Recycling Is Capitalist Propaganda And Here's Why


You know what's cool?

Drinking plastic.

We consume 21 grams of plastic (the weight of a credit card) a month on average. Tiny microplastics, many invisible to the human eye, have be found in rain, drinking water and oceans worldwide.[1]

Microplastic fibres are plastic filaments released from acrylics, polyester or nylon fabrics and rinsed out of washing machines by the thousands per article of clothing. These fibres then go into the ocean, which get carried by wind or rain to spread into other regions. Researchers have found microplastics in pristine regions of remote French Pyrenees mountain regions and estimate that France is "blanketed by 2,000 tons of plastic particles" every year.[2]

These fibres can be so small that they slip through most filters and enter the bloodstreams of organisms that ingest them.

But enough about that, let's talk about propaganda.

The entire recycling movement was initiated by a consortium of industry groups who wanted to divert people's attention away from even more radical legislation to control the amount of waste these companies were putting out.

In the '80s, the industry was at the centre of an environmental backlash. Fearing an outright ban on plastics, manufacturers looked for ways to get ahead of the problem. They looked at recycling as a way to improve the image of their product and started labelling plastics with the now ubiquitous chasing-arrows symbol with a number inside.[3]

However, only a tiny portion of plastics are actually recycled (less than 10%), basically just the soda bottles and milk jugs. It's not that you can't physically recycle other plastics. It's just that it doesn't usually make sense economically.

Recycling plastics is expensive. It's time-consuming. It's chemically problematic. And it's just cheaper and easier to make plastic out of new oil instead of plastic trash.

Injection molding of plastic can be done only when one third or less of the pellets are recycled. If there is too much recycled material in the mix it doesn't flow into the mold correctly and one third is the most you could possibly use and then that product can not be recycled again. The polymers that make up the plastic simply aren't capable of reforming over and over.

Okay so plastics have a bad reputation for being unfriendly to the environment, but you (a big businessman in the plastics industry) need people to keep buying more so you can keep the profit margins up. You want to keep making plastic, but the more you make, the more plastic trash you get. And the obvious solution to this is to recycle it. But you don't want to because it's too expensive.

Wow, what a predicament. Obviously you just can't use another material, single use plastic is amazing. It's cheap, it's easy to make, and you can't re-use it. If people are able to re-use their stuff, then that means they won't buy as many things from you! No way are you going to let that happen!

Thankfully, there's an obvious solution that us businessmen have been using for decades: lie uhh I mean advertise. We will advertise our way out of this can't-recycle-it problem.

In an interview by NPR reporter Laura Sullivan, Larry Thomas, a lobbiest for the plastics industry said:[4]

If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment

Recycling advertisements are paid for by the oil and plastic companies, and have lead to a $50-million-a-year industry-wide ad campaign promoting plastic. According to the interview, the "industry funded recycling projects in local neighbourhoods, expensive sorting machines that didn't make any economic sense, school recycling contests. All of this was done with great fanfare."

Recycling is a scam to get you to buy more plastic.

So what, should you just stop recycling plastic? Eh, it's actually a little complicated.

This may sound strange, but there's actually nothing wrong with not recycling plastic and sending it right to the landfill. It sequesters carbon, isn't too terrible for the environment (it just sits there in the ground), and it's not like we're going to run out of landfill space any time soon. Again, from the interview: "Thomas says we probably have thousands of years of landfill space left in the U.S. And even hardcore environmentalists reluctantly agree that, yeah, we have a lot of space left. But people thought we were running out of space, and that was what mattered."

Plastics recycling have also been improving. In recent years, it has been possible to make PET bottles from 100% recycled plastic which are qualitatively just as good as bottles made from so-called virgin plastic.[5] None of that changes the disgusting behaviour of how companies have been misleading the public in to believing that plastics were being largely recycled and recyclable for the past fifty years, when in fact they largely were not. But it's something.

So, the solution isn't to not recycle plastic, or only recycle "good" plastic. It's to not buy plastic.

It's why there are two R's before recycling in "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle".

And this just isn't just for plastics but for "things" in general. Shifting the environmental responsibilities from business to the consumer is a global phenomenon.

America's anti litter campaigns like "Keep America Beautiful" is propaganda to rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses.

"In essence, Keep America Beautiful managed to shift the entire debate about America's garbage problem. No longer was the focus on regulating production—for instance, requiring can and bottle makers to use refillable containers, which are vastly less profitable. Instead, the “litterbug” became the real villain, and KAB supported fines and jail time for people who carelessly tossed out their trash, despite the fact that, clearly, “littering” is a relatively tiny part of the garbage problem in this country (not to mention the resource damage and pollution that comes with manufacturing ever more junk in the first place). Environmental groups that worked with KAB early on didn't realize what was happening until years later."[6]

There's a bigger point that could be made here:

Climate change isn't your fault.

Your expensive electric car isn't going to help if the batteries are made in factories that pollute the environment even more.

There have recently been studies coming out about the pandemic driving habits and how traffic and car trips saw huge drops March through May, yet we only saw something like a 5-8% drop in pollution.[7]

And besides, a global pandemic with tens of millions of people dying and being out of work isn't the best way to de-carbonise our economy. We need systemic changes in our energy infrastructure and new green technologies.

There isn't much you can do as an individual can do to help because you aren't the one causing it. Real change won't come at the consumer level but will have to be driven by improvements in the corporate supply chain. And few businesses will implement more sustainable methods unless there's an economic benefit.

So, if our capitalist overlords are just going to lie and create propaganda rather than even trying to attempt becoming more sustainable, we're going to have to force them to.

Or better yet, just get rid of them ;)