Reduce, reuse, recycle. This phrase has been drilled into our minds for years. Recycling is good for the environment and an easy way to reduce your waste. Unfortunately, this isn’t as true as we’ve been made to believe. Plastic is extremely harmful for the environment and we’ve been lied to about the effectiveness of recycling.
New evidence shows that oil and gas companies that produce plastic have been telling anything but the truth. Your old water bottles and containers aren’t being recycled at all. They’re buried, burned or just floating in the ocean. Plastic companies have been pushing recycling as an eco-friendly solution for decades, but between 1960 and 2017, less than 10 percent of plastic has been recycled.
For a significant period of time, China was running one of the biggest recycling programs in the world, handling about half of the globe’s recyclable waste. The government banned their import of plastic back in 2018 as they became increasingly overwhelmed by the waste, leaving other countries scrambling for solutions. Only a minuscule amount of plastic had been through the full recycling process before this ban, but now the material is continuing to build up in landfills. Some cities in the US, like Philadelphia, have even turned to rapidly burning the bulk of their plastics, further contributing to air pollution.
Plastic is not only degrading the Earth, but is also damning to our climate. There isn’t a single stage of the material’s life that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. Extraction and transportation of natural gas to make plastics produces 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the United States. Refining, manufacturing and waste management also rack up emissions as plastic moves through its toxic life cycle. Plastic companies knew recycling was not a sustainable option, yet they have spent tens of millions of dollars on promoting the practice since the 80s. The emphasis on recycling has been nothing more than a dangerous, drawn-out publicity stunt to (you guessed it) sell more plastic and keep bans at bay. This is just one example of greenwashing, a harmful but effective marketing tactic often used by corporations to mask the reality of their environmental impact.
In recent years, many corporations have made pledges to reduce waste and take steps to reduce their climate impacts. Most of the further-reaching sustainability initiatives have centered around reducing plastic waste. Starbucks pledged to eliminate plastic straws completely by 2020. Grocery chains began charging for paper and plastic bags, encouraging shoppers to bring reusable ones instead. Corporations spearheading sustainability initiatives is a huge contradiction. These corporate campaigns often only act as a way to paint themselves in a positive light and then further turn the blame on consumers. Similarly, a major flaw in mainstream discussion surrounding climate change is the focus on individual responsibility. Reducing individual waste can be a great first step, but the reality is that we need to be holding corporations accountable. One hundred companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions, so why should they be the ones we listen to in regards to the climate crisis?
Oil and gas companies have known about the effects plastic and fossil fuel emissions can have on our climate, yet they did nothing to stop it. Easy profit has always had priority over the planet. Deceptively and intentionally directing consumers’ attention to something like recycling, a seemingly quick and surefire way to show you want to help the environment, was a deliberate plan to avoid accountability and keep cash flowing.
Even climate lingo we use today has roots in corporations deflecting responsibility. The term “carbon footprint” was popularized back in 2004 by BP, a massive contributor to the climate crisis. BP and other oil producers want the general population to believe it's our job to undo decades worth of pollution and environmental decay. Meanwhile, they produce a whopping 3.8 million barrels of oil a day.
We have been conditioned to believe that it is our job as individuals to solve climate change. These marketing techniques masked as environmental awareness has done so much more harm than good. Again, it is important to acknowledge the steps we as consumers can take to live more consciously, but the “blame” ultimately falls on corporations and lack of government action. We can shift the narrative that it’s our job to save the environment. We will continue to fight this fight, but it’s not our responsibility to do so alone. Corporations must acknowledge their faults. The government needs to take direct action. This is a global effort.