re thinking about oil and gas production. How much of that is related to plastics and not just the amount of stuff we burn in our cars and whatnot?

Dharna Noor: In figures from 2012, plastic production accounted for 4% of all global oil production, which might not seem that significant. But if you think about 4% of the entire global production of oil, that’s pretty huge. And that number is almost certainly much higher now and it’s on the rise,. There’s figures that actually show that by 2050, half of all oil demand is actually going to be driven by plastic production and that’s due to plastics getting into a bunch of different sectors. So we’re not only talking about things like food, packaging, and bottles and things like that, we’re also talking about plastics being used to make clothes and in forms like polyester, and things like this. Plastic has become pervasive in every single economic sector and that is not a coincidence, that’s definitely a choice that the industry has made to make itself seemingly necessary for all sectors of the economy to function and thrive.

Paris Marx: Definitely, and I would imagine that this campaign that plastics companies engaged in through the 1980s and beyond, in order to get us to buy into these things were also related to that broader push by the fossil fuel industry, to get us to not want to move away from their products after climate change started to become a big issue in that same moment.

Dharna Noor: One hundred percent. There’s a really, I think, important parallel between the way that the plastic industry covered up its own information about the kind of lack of viability around plastics recycling, and the way that oil and gas companies, which in many cases, were actually the producers of plastic, covered up their knowledge that using and burning fossil fuels is contributing to the climate crisis in a way that can be really, really dangerous, and in fact, is really dangerous. So lots of parallels there and certainly, those two things are very related. If the industry had its way, we would think that, first of all, we wouldn’t ever think about the fact that it’s oil and gas that are being used to make plastic. We would also think that it’s not a big deal if we did find that out: Oh, well, it’s not a big deal, because oil and gas are not really a problem for ecological systems. Further, the plastic isn’t a problem either, because we can just recycle it and use it forever and ever and ever and it’s great to have more plastic of the world, because it’s just a closed loop. Everything is very kumbaya, we have a closed loop, and it’s a circular economy, and we’re all fine.

Paris Marx: One of the quotes from your story that really stood out to me is from 1994, an Exxon employee telling staffers at the American Plastics Council: We are committed to the activities of plastics recycling, but not committed to the results. So we’re going to use this thing, but it might not work. And that’s fine, because it is doing what we need it to do anyway. If we’re thinking about the companies that are that are massively involved in creating this plastics and part of this effort to get us to use more plastics. I guess, for me, one of the big ones that comes to mind is Coca-Cola, of course, and all of their disposable plastic bottles that we’re drinking things out of. But are there other ones that really stand out that people might not think of so much?

Dharna Noor: Oh, man, so many. The thing about plastic being in everything is that it’s actually really hard to place blame on any single company. I mean, obviously the trade associations and the petrochemical companies themselves bear a lot of responsibility for this. But also there’s Danone, the big, French multinational food corporation that owns a bajillion different brands, like Octavia yogurt or whatever, and Silk hair products and things like this. Also, by the way, owns lots of brands that market themselves is very natural and sustainable and things like this. They are accountable for a huge percentage of plastics and that’s based on reports that not only look at the sort of production side, but also take a look at the waste side. So like: who made all of these plastic water bottles or yogurt containers or whatever that we’re finding in the ocean? Often the answer is Danone. And then there’s a billion again, a million other companies that are tied up in the interests of plastics and petrochemicals. I’m using that word petrochemicals because plastic is itself a byproduct of petrochemicals, petro-chemicals from petroleum. 

But if you think about, just one example fast fashion producers. The very business model of an H&M or I don’t know, a Temu, I guess, is hugely dependent on this continued supply of plastic based materials. So acrylic, again, polyester, these are all things that are made of oil. They’re all things that are made of plastic. And they’re responsible for a glut of cheap clothes and the trend cycles sort of speeding up and things like this. But they’re also responsible for all of those clothes being really shitty quality. How often do you buy a pair of jeans that’s has some amount of stretch in it and find that it rips within, I don’t know, two or three months of wearing, versus an older pair of 100% cotton jeans that just last and last and last. So yet another issue with this material being in everything. But it also again means that the blame is distributed, maybe not evenly, but it is widely distributed. So it’s hard to point a finger and say: You, one company, are the problem, which I think makes accountability even harder.

Paris Marx: No, that makes total sense. I’m happy you brought up the issue of close too, because it shows that this is something that is just so broad and has worked its way into so many different industries, it’s not just when we go to the grocery store and see all the packaging there or whatever. But it’s basically everywhere, everything. The process of making these things has been remade to work plastics into it. Because this is, or can be, such a cheap material in order to create, especially if you’re comparing it to natural fibers and things like that, in that case. I guess, if people are looking at the world around us today, they might be seeing government’s, passing plastic bag bans or removing plastic straws and maybe get an idea that the amount of plastics that we’re using as a society is starting to go down. But is that actually true? Or are we still seeing this massive expansion?

Dharna Noor: We’re not using less plastic, there was a small dip, like there was a sort of a small dip in everything during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we really quickly recovered from that. And we’re making a record amount of of single use plastic right now. That is certainly set to rise too, there’s projections again that we’re going to be producing more and more and more plastic. We’re going to be producing more and more oil and gas that go into plastic production. And this sort of tinkering around the edges, like the bans on straws and bags and things like that can be a good start. But they are more than made up for by the increasing use of plastic and in other sectors.

Paris Marx: Definitely. I guess related to that, ccan you talk about what these campaigns actually did, in taking this problem that is really collective and making it seem like it is something that is not about these massive companies that are making all this plastic, but you the individual. And whether you are taking your little plastic things that you buy from the store or whatever, and putting them in the right bin. Like how does that change the framing on the issue in a way that serves the industry?

Dharna Noor: This sort of framing that it’s your fault, that it’s the consumers fault, is really really typical for the oil industry, for the petrochemical industry, for the plastics industry. Again, these are all tied up in the same interests because plastic is made from oil. So there’s been lots and lots of research that’s looked at like advertising and and marketing from oil companies that showed that there has been a really concerted effort to frame climate change as your fault. Obviously, you guys have discussed on this show before, the the early use of the term carbon footprint, which was popularized by BP, the oil company. The carbon footprint as in the idea that you have a footprint based on the things that you consume, and based on the things that you buy, and it’s your fault. Not the fault of the companies you purchase those things from. And similarly, we’ve seen a sort of push from plastic companies to frame plastic pollution, to frame the climate impact of plastics as consumers fault. So if there’s littering then the campaign says not to be a litter bug, and to make sure that you take care of your trash. Obviously, no responsibility on the companies that are putting more single use plastics into your neighborhood.

When there’s a concern around plastic not being recycled, then there’s a framing that: Oh, people just aren’t sorting them properly in their homes. People just aren’t taking the time to put plastics into the right bins, things like this. When there’s plastic fabrics that are falling apart all the time: Oh, well, you just need to learn to take better care of them and things like this. And that’s not to say that people should not take care of their own lives and things like that. But I think what we’ve really seen is like the concerted effort to frame everything as an individual problem has really, really worked to inhibit collective action and regulation especially.

Paris Marx: Definitely, and you can see how it’s not an individual problem in the sense that, I always go back to the grocery store, but if you go to buy some groceries or whatever, or if you just go to a Walmart or go to buy almost anything, you see that everything is basically packaged in plastic to some degree. You often don’t have a choice of some alternative packaging. If you’re going to go buy a bottle of juice or a jug of juice or something like that, usually these days, there’s not even a glass bottle option to buy anymore. You have to buy the plastic, everything has switched over to being packaged in these materials. So, then the idea that it’s you as an individual who needs to solve this problem is just so divorced from the reality because you often don’t even have the ability to make the choice in order to not use the plastic, because it’s all that you have left after plastics have just consumed everything and the way that everything is packaged has been remade around this plastics industry.

Dharna Noor: Totally. It’s funny to think about the framing of consumer choice in this sort of area, because you can go to the grocery store and see a million different options for what kind of seltzer in a plastic bottle you can buy. But often, you don’t really have the option of buying something that’s not in plastic. Actually, there has been with all the sort of trendy probiotic drinks and everything, I think there has been a push to use more glass, more aluminum, which those have their own problems, because they’re heavier to ship and that means that there’s more carbon emissions with shipping them and things like this. But they don’t have some of the same sort of recyclability problems as plastics, you genuinely can recycle glass. But again, there’s this really big problem of mixed use materials. If you buy a tin can and it’s got a plastic wrapping around it, it’s going to be pretty difficult to recycle that tin can with the rest of the tin. The same thing goes for a plastic water bottle. So, I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that this largely comes from desires for profit and desires to seem sustainable, desires to have the vibe of being one of the good guys. You can be so virtuous if you buy my probiotic soda instead of this other person’s probiotic soda. But in fact, it’s not really solving the problem.

Paris Marx: Every time you bring up the notion of the small wrapper on these bottles is it’s blowing my mind because that’s not something that I thought about before, but it makes total sense. I’m sure most people wouldn’t think of it. But based on what you were saying there, I have two questions based on that. I think the first is this question of recycling more generally. We’ve talked about how plastics recycling is very inefficient, is something that was dreamed up by the plastics and fossil fuel lobbyists in order to distract the public and lawmakers and things like that, from actions that would have actually reduced the use of plastics to allow their industries to continue growing and the pervasiveness of plastics to continue. What is your assessment of recycling more generally, and the good parts of it, the bad parts of it? The role that it plays in, I guess, environmentalism? How concerned we should be about recycling as an issue?

Dharna Noor: I don’t think that recycling can ever be the answer, because we’re just producing too much stuff. And I don’t mean this in like an austerity: We should just have fewer things way. I don’t actually think that it makes your life that much better to buy more things that fall apart more easily. That doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for recycling. I think that we do need to make sure that we ramp up recycling efforts for aluminum, for glass. But it’s just not a solution that’s very well-suited for plastic waste at all. And if I’m up against a wall, does that mean that I don’t think that there should be more efforts to make sure that we have plastic sorting facilities and recycling facilities that actually work in more places? I don’t know. I mean, I guess that it’s worth doing that because I don’t think that we really have another option at the moment. I don’t think there’s going to be some huge push to clamp down on plastic production. But there absolutely should be. That doesn’t mean that we need to have less stuff, it doesn’t mean we have to inconvenience ourselves so hugely, because I don’t think that this stuff is really making our lives any better in the first place.

Paris Marx: I feel like you see more and more people who are frustrated with the lack of quality in a lot of the products that we have today. In part that comes out of the need for disposability, and for the companies to be able to keep selling you something new within certain periods of time, that work for their business models. And so they’re disincentivized to create that quality, and so it falls apart more quickly. It has to be disposed of more quickly and replaced and what have you. I feel quite similarly on recycling as you do. Like, I still recycle even though I recognize that it’s not the big solution that’s going to change everything. But I still feel like it’s an important thing to do because if we’re thinking about an ideal way that things work in society, I think we would want to know that even the things that we do consume are able to go back and be recreated or recycled into something else. But of course, the key to that as well is: Even if you think of the three R’s, which I’m sure are another piece of the plastic lobbyists thing. It’s like reduce and reuse comes before recycling. But those sorts of things tend to get left out there. I don’t know, I think recycling is important, but I also don’t think that we should allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that it’s the silver bullet solution or really making a big difference, especially when it comes to plastics. But is much more important when it comes to glass and aluminum and metals and things like that, that can be much more easily reused and turned back into something else that is usable.

Dharna Noor: Exactly and there have been some efforts to improve recycling by starting at the source. So for instance, there has been some talk of regulators making sure that plastic producers only use the kind of plastics that we have the resources to actually recycle. Or not to mix materials, so that that makes it easier to recycle. I mean, I guess those are good efforts, I still think that this is something that’s fundamental to the material itself. But again, I don’t think that means that we need to get rid of recycling, especially, as you said, when it comes to other materials that are actually way better suited for this process.

Paris Marx: On that point, as well. When we talk about this need for disposability, and the problems of plastic recycling and whatnot, there is a growing recognition that it’s a problem, that we use too much plastic. That the waste is everywhere, that we can’t keep using it the way that we have in the past. Part of the proposed solutions to that, I guess from industry has been, on the one hand, these bio plastics, these plastics that they say are more green, more environmentally friendly, made with plant based materials and whatnot. Then, of course, what we’ve been seeing more recently as well, where there are more paper-based products that are replacing lids on cups or straws, or what have you, that are working its way into fast food restaurants. And these places where these disposable products are usually used. What do you make of these alternatives? Is this a real solution or is this still distracting us from the deeper problem of disposability?

Dharna Noor: Some of these things are better, but I don’t think that they solve the problem. The bio plastics that you’re talking about, the ones that are made from things like vegetable oils, or starch, they can be less polluting, like less polluting in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and in terms of toxic pollution, then traditional plastic to make. Some of them are compostable, which is great if you actually compost them. But again, this really depends on this frame of consumer responsibility because if you don’t put those in the compost bin, and if you don’t have the infrastructure in your city to make sure that they actually fully decompose, and that’s not easy. They only fully decompose in these really specific conditions. They just end up like any other plastics, they end up going in landfills, they end up going into incinerators, they don’t actually behave any differently from traditional plastics in those scenarios. The other thing is that some of these bio based plastics are made from natural products that need to be farmed. Farming, agriculture, is also a major contributor to the climate crisis. So I don’t know.

I don’t mean to equate these two things. But I don’t think that it’s a real solution, or at the very least, it comes with its own problems, and those might not be quite as big. But I think it just leads to this idea that we can take on the problem of plastics by simply making more plastics, which I don’t think really has been shown to work at all. There’s other issues with similar stuff happens with these paper things. Paper has many benefits as a product. The main one is that it actually can biodegrade pretty easily. But hugely increasing our supply of disposable stuff that we make from paper, could be pretty bad for trees, which are very important in our fight for a livable future. Like we really need to have things like forests. We need to have, especially rainforests intact. And I don’t know. So again, I think that all of these things can play some role. But we also just need to rethink the way that we’re producing stuff we don’t need if we’re really going to take all the problem.

Paris Marx: Definitely. One of the things that stood out from what you were saying there is that this issue of facilities is a real one. Are the facilities there to even recycle what we have. One of the things I remember, I used to live on the east coast of Canada in Newfoundland, and we could recycle plastics and we could recycle aluminum products, but we couldn’t recycle glass because that was considered to be too expensive to recycle and the facilities weren’t there and what have you. I’m sure that that’s the case in a lot of other places as well. Even if a product is more recyclable, like glass or something like that, the facilities might not be there to actually do it. I know one of the things that you’ve reported on in the past is even where a lot of these supposed places to recycle plastic exists, if you go bring your bag into a Walmart or some other grocery store where it’s supposedly going to be recycled. A lot of these things don’t actually get recycled. And we’re just told they are and actually they get disposed of like anything else.

Dharna Noor: A hundred percent. There has been scandal after scandal of: This city is actually just taking things from recycling bins to a landfill or this department store has partnered with this big recycling initiative, and there’s no evidence that anything that’s going into those bins is actually getting recycled most of the time. And that is a massive problem of lack of corporate accountability. But again, it’s not a good solution if it’s this hard and this expensive to recycle this stuff. And if it doesn’t really work very well, then I don’t know. I mean, obviously, it is the fault of the corporations who are failing to have those things recycled. But I don’t think that the answer then is to do a better job at recycling it, it’s to realize that recycling alone cannot fix the problem.

Paris Marx: Exactly. It also shows how even if you as an individual are trying to do the right thing, that doesn’t mean that the structures are set up in such a way to ensure that your individual action actually makes some sort of difference. If you’re going out of your way to bring your plastic bags back to get them recycle, and they’re just going into the landfill anyway, then what differences is it really making? I wanted to talk about those bigger issues as well, because one of the things that I think people have become much more aware of in recent years is the scale of this plastic waste problem and how it’s on the land, it’s through the seas, everywhere seems to be getting clogged up with all of this plastic. Meanwhile, the plastic producers are saying that they plan to create so much more of it. What is the wider impact of all this plastic waste that is just consuming the planet at this point?

Dharna Noor: There are so many, and none of them are good. You know, there’s the climate impact of plastic production and also plastics disposal. Again, plastics are made from fossil fuels, and so that means it’s really polluting to produce them. You also need to crack, so separate, oil and gas molecules into the byproducts that can be used for plastics, which is another very highly emitting and also pretty costly process. So there’s that then if you toss plastics into a landfill, or incinerator that causes more emissions. There’s some research that shows that even if plastic ends up as litter, or as pollution in the oceans or on land, that also creates more emissions, just by virtue of them sitting out. So that’s really bad. All of that is also super, super toxic, so we definitely should not discount the local effects of all of that production and processing and burning and incinerators and landfilling. There’s lots of carcinogenic and other toxic chemicals that are associated with those processes. 

There’s the issue of microplastics, which has become such a hugely popular concern that it’s almost a meme at this point, I think. But it really is a problem that there’s microplastics in all of the food that we eat, and that if you just wave your arm around in the air, you can emit microplastics in the air. There was a study this week that found that microplastics are widespread in human placenta, which means that we’re quite literally becoming made of microplastics and of plastics. And one of the reasons that microplastics is an issue is that there are these forever chemicals in plastics, which are really hormone disrupting, and have been linked to all sorts of different issues. There’s a million different problems that come with the widespread use and disposal of plastics. But the profit motive is not changing, and I think that is a key reason that we’re still, despite all of that seeing more and more plastics being produced.

It’s really expensive to recycle plastics properly. I’s really, really cheap to make new what are called virgin plastics. And that math is just the only thing that seems to be driving the industry. And is that because they’re evil? I don’t think that they’re not evil. But also like, their job is to make profits for their shareholders, right? If they see an opportunity to do that, if they see an opportunity to produce something for very cheap, and then sell it to people, they will continue to do that. And we really need solutions that can subvert that awful loop and create some regulation. Frankly, ideally, we could just nationalize the whole sector to phase it out. But in the absence of those kinds of solutions, at the very least, I think we need more regulation to make sure that you can’t just produce and produce and produce when it is very bad for everyone but you to do so.

Paris Marx: I don’t know about you, but I feel like those regulations are so few and far between and when they do come up, like in Canada, we’ve been slowly moving toward more restrictions on single use plastic for the past number of years, but it’s like: This year, we’re going to ban plastic straws and maybe next year we’ll do some Styrofoam containers and they’ll go away. It’s just lso piecemeal, and not really getting to the deeper root of the issue and the structural nature that creates all of this plastic and disposability in the first place. That it seems like the kind of reckoning with the scale of the problem is just not there.

Dharna Noor: There have been some proposals that go further than the plastic bag bans. There’s a bill in the US that gets introduced every year in some form called The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. And that actually would require producer responsibility, as in the producer has to pay for recycling and is fined if products are not recycled. And there’s some legal action that’s been floated also, a couple of years ago, the AG of California said that he’d be looking into plastic producers and fossil fuel companies for their role in the climate crisis and in ecological crises. I think that there’s more room for those kinds of solutions. The report that we started this episode talking about from the Center for Climate Integrity proposed that other attorneys general could bring lawsuits and call for investigations based on alleged fraud from the industry. I talked to somebody who used to be the Attorney General of the State of Maryland, who said that he found that really convincing. So I think that the calls for actual damages, like monetary damages, could actually make some amount of difference in changing the business model. But you’re up against a really, really powerful sector here. So, it’s an uphill battle, but I think that there is a movement to move beyond the ‘phase out plastic straws only in one individual, small liberal city.’

Paris Marx: Hopefully, we’ll start to see more of that. Whether it’s legal action, or regulatory action, in order to try to rein these things in. Just briefly, I wanted to go back to what you’re saying about microplastics there. Because, as you say, this is an issue that I feel like is getting more and more traction in recent years as there’s more and more studies finding them in our bodies, all over the planet, in the animals that share this planet with us. Do we know, is there clear evidence at this point, the actual human health impacts of having all this plastic around us and all these microplastics distributed to our bodies? Or is that still something that scientists and medical professionals and whatnot are still really trying to get to the root of?

Dharna Noor: Yes and no. The total impact on human health is not known and it’s because this is an area that, frankly, most researchers were not even aware of would be this bigger problem until pretty recently. But we have some evidence, and none of the evidence we have is good, basically. So, there’s some evidence that microplastics have damaged human cells in a lab that particles lodged into tissue of flesh, and can cause inflammation and things like that. We have some research, actually pretty widespread research, on the forever chemicals that are in plastics, that’s those PFAS, that are sometimes known as and related to forever chemicals. These chemicals that last forever. Those have been shown to be hormone disrupting, which can cause all sorts of issues. I would venture to say that all the research indicates that none of these things are good. As we see more investigation by the scientific community, their concerns will only grow. We don’t know everything, but nothing that we do know is good.

Paris Marx: It’s not great, especially, occasionally you hear these stories about people being less fertile. All these sorts of wider questions about reproduction, and about, as you were saying, the hormones that are in people’s bodies and stuff like that. I think that there’s a wider question there about the environmental impacts in the sense of all the plastics that are around us, all the chemicals that are in everything that we use, and the impacts that that is having on our bodies and human health more widely. Sometimes it feels a bit conspiracy theory-ish, or verging into anti-vax, adjacent discussions. But it also feels like, I don’t know, am I off base to say that that is actually a real concern here? The degree to which all of these chemicals and all these plastics, are you having this deep impact on the collective health of human beings?

Dharna Noor: Totally. I mean, there have been some researchers that have like taken the extrapolation of the analysis too far. But I don’t think that that means this is not an issue. I too, sometimes feel like, am I the one who’s nuts when I’m like: This is obviously a problem, right? There’s some right-wing capitalization on the concern about microplastics to go to really homophobic places sometimes and things like that. 

Paris Marx: Yeah. Making us all trans or whatever. 

Dharna Noor: Exactly. The plastics in our water supply are the reasons that all of our kids or trans or whatever. But one, no, and two, yes, I think that this is actually an issue. I don’t think that the research is going to bear out that plastics and the water supply is making us all queer. But I do think that the research is going to show that maybe the health effects of having all this plastic in our water supply are not so great. So two things can be true.

Paris Marx: Definitely. The cancers and the issues of fertility and all that stuff. They can’t just come out of nowhere. I’m obviously not an expert, but this is my an inexpert conclusion after reading stuff and not going for the right-wing conspiracy theories. Dharna, to wrap up this conversation on plastics, this very important conversation that we’ve been having. What do you see as the future here? What is the way that we try to tackle this and do you have an idea of what a society looks like that doesn’t use as much plastic but is obviously still one that is good to live in? And is not, as you were saying, severely compromised, because we have gotten rid of all this disposable plastic that we were previously using?

Dharna Noor: I think, as always, we need really comprehensive solutions that actually prioritize making people’s lives better. And that is not what we’ve gotten from the industry. The most recent thing that we’ve seen from the industry is this focus on what’s called advanced or chemical recycling, which is a chemical process that’s really, really polluting. That they say they’re going to use to turn plastics into fuels and other products. That is an example of what is being posed as a solution. I don’t think that’s a real solution. I think as like corny and twee as it sounds, I think we just need to move towards using fewer plastics and to a reuse based economy. And I don’t think that we’re gonna be able to do that just by saying: Everyone needs to bring their little bespoke plastic jars to the health food store to fill with lentils that they make their 15 children for lunch, and not everybody needs to go around with a little burlap sack and everything. 

But if we think about the more comprehensive look at this, if we, for instance, lived in more densely packed cities where there was actually transit that you could use to get yourself to the store, so that you wouldn’t need to put something in a plastic bag to put in your car for an hour or instead. You could just say: Oh, well, I can just hold this piece of broccoli in my hand for the five minutes it takes to walk home or for the two bus stops that it takes to get to my hous. I can just throw the broccoli into my cloth bag. I think we could really solve a lot of problems at once. I mean, the other thing is, I don’t think that convenience is a bad thing to want, and I think that there could be a lot more innovation, especially from the public sector, to come up with some materials that are genuinely not that harmful. And that’s not to say that like: Oh, we’re just going to replace all of our Perrier bottles with Perrier bottles that are made of something else. But genuinely, I do think that there have to be ways to make materials out of more sustainable items that we can produce more easily and more efficiently.

There’s been lots of innovation around producing plastic alternatives for sectors where they actually are more necessary. Like there’s lots of use of plastics in hospitals and medical procedures and things like that. I don’t think that we’re just gonna be able to say: Oh, no, we’re getting rid of plastics, so you don’t get to have your surgical masks or whatever anymore. So there does need to actually be more effort into coming up with materials that can fit those needs. But I don’t think that we can leave the process of coming up with those materials to the people who have an incentive to produce them more cheaply. We can’t leave it up to the people who are making a profit off of the materials, because we’ve seen time and time again, that that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t really benefit any of us except for the billionaires who are profiting off of it.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. I think what you’re saying there is essential, on the one hand, we need to have a nuanced conversation, where we understand the places where plastics are actually needed, and whether we can create something better to replace what’s actually in use right now, that’s not as environmentally harmful. But at the same time, if we are actually going to get rid of the disposable plastics that we all rely on, we need to structurally think about how we’re going to create a way of living where we don’t simply need as much plastics as we did before and what that is actually going to look like. And continuing to rely on the plastics producers and the major grocery chains and the Walmarts of the world is not going to produce that kind of society. We need to have the kind of collective action but also the interest from government in order to be able to do something like that and to implement something like that. And right now that doesn’t exist, but it can happen. Dharna, it was really fantastic to speak with you, to dig into all this with you. Thanks for taking the time. I really appeciate it.

Dharna Noor: It was such a pleasure. Thanks so much, Paris.

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Paris Marx

Paris Marx is a tech critic and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. He writes the Disconnect newsletter and is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.

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