An MIT researcher says we should trash all our recyclable plastic, and he's probably right

Hilary Brueck
Recycling

Reuters


  • Recycling plastic uses up a lot of resources, and after all the hauling around, sorting, and processing of bottles and containers, it often ends up getting thrown away or burned.
  • MIT business researcher Andrew McAfee says we'd be better off putting our plastic waste into well-managed landfills.
  • He argues we should spend our "mental budget for thinking about the Earth on more high-impact changes," like carbon taxes on major polluters and nuclear energy.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Just 40 years ago, the idea of garbage handlers going door to door, picking up recyclable items like cans, paper, and plastic, and shipping them off to be repurposed, was a twinkle in America's eye.

Woodbury, New Jersey, pioneered the nation's first curbside recycling system, when, in 1980, garbage collectors started towing a trailer for reusable household waste, MIT researcher Andrew McAfee explains in his new book, "More From Less."

It's a rosy look at how capitalism and tech progress (along with robust regulations) have perhaps made people in the US better stewards of the planet by allowing us to reduce consumption while growing economically.

In his book, McAfee calls metal recycling "great, since it gives us cheaper metal products and reduces total greenhouse-gas emissions." He's also on board with paper recycling. But he vehemently believes Americans should trash plastic waste by burying it underground in well-managed "modern" landfills.

He thinks attempting to sort plastic recycling is ultimately a waste of time and energy, and his point may be worth considering.

"The notion that disposing of trash in 2019 is environmentally unsound? I just don't buy that," he told Insider.

recycling recycled cans blocks warehouse workers teamwork Paulo Whitaker RTS28YI

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

"The carbon benefits, the greenhouse-gas benefits of recycling are actually very, very small, really not worth it," McAfee said. "What is really environmentally unsound is what we were doing up until China put a ban on it, which is packing up all of our plastics, sending it across the ocean, to a country that engaged in environmentally very, very dirty practices, to try to recycle that."

McAfee is not alone in his condemnation of plastic recycling

It's true that the former China-US plastic recycling beltway is now shuttered, and that most of our plastic waste today ends up in landfills or burns.

Half of Philadelphia's recyclables end up in the trash, while less than 9% of what people throw away in Chicago is ever recycled, as Business Insider's Aria Bendix recently reported. Even the US National Waste and Recycling Program says "recycling contamination is a serious problem," cautioning consumers "when in doubt, throw it out."

One 2017 report published in Science Advances suggested only 9% of the plastic that we ever use is recycled, while consulting firm McKinsey estimates just 16% of plastics are "reprocessed" and turned into new plastic goods.

People don't have much use for the small portion of plastic that does get recycled anyway. In the European Union, only 6% of plastic demand is for recycled plastics.

Instead of worrying about recycling plastic, McAfee wants people to lobby for carbon taxes and endorse nuclear power 

nuclear power plant america us

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

McAfee argues that instead of worrying about plastic recycling, people should lobby for carbon dividends that would drive money from heavily polluting companies (like oil and gas giants) back into tax revenue, in addition to getting governments more focused on investing in environmentally friendly energy sources, like nuclear power.

After all, more than half of the world's industrial greenhouse-gas emissions can be traced back to 25 "corporate and state producers," including ExxonMobil, BP, and Total, according to the 2017 "Carbon Majors Report."

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren said something similar during CNN's climate town hall, pointing out that minor tweaks to our lifestyles often obscure larger global pollution issues.

"Understand — this is exactly what the fossil-fuel industry hopes we're all talking about," Warren said. "They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70% of the pollution — of the carbon that we're throwing into the air — comes from three industries."

Those three industries she's referring to are better thought of as "activities," as PolitiFact said after the debate, and they are transportation, electricity, and industry.

plastic pacific garbage patch swim

The Vortex Swim/Photo credit: @osleston

McAfee worries we 'use up' environmental concern on small items like straws to the detriment of much larger issues 

Others argue that bans curbing items like plastic straws and plastic bags could be an important first step toward reducing plastic consumption altogether.

"We look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem," Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen previously told Business Insider.

Read More: The real reason so many cities and businesses are banning plastic straws

Efforts to get people using more sustainable goods, like reusable bags and foldable straws, may not pack much environmental punch, though. One UK study suggested that a cotton bag would have to be reused 131 times to be worth it for the planet, over plastic.

Sometimes, doing one good thing for the environment can kick-start people into other earth-friendly behaviors, but research on this topic is mixed. Other studies suggest that people might give themselves a pass on changing other behaviors once they've done one good deed — what's called a "single-action bias." That's something McAfee worries about.

"People have a budget, you know, this mental budget for thinking about the Earth," McAfee said. "If you use up that budget on a plastic straw ban, that is a massive, massive shame, and a mistake."

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