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Greenpeace vs Recycling: What Wasn’t Said

November 15, 2022

Today's guest blog is authored by NERC board member Chaz Miller. The original post can be read here.

Circular Claims Fall Flat Again is Greenpeace’s latest assault on plastic recycling. Not only does Greenpeace say it is failing now, they confidently predict it will always be a failure. Instead, we should phase out all single-use plastics and shoot for “at least 50 percent reusable packaging by 2030.” Greenpeace came to bury plastic recycling, not to praise it.

Needless to say, the report caused a ruckus. The press picked it up, with reporters repeating the report’s claims without bothering to fact check. Recyclers and plastics trade associations disagreed with it while anti-recyclers fervently endorsed it.

I found the report more interesting for what it didn’t say than for what it did. For a start, Greenpeace constantly conflates plastic packaging with all plastics. This is important because when most of us hear the word “plastics” we think of packaging such as bottles or bags. We don’t think of furniture, electronics, carpets, clothes (synthetic fibers) or the thousands of other non-packaging plastic products. Concentrating on packaging while implying they are talking about all plastics is, at best, misleading.

Packaging is, in fact, the largest component of the plastic waste stream. Yet it is barely 40 percent of our plastic waste. We also discard plastic products we use for a long time such as furniture and carpets and those we don’t keep nearly as long such as clothes and cups. Virtually all of the plastic we recycle is packaging. Why isn’t Greenpeace screaming about failing to recycle non-packaging plastic products?

What else did the report overlook? It didn’t mention how effectively container deposits enhance PET soda pop and water bottle recycling. This is particularly odd because Greenpeace is said to be supporting a national container deposit law. 

As I read the report, I felt its authors were so determined to denigrate plastic recycling that they didn’t care if their brush also tarred paper, metal, and glass recycling. They did eventually say those were OK. But the damage was done. I expect that anti-recyclers will pounce on the report, claiming it proves all recycling is a fraud. Thirty percent of Americans recently told a pollster they don’t believe their recyclables are being recycled. Greenpeace hates plastic so much it sees successful recycling as a threat. 

The report was happy to denigrate failed plastic recycling projects but made no mention of all of the companies successfully relying on recycled plastics as a raw material. Plastics News does an annual report listing the largest of these companies. ADS Recycling, which used 647 million pounds of reprocessed material last year, is the leader. The companies on the list used 13.8 billion pounds of recycled resin. As Plastic News notes, 58 percent of the recycled plastic is post-industrial and 41 percent is post-consumer. Greenpeace has not said what will replace those raw materials. 

The report takes aim at so-called single use plastics without defining what that means. I suspect that most of us think of straws, bags, and plastic forks and knives. Yet plastics are commonly used for medical products and equipment. Contact lenses, for instance come in sterile single use packages. I don’t think we should get rid of those. 

Two years ago I wrote about my visit to Urgent Care. I had a bacterial infection known as cellulitis. If not treated quickly it can turn into sepsis, which can be fatal. The emergency care staff took one look at my swollen arm and whisked me inside for analysis and treatment. In my column I noted that when the nurse took blood samples and then inserted an intravenous therapy (IV) port for a dose of antibiotics, I saw that most of the medical supplies, needles, ports, IV lines, etc., came in single-use plastic packages. The IV lines and the latex gloves were also plastic. They were all designed to protect the patient and the medical staff.  “All other considerations, “ I wrote, “including reusability, recyclability, and recycled content, are secondary. As they should be”. 

The biggest omission is the failure to provide a viable, existing alternative to single use plastics. While “single use” is a popular term, the reality is that every product we use is, in a sense, single use. Some literally have one quick use and they are done. Others can last for years but eventually they too are finished. In all cases they will be recycled or disposed. Even reusable packaging, which might be plastic, eventually can no longer be reused and must be recycled. The report claims that Viable alternatives to single-use plastics and packaging, such as reuse and refill systems, exist and need to be rapidly scaled up and invested in by the world’s biggest plastic polluters.” Yet neither it nor Greenpeace’s Plastic Pollution FAQs page offers examples of existing programs or considers the massive behavior change that reuse will require.

I’m not saying plastic recycling is perfect. Far from it. As the report noted, the wide variety of products and resins makes plastic recycling difficult. But all of those companies relying on recycled plastics as a raw material prove it can be done.

Plastics are here to stay. They permeate the products we use on a daily basis. We need to improve plastic recycling, not bury it.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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