In the frame of the EUCLIDES Network, Prof. Pere Fullana and researcher Ilija Sazdovski from the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPFpresented a lecture at the UdG training programme Circularity of Polymers.
For 30 years, oil companies persuaded the public into thinking that all plastic waste would and could be recycled, but it turns out that what oil companies preached about the recycling of plastic was not entirely true.
We see plastic bags floating on blue oceans, plastic cans and bottles piled up on beaches as if they were landfills, and we get emotional reading stories about sea animals choking on plastic trash… and we still want to buy plastic. Embracing this concern, Planet Money, an American podcast and blog produced by NPR, ran a program called Waste Land, which talks about why it does not make sense economically and, pitifully, environmentally to recycle plastic trash. But, if recycling plastic never worked very well, who convinced us that this was a good idea?
It all started with the massive use of this little triangle symbol we all know so well, with three arrows and a number inside the small triangle, that we can find in plastic bottles or milk jugs. This label made the consumer believe something that was not true when they looked at the product packaging: that all this plastic trash could and would be reused and transformed into something else.
Big oil companies started spending millions of dollars on ads promoting the benefits products with the triangle symbol, preaching that “plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it”, but in fact, no one really understood what that symbol really meant. Heartbreakingly, what oil companies were not telling us was that most of the plastic product’s parts would be either buried, burned or wound up in the ocean. However, this label was a powerful environmentally commercial message, that millions of people embraced and believed that plastic would in the end be recycled, so they just threw everything in.
Nevertheless, revelations were made when NPR conducted an investigation and exposed the lie behind the recycling of plastic products: big oil companies misled people into believing that plastic product parts would be entirely recycled, while they were making billions of dollars out of selling the world new plastic to use. The symbol being misused was a powerful green marketing tool that resulted in a decrease of people’s concern towards the environment: if people think that they can buy plastic and that it will be recycled and reused, they will effectively be less concerned for the environment.
Moreover, we were told that all plastic used could be turned into new things, but all the process to convert it requires a big amount of money. Plus, plastic also degrades every time it is reused, which means that it cannot be used more than once or twice. Hence, recycling plastic shifts from being an ideal solution to being time consuming and chemically problematic. Therefore, it is easy to understand why making new plastic out of oil does not seem a bad idea for companies, since it is still cheaper than making it out of recycled plastic trash.
The question is, how do we get to a point where we get plastic being 100% recycled in a company? A couple of things have to happen. First, there should be more environmental education directed to the public; secondly, there should be more investment in innovation, regulation and infrastructure. But what we really need is to enhance pressure from below upwards. We should put more pressure on public commitments to push the governments and companies to act. Most importantly, states should invest in technology availability, because we cannot continue carrying out businesses as usual. It is time for a big change, not only structural change, but also personal change, because the problem is not the plastic itself, but the use humans give to it.
Lela Mélon, professor at ESCI-UPF and Executive Director of Planetary Wellbeing Institutional Framework at UPF, attended COP26 and shares her thoughts about the results and decisions made in Glasgow.