Americans have been taught “the 3 R’s” to tackle plastic pollution: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. But recycling has lulled us into believing that single-use items are acceptable. As a result, we now use more plastic than ever — with the United States leading the world by generating more than 40 million tons of plastic waste a year, accumulating in landfills and the ocean.
But plastic results in more than bulk waste. It also contributes to the climate crisis by releasing greenhouse gases throughout its lifespan, from its creation (which uses fossil fuels) to its degradation in the environment, whether recycled or incinerated. A recent report from Beyond Plastics estimates that plastics will outpace coal in emissions by 2030.
For decades, U.S. industries contended with waste by shipping it to China for recycling, which previously imported half of the world’s plastic waste. But since 2018, China has declined to buy almost all plastic. The loss of that major recycling avenue has led to higher fees for many U.S. municipalities to remove and transport waste, leading to the discontinuation of curbside recycling programs for hundreds of communities. Furthermore, much of municipal recycling is rejected because of improper sorting or food contamination. Ultimately, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled.
Even proper recycling is imperfect, requiring a different energy-intensive process for each plastic formulation. And to truly reap the benefits of plastic recycling, manufacturers must make — and consumers choose — products from recycled, instead of virgin, material — neither of which has happened at scale. So while the EPA launches its national recycling plan anew, it will not deliver us from the consequences of plastic use.
It’s time Americans prioritize the other two R’s.
The concept of “reduce” seems anathema to American values, where buying has long been portrayed as patriotic. Such consumerism is embodied in fast fashion; a 2015 study found that, on average, consumers wear a garment just seven times before throwing it away. Instead, inviting a cultural shift to buy less, buy second-hand, or not buy at all, can avoid the production of items that quickly end up in landfills — and their carbon footprint.
The concept of “reuse” has made headway, with eight states now banning single-use plastic bags. But reuse does need careful calculations. For example, a 2011 United Kingdom study found that a cotton bag must be reused 131 times before it matches the environmental footprint of single-use plastic grocery bags.
Despite evolving legislation, we continue to use (and throw away) more plastic than ever. Bottled water is a case in point. In the United States, climbing sales reached 15 billion gallons last year alone. Yet, there is no reason to think that bottled water is safer than tap water, which is actually more regulated (find your water quality data at EPA Consumer Confidence Report). Innovations such as collapsible reusable bottles and apps to locate nearby filling stations give consumers on the go fewer excuses for buying plastic bottled water.
Another challenge is the abundance of plastic packaging. To address this, a handful of retailers have joined the budding zero-waste movement and allow customers to bring their own bulk bags or refillable bottles for items like oils and detergent. At the Good Food Store in Montana, shoppers donate an assortment of containers that the store then sanitizes (consistent with the FDA Food Code) for any customer to reuse for bulk purchases. This program is on hold during the pandemic, but should be a model for mainstream grocery stores and restaurants alike (think take-out).
While we await a circular economy to repurpose products and creative solutions like advanced recycling and better biodegradable technology, we, as consumers, must drive innovation through our selective and collective purchasing power. Unless all of us — from individuals to industry — commit to reducing and reusing, plastic waste will devastate our planet. Recycling alone is not a viable solution.
Wynne Armand, M.D., is a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate director at MGH Center for the Environment and Health. She is also assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The OpEd Project