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What Fuel­s America’s Failed Recycling Industry?

The pandemic caused numerous changes in society, but it also highlighted issues that had previously gone unnoticed. Deception in the plastics recycling industry is just one example. In particular, Covid-19 demonstrated how sensitive the plastics recycling industry is to swings in oil prices.

The pandemic caused economic shifts and lowered oil consumption. Oil prices plummeting worldwide. As a result, manufacturers began to favor creating new plastic over recycling because low oil costs made new production less expensive than recycling. The manufacturing of new plastic continues to increase. Industry experts and environmental groups say this creates a cyclical effect, increasing pollution.

The motto “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle” was created in the 1970’s to help the public understand how they can help save the planet. The R that stood for “Recycle”, has become a symbol for the environmental movement.

Sadly, the recycling component doesn’t actually help save the environment. In fact, it can even cause more harm. There is a misperception over the relationship between recycling and helping the planet. Many people fail to realize the real problem is plastic overconsumption within the U.S. and the harsher reality that recycling is a failing business strategy.

In the 1970’s when recycling first became a hot topic, many people believed it was an effective system that would ultimately improve the health of the planet. Because of this, recycling increased. But so did the use of plastic packaging.

For example, plastics manufacturers manipulated public belief that recycling could solve the plastics problem. They did this to sell and promote overconsumption of plastics as an environmentally safe option. Consumers believed the increasing quantity of plastic bottles and plastic packaging wouldn’t be an issue since they could “easily” be recycled. It wasn’t true.

Among the main deceivers were the oil and gas industries. Petroleum is a primary component in Plastics manufacturing. There have been many reports detailing how the ads promoting recycling as the main solution to environmental deterioration were funded by the oil and plastic industry. Many plastic profited from the consumer belief that buying plastic was sustainable as long as it was recycled.

These ads also implied that recycled plastic would be reused for other items; instead, a lot of the unused plastic went into landfills and oceans.

Unfortunately, this continues to happen today. The plastics industry lobbied in at least 40 states to include the recycling triangle symbol on anything that's plastic, regardless of whether it’s recyclable. There have been many recent reports exposing the fact that many of the products advertised as recyclable - are not.

As more journalists expose the plastic industry in the near future, industry watchdogs hope consumers will recognize that recycling has been misrepresented for years. If and when that happens, a crucial issue for our planet might finally be addressed.

[Sources: EcoWatch; Forbes; NPR; Simpson Street Free Press Archives]

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