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What do you mean "We can't recycle plastic"?!

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

If you live somewhere that separates recycling into different waste streams, like I do in New York City, then you're pretty familiar with having one bin/bag/make-shift-receptacle for paper products, and one for aluminum (aluminium for our readers in the Commonwealth), plastics and glass. In our house we also put organic waste in the freezer and take it to be composted on Saturdays at our local farmer's market, but we can save the virtue signaling for another time.

But whenever I'm sorting trash into the correct bin I get to thinking about the confusion and borderline mythologies that drive recycling programs in the first world. Aluminum and glass have reasonably high rates of recycling. Neither are perfect, but the industries are sustainable, both environmentally and economically. It's one of the reasons we often start with aluminum as a base material in Switch products - if they ever need to be recycled they can be with nothing more complicated than putting it in the aluminum recycling bin.

Plastic however is a different animal altogether. The most commonly cited statistic is "only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled", however a 2022 report from Greenpeace now has that number even lower - 5-6% according to the study, while the OECD has said it expects plastic waste to triple by 2060, which will inevitably mean and even smaller percentage of plastic gets recycled over time.

So what's at the heart of all this? Well, it's complicated. But this week we're unpacking three crucial cogs in the broader plastic machine: the oil industry, the recycling industry, and us. Each has a part to play, though one of them is not on our side (and we bet you can guess which one that is!).

If you're like me, the journey between the apartment with bags of recycling and the bins you place it in for collection is a weekly conversation with yourself about finding ways to put less and less into these bins over time. But it isn't as easy as it sounds, and for all the emphasis placed on individual action (which we'll get into, trust me!) the weight of the problem sits with much larger forces, forces that are intentionally stacked against those of us wanting to to make better choices for there world around us.

So come with us now and let's get into plastic public enemy number one: the oil industry.

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