The Tour de France, cycling’s most prestigious race, has just started this early July. The new generation is making a strong impression so far: fearless, unconventional, and forward-looking. Inspirational for all of us!
Biking our way around is also a pleasant and healthy way to navigate the city and country, with an excellent ecological footprint, of course. Encouraging cycling seems to be something everybody can agree upon. And amusingly, this is also true for re-cycling.
I was brought up just like you, I would guess, thinking the right thing to do was sorting out the different kinds of rubbish. I would throw the aluminum in a colored bin, the plastic in another container, food-waste in the compost if there was one, and then not give it another thought anymore. The peace of mind resulting from an eco-duty well done, and a clear conscience.
I also like to think of myself as fairly resistant to marketing and cheap advertising tricks. And I have this ecological mindset, helping me choose products that come from brands who care for the environment. It is nice to indulge responsibly in the wonderful things our modern world has on offer. I will dispose of the packaging in the appropriate manner, and recycle the product itself once I have no more use of it.
But after reading in-depth articles and watching many well documented reports about plastic recycling, I have been brought to change my perspective quite a bit.
Plastic is not circular
What are the problems of recycling? It makes a lot of sense for many materials, such as glass, paper, aluminum, and of course compostable waste, which are all fairly circular. But with plastic, it is not that simple. While virtually all plastics could potentially be recycled, most are not because the process is expensive, complicated, the resulting product is of lower quality than what you put in, and costs more than if new plastic was used. The carbon-reduction benefits are also less clear. You ship it around, then you have to wash it, then you have to chop it up, then you have to re-melt it, so the collection and recycling itself has its own environmental impact.
The principal issue, however, is that when we collect and remanufacture plastic, we are only delaying its disposal. The final destination for all plastic is either a landfill, where it doesn’t decompose or leaks into the earth and waters, or an incinerator, where it releases harmful chemicals when burned. “Downcycling” would really be a more accurate term than recycling when it comes to plastic! By using products made from re-melted polymers, we simply inject plastics again into the world, and into the environment.
As Dr. Luke Haverhals puts it: “Humanity will never recycle its way out of the plastic problem. Plastics will never be circular enough.”
Industry’s pushing the wheel
Interestingly, a study by Guardian journalist Stephen Buranyi points out that the very concept of recycling has been pushed vigorously by the big oil and plastic industry over the years. There had been a large civil movement against plastic pollution in the 1970s already, especially in the USA, leading to proposed legislation against the use of one-way packaging and amenities. But from the start, the industry fought hard and successfully against all the proposed legislation.
A loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, then pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. The second part involved throwing its weight behind a relatively new idea for the time: household recycling. And that’s where we are still stuck at the present time…
Roland Geyer, the University of California industrial ecologist, whose 2017 report Production, Use and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made has become a landmark reference, recently said in an interview that he is “increasingly convinced that recycling simply does not work to reduce the amount of plastic in the world”.
There are for sure many paths that can help us out of this plastic economy, and I will write more about it in other posts. But maybe the most immediate one that comes to mind is to go the way of natural and fully biodegradable materials in all the products where this is possible. You might believe this is a technological step back. I don’t think so: we increasingly see manufacturers using new technologies with natural fibers, giving them equally high performance qualities. They are in a sense reinventing the wheel, going full circle, and a wheel is still an extremely effective way to make progress.
I am still convinced that sorting out my trash is the right thing to do, also in view of the large potential progress in the whole process. I will continue to do so. What I do differently, however, is that I try to avoid buying plastic products in the first place.
As I prepare for my Sunday afternoon bicycle ride, it will be difficult – for the time being - to do without the synthetic parts of my helmet or my tires, but I can wear garments and other gear that are made out of natural fibers. I may not be going for the yellow jersey and a stratospheric pace up the Alpe d’Huez, but my cycling pleasure in turning those legs and those wheels is just as great!
 Founder of Natural Fiber Welding, a company that is developing natural and biodegradable polymers