PLASTIC DELUSION: The World Is Stuck With Tons of Plastic It Can’t Recycle

The world is demanding more and more plastic. The glut of new plastics is the result of how cheap it is to make it, buy it, and use it as an industrial material—in part because of subsidies long granted to the fossil fuel industry. Recycling is not the solution. Only 9% of all plastic produced gets recycled—and even that low number is likely a gross overestimation. Plastic waste exported from the country where it was discarded counts as “recycled,” regardless of its actual fate. And virgin plastic is so cheap that there is no financial incentive for companies to use recycled plastic in their products. In short, plastic recycling is a myth—and always has been.

Zoë Schlanger FOR QUARTZ
an illustration of three cargo-heavy ships dumping plastic into the coean and spouting smoke into the sky

Photo by Thomas White for Quartz

Ants are useful creatures. As the most numerous insects on Earth, they have colonized nearly every habitat on land. So when a researcher wants to understand how far a contaminant has spread, they turn to ants.

In 2012, a group of French researchers found phthalates in the body of every ant they sampled. Ants from France, Hungary, Spain, Morocco, the Greek island Egine, and Burkina Faso all had at least some of the common plastic additive embedded in their skin. In the conclusion to the paper announcing their findings, they added a restless-sounding note: “In an attempt to find ants bearing no phthalate on their cuticle,” they wrote, they would next look farther afield. There had to be ants out there not yet full of plastic.

But there were not. Five years later, the team published their follow-up. They had sampled ants from the most remote forests of Guyana, and the areas in the Amazon rainforest farthest from any urban center. Again, phthalates were embedded in their skin. “These findings suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘pristine’ zone,” they wrote in a 2017 paper.

Or, as Pete Myers, an environmental health expert and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University put it, “there is no untouched centimeter.”

As a planet and a species, we are awash in plastic. But just 60 years ago, it hardly existed. In 1955, LIFE magazine ran an article titled “Throwaway Living: Disposable items cut down on household chores.” It featured a full-page photograph of a cheerful young white man and woman tossing plastic plates and forks into the air.

Two generations later, single-use plastic is ubiquitous: toothbrushes, to-go containers, the little window in our dried pasta boxes, the lining in our coffee cups. Plastic has also brought us durable, long-lasting products, including medical devices, car bumpers, and keyboards. But of all plastic produced, 40% is made to be used once, much of it in the form of packaging that serves a function for six months or less and then is thrown away.

Except that with plastic, there is no “away.” Ongoing research has shown that plastic, which lasts virtually forever in the environment, also breaks down into tiny pieces that are steadily infiltrating our food, water, and the very air we breathe—to unknown health effects. Its production also creates considerable greenhouse gas emissions, making plastic a major climate change issue.

At the same time the world is waking up to these facts, the petrochemical industry is pivoting more of its resources towards making plastic, as a way to use an overabundance of cheap natural gas. In the next five years at the time of this writing in 2019, the rate of plastic production is expected to increase by another third. By 2050, it will have tripled.

The world is demanding more and more plastic. But the increase in supply is not an indication of consumer interest alone, or even primarily. The glut of new plastics is the result of how cheap it is to make it, buy it, and use it as an industrial material—in part because of subsidies long granted to the fossil fuel industry.

Recycling is not the solution. Only 9% of all plastic produced gets recycled—and even that low number is likely a gross overestimation. Plastic waste exported from the country where it was discarded counts as “recycled,” regardless of its actual fate. And virgin plastic is so cheap that there is no financial incentive for companies to use recycled plastic in their products. In short, plastic recycling is a myth—and always has been.

In this field guide, we will take you through the forces shaping the coming surge in virgin plastic production, how we’ve been hoodwinked into believing that recycling is a solution, and what we are learning about the health effects of a life wrapped in plastic.

The Plastic Boom Cometh

Some 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a township adjacent to a state forest, oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell is building a sprawling new plant to support what it sees as the future of its business: making millions of tons of new, virgin plastic out of natural gas.

When US president Donald Trump visited the facility in 2019, he highlighted the 5,000 construction jobs it has created—no doubt a boon to a region hurt by the collapse of the steel industry.

Thanks to the advent of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the early 2000s, unreachable deposits of shale gas across the US have been opened to extraction. Monthly production of natural gas has doubled over the last 10 years, making the US the biggest gas producer in the world. As the US fracking boom continues to produce more and more natural gas, the glut of supply has led prices to plummet.

Shell, along with other major oil and gas companies like Exxon, see plastic as one avenue for growth as those gas prices drop. Plus, it’s a great profit source: In 2015, 10.8% of Exxon’s revenues came from the “chemicals” arm of its business, which is chiefly plastics. But it made up more than 27% of its profits, because plastics are so heavily subsidized by upstream operations. The natural gas boom means the infrastructure to extract the gas needed to make plastic is already in place.

For now, if Shell can’t make money selling its plentiful natural gas, it can certainly make plastic with it. As a whole, the oil and gas industry aims to increase plastic production by at least 33% by 2025.

In short, the US is on the verge of a renewed plastic boom. The market is already flooded with cheap virgin plastic: More than half of all plastic ever created was produced in the last 15 years, and as of 2019, about 335 million tons of new, virgin plastic is created each year. That flood is about to be a tsunami.

Virtually all of that new plastic will be made, as it always has been, out of oil and gas. As the world slowly turns away from fossil fuels as an energy source, giants like Exxon and Shell are planning to have a larger share of their profits come from plastic instead. (Exxon declined to comment, referring questions to the American Chemistry Council, which did not respond by publication.) By 2050, plastic production is slated to account for 20% of all fossil fuel use.

The Shell plant will rely on a process known as “ethane cracking,” where ethane gas, once seen as an unusable byproduct of gas extraction, can be molecularly “cracked”—its carbon and hydrogen atoms rearranged—to form ethylene, the main building block of plastic.

When completed, the new Shell facility will pump out 1.8 million tons (1.6 million metric tons) of plastic each year. In 2019, virgin plastic became cheaper to buy than recycled plastic for the first time. (At the time of writing, virgin plastic costs more than $100 less per ton than its recycled counterpart.) Plastic from the more than 300 new plants or plant expansions planned for the US, including the Shell plant under construction, will no doubt widen that price gap. (Shell did not respond to a request for comment.)

The US is not alone in ramping up plastic production. European petrochemical giant INEOS is expanding its ethane crackers for plastic manufacturing in Norway and Scotland, and has filed for permits to build a large new plastic production plant in Belgium, fueled by natural gas from Pennsylvania’s shale fields.

China, meanwhile, is also rapidly expanding plastic production. Asia surpassed Europe as the biggest plastic-producing region in the 2000s, chiefly due to China’s industry. Lacking natural gas, China uses coal to make plastic, which is a significantly dirtier process in terms of carbon emissions. From 2011 through 2015, China’s coal-to-plastic production grew nearly 700%, from less than 1 million to 6.5 million tons of plastic feedstock produced per year, according to a 2017 report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

China is already the world’s leading producer of propylene, one type of plastic feedstock, and is currently building dozens of plants to turn both oil and coal into propylene. Whereas growth in propylene production is projected to grow 2% and 4% per year in the US and Middle East, respectively, China is expected to increase its propylene production by 7% per year through 2025, according to CIEL.

“If all of this production capacity is constructed, it may lock in a massive expansion of cheap plastic production for decades,” the report concludes.

Ethane crackers have useful lives of 30 years. In other words, what the industry chooses to do now will effectively lock in a glut of cheap, brand-new plastics for another generation.

A Lifetime of Emissions

At every stage in its life, plastic contributes to climate change. Drilling for the fossil fuels that plastic is made out of is a greenhouse gas-releasing process. Fracking for natural gas, a main source of plastic-making fuel, releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and heats the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide.

Refining those fossil fuels into plastic—be it natural gas, oil, or coal—ranks among the most energy-intensive and carbon-polluting industrial processes. In the US, chemical production, a sector dominated by plastics, uses 28% of the total energy used by all industrial sectors combined, according to US Energy Information Administration. That’s without even counting the refining process, a segment that uses another 18% of total energy used for industrial purposes.

By 2030, as demand for plastics surges, the petrochemical industry is set to use 56 billion cubic meters of additional natural gas—about half of Canada’s total gas consumption today, according to the International Energy Agency. Petrochemicals are projected to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand between 2017 and 2030.

Research published in Nature found that plastics now account for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions—nearly double the emissions of the aviation sector. If plastics production were a country, it would be the sixth-highest emitter in the world. At this rate, emissions from plastic production alone will account for 15% of global emissions by 2050, jeopardizing the world’s ability to stay below the 1.5-degree Celsius warming threshold considered catastrophic.

But the contribution to climate change doesn’t end after manufacturing. As plastics pile up, the practice of burning that waste is a growing source of greenhouse gases.

As of 2019, plastic production and incineration together are set to add over 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, Carroll Muffett, the president of CIEL, told the Guardian in June. By 2050, Muffett explains, those practices could add 2.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of 615 new coal plants.

Plastic also continues to emit greenhouse gases over its entire lifetime, according to a report from the University of Hawaii published in 2018. The researchers submerged different types of plastic in seawater, and exposed them to the sun for over one hundred days, measuring the gases they released over time. They found that all plastics continuously released ethylene and methane, two potent greenhouse gases, as they weathered and aged.

“Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment,” they concluded.

Some experts calculate that one ton of plastic produces as much as five tons of greenhouse gases over its lifetime.

Taken together with the manufacturing process, and the emissions from the practice of incinerating plastic waste, plastic use and disposal could create 56 billion metric tons in cumulative greenhouse emissions by 2050. That means plastic alone could use up between 10% and 13% of the Earth’s remaining carbon budget to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to CIEL’s calculations, published in 2019.

“The climate crisis and the plastics crisis are inextricably related,” Muffett said.

The Great Recycling Delusion

In theory, recycling plastic could prevent at least some of these emissions, by preventing the demand for new plastic. But unfortunately, recycling is broken. Right now, the US recycles roughly 9% of the plastic it uses—roughly the same as the global average. That means 91% of all plastic made doesn’t get recycled.

What consumers typically don’t know is that the vast majority of the plastic they encounter every day can’t actually be recycled—at least, not in the repetitive sense we’ve grown to expect. Unlike aluminum and glass, which can be melted down and remolded virtually endlessly into equally-useful objects, the vast majority of recyclable plastic can only be recycled once before losing so much of its integrity as to be rendered useless—and in some cases, potentially toxic.

Recyclability depends on there being a viable market for the recycled material. Plastic film, for example, is so expensive to collect, and can be resold for so little, as to render it effectively unrecyclable. Collecting one ton of plastic film costs the state of California $5,000, according to Jared Blumenfeld, the head of California’s environmental protection agency. The state can then get “about $32” for that same ton on the resale market, Blumenfeld said.

Even when an object bears a “recyclable” emblem, it may not be recyclable in your district. Plastic layered with other materials, for example, is often unrecyclable—which means virtually every chips bag or plastic packet can’t be recycled through municipal programs. Plastic that’s been printed on is often unrecyclable too. And plastics other than PET (printed with the #1 recycling code in the US and Europe, most often soft drink bottles), HDPE (the #2 code, often plastic milk jugs and sturdier plastic bottle caps), and #5 (sturdier plastic carry-out cups, DVD shells, microwavable food containers) and are likely unrecyclable in your municipal area, no matter what country you live in.

That the US only recycles 9% of its plastic is even more dismal when you consider that the figure includes plastic waste that the country exports. Until recently, China was the world’s primary destination for plastic recycling. From 1992 until 2017, China (and Hong Kong, which acts as an entry port into mainland China) imported 72% of all plastic waste. It was the top destination for plastic from the US, the UK, Mexico, Japan, and Germany.

But in 2017, China started cutting back. It had had enough of poorly-sorted and highly-contaminated bales of mixed plastic from other countries; too much contamination in a bale makes the plastic virtually valueless. Then in 2018, it basically closed the door to waste imports. It imposed a policy known as “national sword,” which raised the standard of how “pure” a bale of plastic must be to the point where the US and other countries, for the most part, can no longer comply. The market for about 30% of US recycling evaporated overnight.

Countries relying on China to take their waste scrambled. In the US, there wasn’t (and still isn’t) infrastructure in place to handle it. Several US communities have shut down their recycling programs because of it. Instead, the US began shipping its waste to whatever country would take it.

Foreign plastic waste began piling up in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia, where much of the material was so low quality as to be worthless, and was often burned in open pits or left in vast open dumps. Plastic from the dumps, particularly lightweight plastic, can migrate by wind and rain into the ocean, or into rivers that inevitably empty there. There they will break down into smaller and smaller pieces, contributing to the ocean plastic problem.

But now, many of those countries are closing up shop. Thailand, for example, announced in 2018 it would ban imports of plastic waste beginning in 2021. In May 2019, Malaysia announced it would begin reexporting foreign trash. “We urge developed countries to stop shipping garbage to our country,” Malaysian government minister Yeo Bee Yin said. In September, Indonesia announced it would start shipping containers of poorly-sorted recycling back “to their country of origin.” (That appeared not to pan out; an investigation by the watchdog group Basel Action Network tracked the return pathways of the containers and found that 58 of them, which were meant to be returned to the US, were instead diverted to India, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Canada. Only 12 of the 58 were actually returned to the US.)

In the last year of the time of this writing, public outrage over the plastic waste problem has prompted new bag bans, movements against plastic straws, and other well-intentioned measures to shift away from disposable options. But it has also put a spotlight on how single-use plastics from rich countries are polluting poorer ones. In a major reversal, Waste Management Inc., the US’s largest trash hauler, changed its policy and is no longer shipping discarded plastic to countries outside North America.

That’s a major step—but some environmental groups fear it may lead to more plastic being burned in the US. Without the infrastructure to handle its glut of plastic waste, the US already incinerates six times the amount of plastic it recycles.

The incineration process itself is a public health hazard, releasing plumes of cancer-causing air pollution. More often than not, the people who breathe that air are marginalized; 80% of the incinerators in the US are located in low income neighborhoods and communities of color.

In countries with less oversight of the incineration industry, plastic is routinely burned in open pits, affording no protection from dioxin and other contaminants that poison the air breathed by mostly impoverished communities living in or around piles of waste. Overall, these are the same communities that are already hardest-hit by climate change. Now they are being devastated by the unregulated spread of disposable plastic, too.

Big Plastic vs. The People

As it stands, the companies that make plastic are not responsible for the end of life of their product. Neither are the companies that use the plastic to make or package their own products. Instead, the cost of collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic is borne by taxpayers.

Until the advent of plastic, that was fine: Most consumer goods weren’t wildly expensive to recycle, and they largely weren’t creating waste that would last forever. But within a decade of the beginning of the plastic age, people and local governments began to take note. Plastic began to litter streets and rivers.

Since opposition to plastic pollution began during the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1960s, the plastic and packaging industries have been fighting to make their products without absorbing the cost of cleaning it up. Since they don’t currently bear those costs, companies continue to design packaging—multi-layered chip bags, multi-part plastic juice boxes—that can’t be recycled at all. Meanwhile, they’ve poured resources into messaging campaigns that blame pollution on bad consumer habits.

There is precedent for forcing producers to contribute to the end of life cost of their products. One prominent example is bottle-return policies, where consumers can get back a few cents for every plastic bottle or aluminum can they bring to a collection site. So-called “bottle bills” are successful in the 10 US states that have them; some 60% of bottles and cans are returned, as compared to about 24% in other states.

But the beverage industry opposes these bills: If the other 40 states had them, it would cost the industry billions, because it functions like a small additional tax on each bottle, the New York Times explains.

Reporting from The Intercept details how in 1968, when early state and federal bills to create bottle deposits were introduced, the National Soft Drink Association, funded by Coca-Cola, successfully lobbied to defeat them. Beverage and plastics companies, and Coca-Cola in particular, have fought successfully against bottle deposits for years: Only Hawaii has managed to pass another bottle bill since 1987. In the past year alone, bottle bill legislation was introduced in eight states, only to fail.

In October 2019, the Intercept published audio of a meeting of recycling leaders in Atlanta, Georgia, where two Coke-funded organizations, Georgia Recycling Coalition and Keep America Beautiful (whose board members include executives from the American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola North America, and Dow, the world’s biggest plastic producer), moved to undermine interest in a bottle bill in Georgia, implying that Coke would pull its funding from other recycling efforts if the bill was on the table.

Coke was named the most polluting brand by a global audit of plastic waste lead by Break Free from Plastic, a consortium of several environmental groups. (“Any time our packaging ends up in our oceans—or anywhere that it doesn’t belong—is unacceptable to us.  In partnership with others, we are working to address this critical global issue,” Coca-Cola spokesperson Ann Moore told Quartz in response to the report.)

At the same time the first bottle bills were defeated, a consortium of beverage and packaging companies founded the group Keep America Beautiful. It began buying ad spots to let the TV-viewing public know that “keeping America beautiful is your job.” They popularized the term “litterbugs,” cultivating the mindset that plastic pollution is a moral failing on the part of individuals, an idea that persists to this day.

A 2015 Coca-Cola Europe internal strategy chart, first surfaced by Greenpeace, shows the phrase “deposit schemes” encircled in a bubble labeled “fight back.” Other scenarios in the “fight back” bubble include “increased collection and recycling targets.” Moore, the Coca-Cola spokesperson, told Quartz that the chart “was an old, internal document that does not reflect our thinking today.”

The plastic bag industry, meanwhile, has been instrumental in fighting bag bans around the world.

Of course, even if bottle deposit schemes were implemented in every state—and every country—it would still only account for a small part of the total single-use plastic waste stream. The 91% of plastics that aren’t recycled end up in the landscape, eventually making their way into our bodies.

Right now in Southeast Asia, for example, single-use “sachets” of products like cosmetics, toothpaste, and shampoo are wildly popular, in part because they are cheap. Companies like Unilever sell billions of single-use sachets in developing markets a year. One analysis found that in the Philippines, people buy a staggering 163 million sachets per day, or roughly 60 billion per year—enough to fill 130,000 soccer fields.

These sachets are plastic-foil composites, and cannot be recycled. With little to no infrastructure to handle the waste, they easily drift from dump sites to water bodies, where they will break into smaller and smaller pieces, contributing to the other plastic crisis: The microplastics entering our food and water supply.

The Sea Within Us

While much has been said about the plastic filling up the global oceans, less is known about the plastic that suffuses us. Plastic is one of the biggest sources of contamination in the human diet. Sherri Mason, a plastics pollution researcher at Pennsylvania State University, has made it her career’s work to painstakingly count microplastics in drinking water. Her research has found that a person drinking the recommended amount of water per day is ingesting 5,100 pieces of plastic from their tap water per year.

Bottled water, she found, is not better—and in some cases, she found it was even worse. Of the bottled water she sampled, 98% carried microplastics, defined as pieces of plastic smaller than 5 micrometers in diameter (the width of a human hair is typically between 17 and 180 micrometers). The bottling process, she says, likely contributes significant amounts of plastic to the water itself. And bottled water is often just tap water wrapped in plastic. “If there’s one thing you can do to reduce your plastic ingestion? Don’t use bottled water,” she says.

Per her research, a person in the US eats 180 pieces of microplastic per year from sea salt alone, based on the recommended salt intake. A person who drinks one beer a day would be ingesting 520 pieces of plastic per year from beer alone. By the end of the year, a person is likely to ingest somewhere in the neighborhood of 74,000 microplastic particles through their diet, she said.

But the total available research on the extent of microplastics that end up in the human body is extremely limited. The microplastic contamination of major food groups like poultry, beef, dairy, grains, and vegetables have not yet been studied. In a literature review published June 2019, scientists wrote that the current research on microplastic ingestion through food only accounts for about 15% of a person’s total caloric intake. That means that the current estimates for how much plastic a person eats per year are “likely drastically underestimates.”

And that doesn’t account for the microplastic that may be entering the human body through food packaging. One study on synthetic tea bags—bags made from a fine fabric-like plastic mesh—found that a single bag releases more than 11 billion microplastic and 3 billion nanoplastic particles (microplastics are tiny, but nanoplastics are tinier—often 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair), after soaking in boiling water for five minutes.

We just do not know yet what impact microplastics may have on our health. But some research suggests that exposure to plastic on a regular basis is changing our reproductive systems, and is likely contributing to a number of diseases. Presumably, any health effects from exposure to plastic would hold true for microplastics, too; they are, after all, the same plastic, just broken into tiny bits.

Phthalates and BPA, for example, are two of a number of “plasticizers,” additives used to make plastic soft and flexible. They’re found in everything from shower curtains to floor tiles to food containers. Plasticizers aren’t chemically bound to the plastic’s polymer structure. Instead, they are jammed in between the polymer chains, which means they can jostle free with use and when exposed to conditions like heat. In other words, they are free to leave the plastic object, and they are making their way into our bodies.

Phthalates and BPA have both been connected with a litany of health conditions, including child developmental problems, reproductive disorders, and cancers. They are both suspected endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the body’s hormonal system.

We are living in the age of plastic. There is no untouched centimeter on Earth. And this is just the beginning.