Is “Plastics Recycling” an Oxymoron?

“We don’t need a handful of people doing Zero Waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” –Anne-Marie Bonneau, Zero Waste Chef


In their August column, the Media Recycles Team presented a list of their Tips of the Month. Since then, shade has been thrown on one of the tips, and we wanted to know more.

The tip was: “Create a plastic bag collection site at work … Take them to the bag recycling station at your grocery store … [companies] use them to manufacture park benches.”

We wondered, do they really? We had recently been reading and hearing so much skepticism about plastics recycling.

So we got a link from one of the grocery stores to a very user-friendly website called “Plastic Bag Recycling,” which, among other things, describes how you can recycle plastic film like food wrap, dry cleaning bags and packing bubble wrap. This was surprising to us as we had read that #4 plastics like these had very few uses as recycled material. So we read a little further.

The website is sponsored by the American Chemistry Council, the major lobbying arm of the plastics and chemical industry. The ACC works hard to put plastic manufacturing and products in a favorable light. In our September column we included a link to the Planet Money episode about how that group successfully marketed the idea that plastics were easily recyclable in the 1990s. They are currently pushing legislation in many states to promote “chemical recycling” and plastic-to-fuel (aka “pyrolysis”) as a solution to the plastic pollution and climate crisis. These processes do utilize recycled plastic film, so yes, they have a use beyond plastic benches.

How to Recycle in Media: For more information on Media Recycling (what, when and how to recycle) Click Here

But is burning the same thing as recycling?

Organizations like PennEnvironment say No, and pose the following objections to the claim that this industry is an environmental solution to the overwhelming problem of plastic pollution:

  • Pyrolysis facilities produce toxic chemicals, like persistent organic pollutants (POPs), lead, arsenic, mercury, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Plastic-to-fuel threatens our climate as plastics are made from oil and gas. Burning plastic directly and burning the gases from pyrolysis both create fossil fuel emissions. PTF products may also contain dioxins and other toxic chemicals contained in plastics.
  • Billions of dollars have been invested and lost in pyrolysis approaches.
  • These processes do not work as promised on a commercial scale and waste time & resources that should be spent developing real solutions - namely plastic reduction.

To find out more about the marketing of plastic “chemical recycling,” follow this link.