This year we have had many discussions about how to deal with our waste crisis and make Connecticut self-sufficient in managing our waste stream without shipping trash out of state.
One thing I have learned is that there is tremendous confusion about what can and cannot be recycled. Consumers want to do the right thing, but what is it?
It is no wonder there is confusion when, in fact, it is quite deliberately planned by industry! They market their goods as “green” or “sustainable,” to meet the growing demands of consumers, whether it is true, or simply clever PR. John Kostyack, an adviser for the Sierra Club’s Fossil-Free Finance campaign, called this an “organized disinformation campaign.”
Even “recyclable” has become an example of deceiving the public through “greenwashing”. A Harvard study found that 72% of social media posts by the oil companies studied contained greenwashing elements designed to make their companies look more environmentally responsible than they are.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides are being revised in response to thousands of complaints of blatant greenwashing such as misleading uses of “organic” labeling, terms like “natural” gas, “net-zero,” or “biodegradable,” calling incineration of plastic “advanced recycling,” or even the use of #1-7 numbered arrows on plastic items, which confuse consumers into thinking that most plastics can be recycled.
Plastic recycling is a great example of greenwashing. More and more, consumers want to purchase products that are sustainably produced and are in recyclable packaging. That’s where the greenwashing comes in. For years, consumers were told that they could use plastics, place them in the recycling bin, and they would be recycled into new products, creating a circular economy. This was a blatant lie. Today, only 9% of plastics are recycled globally, despite a doubling of plastic waste since 2000.
Most plastics cannot be recycled in the U.S. Only #1 and #2 type plastics can be legally called recyclable and only a small percentage are successfully recycled into new plastics. Because there are no U.S. facilities to recycle the #3-#7 plastics, most of the plastic containers we have cleaned and sent to be recycled, end up in our state incinerators, or an out-of-state landfill.
Plastic industry leaders have known for decades that plastic recycling rarely makes sense financially, compared with manufacturing cheap virgin plastic from fossil fuels. And yet, industry has spent billions of dollars to convince consumers that their products do not harm the environment. The message is, it is okay to buy, buy, buy!
Plastic recycling, now being marketed as “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling,” is the latest effort for fossil fuel companies to find a market for more plastic. They plan a large expansion of plastic production in future decades, replacing the demand for heating fuel and gasoline with plastic manufacturing as those markets decline.
And they may succeed — if they can convince the public that plastics are good for us despite all the growing evidence that plastics will destroy our health, our oceans, and our natural world. Don’t let them.
I hope Connecticut consumers, as well as our leaders, will not be fooled again by industry promises of an easy solution to the waste crisis. However you “wash” it, “advanced recycling” is incineration, which emits toxic dioxin, carbon monoxide, mercury and other contaminants, and toxic ash which is landfilled in Putnam.
We must see through the greenwashing and focus on waste reduction through food composting, efficient recycling, and unit-based pricing policies. We have real solutions. Let’s use them!
Susan Eastwood of Ashford is Chapter Chair of the Sierra Club Connecticut.