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LEFT WONDERING: The Plastics Recycling Lie

Plus, the ethical quandaries of a financial windfall.
LEFT WONDERING: The Plastics Recycling Lie
A fisherman walks on the plastic bag-lined shore of the Arabian Sea, in Mumbai, India. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Thank you to everyone who’s written in so far with thoughtful, considered questions, and puns and rants. Posting an email address on the internet is an invitation for disaster, but Lever readers are a cut above the rest. Before diving into the first round of questions, a preface: Questions will be lightly edited for length and clarity, and if you do not provide me with a pseudonym I will make one up. :)

Meanwhile, keep the questions coming! Send them to LeftWondering@levernews.com


Dear Left Wondering,

I am trying to buy things with less or no packaging. It’s currently impossible to do much about this. I am trying to elect left wing candidates who support a Green New Deal. I try to avoid getting plastic bags at all costs. Meanwhile my garage is filling up with plastic bags. There are places that “recycle” them. Do they really?

My questions: in order of environmental damage: plastic bags, plastic other stuff, clothing? And what can we do about it?

Sincerely,

Material Girl

Dear Material Girl,

Like many things in capitalism, plastics are both a scourge upon the earth and almost completely unavoidable. As of 2015, just 9 percent of the plastics ever produced had been recycled — 12 percent were incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in the environment or in landfills, health hazards which in the United States have long been overwhelmingly sited in Black and brown communities. To answer your first question, plastics recycling is mostly fake.

A 2020 investigation by NPR and PBS’ Frontline found that the oil industry spent years misleading the public (sound familiar?) about the viability of plastics recycling as it spawned a generation of toxic petrochemical plants. U.S. oil majors continue to count on those noxious environmental justice disasters — linked to devastatingly high cancer rates along the Gulf Coast — as a key growth business to help them weather the energy transition that they are still spending precious lobbying resources to slow down.

The reasons companies have doubled down on petrochemicals are pretty straightforward: Plastic is made from oil and gas. If people keep using a bunch of plastic, that feeds demand for oil and gas even as more people stop using it to power their homes and get to work. Ipso facto, companies fueled demand for plastic that’s now found everywhere from skincare products to our bloodstream, consequences be damned. In St. John Parish, Louisiana — located at the epicenter of the petrochemicals build-out — the EPA found that the risk of developing cancer from chemicals given off by industrial facilities is nearly 27 times the national average.

Regarding your second question: Creating a hierarchy for which types of plastics are worse is tricky, as any kind of holistic assessment should probably look at more things than just the fossil fuels flowing into them, the grave health hazards involved in their production and where they end up.

Take fast fashion. A study from the Royal Society for the Arts — a UK-based charity — found that 49 percent of clothes from the fast-fashion brands Asos, Boohoo, Prettylittlething and Missguided are made of new plastics. Not great! But such brands also tend to be miserable employers up and down the supply chain. The head-spinning network of contractors and subcontractors that supply some of the world’s biggest brands — many of them in Southeast Asia, employing mostly women — have been the site of militant labor organizing and strikes over low wages and dangerous conditions, highlighted internationally after the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed 1,132 people.

So what to do? Let’s start with the demand side of the equation. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has laid out a helpful guide for the sorts of changes required to go zero waste, which they define as “a trajectory to avoid waste by ultimately eliminating materials that can not be safely reused, recycled, or composted.” Encouraging changes in personal consumption choices is a part of that process, but so is providing the necessary public infrastructure and supportive state policies at all levels of government that enable people to make those choices.

On the supply side, pushing for accountability from the industry could be another first step. The California Attorney General’s office recently opened an investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s role in growing the planet’s stock of plastic waste, a move that could be copied in other states. Ultimately, fighting plastics pollution and the climate crisis share a common goal: euthanizing the business model of the fossil fuel industry.

Sincerely,

Left Wondering


This is all pretty depressing! By way of a palate cleanser, I’d highly recommend treating yourself to Ramin Bahrani’s tender 2009 short film Plastic Bag, in which celebrated director Werner Herzog narrates the eponymous petrochemical product’s journey into the unknown over an original score by Sigur Rós.


Dear Left Wondering,

I recently was hired into a higher-paying job and I’m trying to think of ethical ways to spend my newfound cash. What do you think are ethical ways to spend extra money? Specific climate-focused ideas would be great, but this answer could depend a lot on the circumstances of one’s life. So if you don’t have specific charities, how would you go about setting priorities, in either a climate-focused way or otherwise?

Sincerely,

A Penny Saved Is a Penny Fraught With Peril on All Sides

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