Is Your Plastic Actually Being Recycled? | NYT Opinion

Everyone knows recycling
is pretty easy. So I throw the
bottle into the blue bin, into a blue bin,
in the recycling bin. They throw it into
some kind of truck all sorted nice
and neat. It goes to a separate place, to a
plastic recycling plant, to a factory, something akin
to the end of “Toy Story 3” where they’re all heading
to this big incinerator. Then I imagine that there’s
some large machine that just squishes everything
together. Everything then is melted down. It’s somehow melted,
maybe they melt down the plastic or
something. From there, it can be reshaped
into sheets of plastic, a park bench. You hear
about sneakers being turned into a basketball
court. And that turns into new things.
Recycling! Turns out, that’s not the whole truth,
especially for plastic. This is actually
propaganda we’ve been spoon-fed
since we were kids in commercial after commercial. Who’s behind a lot of this messaging?
The industry that produces plastic and the retailers
who sell it to us. And it makes perfect
sense that they’d want to trick us into thinking
we can use as much plastic as we want so long
as we recycle. Why not pass the
responsibility for a big corporate mess onto
individuals like you and me. But here’s the
big secret. Entire categories of
papers and plastics are rarely recycled. Of
seven types of plastic that people put into blue bins,
five whole categories hardly ever get recycled at all. According to the E.P.A., in 2017
as little as 8.4 percent of our discarded plastic went
through that magic recycling process. What
happened to the rest? You probably guessed
it. Minus the plastic that ends up in the
ocean. To make it worse, we used to export a
third of our recycling, a whopping 20
million tons a year, and pay countries like
China to deal with it for us. That game’s over. China’s basically
told us no more followed by the
Philippines and Malaysia. This recycling
shutout has caused hundreds of American
municipalities to cut down or totally
cancel their recycling programs. In Eugene, Ore., we can’t even recycle our milk
cartons or yogurt containers anymore. You might be thinking,
if so little is actually getting recycled, why does everything
we buy seem to have that symbol on it? Great question. Let’s ask the F.T.C. That’s the entity set up to
protect American consumers like you and me by setting
rules on consumer labeling. But their guidelines
around recycling are a bit confusing. Basically, to earn this
symbol, 60 percent of the people who buy that product should
be able to recycle it, which seems to mean 60 percent
of buyers of that product would live in a place that
can break down and reuse that thing. But then it gets
more complicated. Like if a shower curtain
package says recyclable but either the
curtain or the package isn’t recyclable, then
that’s considered deceptive. But if it’s a bottle
instead of a curtain and it’s the cap
instead of the package that’s not recyclable,
then it’s totally fine unless the bottle
has a nonrecyclable wrapping or is contaminated with food. Is anyone else
totally lost here? With such complicated
regulations, companies can get away with
stamping a recyclable label on products that aren’t
likely to be recycled. Like this. Or this.
or even this. And most of us
wouldn’t even know. But somehow Kathleen
Smith figured it out. Kathleen is a resident
of Northern California. She loves coffee — so much
so that her grandkids call her Grandma Coffee. And she
loves being eco-friendly. So someone gifted her
a Keurig machine. The pods had that nice
little recycling symbol and the box even said, “Have
your cup and recycle it, too.” But those pods weren’t
actually recyclable. She took Keurig to court to sue
them for false advertising. Keurig changed
some of its labels, but then they tried to dismiss
the case, essentially claiming what had happened
hadn’t hurt Kathleen. But the court disagreed. Kathleen could have been hurt if she was misled and paying more for something
she thought was recyclable. And now a whole bunch of
other Kathleens are lining up in a potential class-
action suit against Keurig. This lawsuit might eventually
cause one company to clean up its act, but short of millions
of crusading Kathleens and court cases, how are we going to clean up
the entire plastic-pushing industry? What we really need is the F.T.C.
to write some clearer regulations and introduce
costly penalties. And we need companies
to stop hiding behind their green
marketing ploys and actually deal with
the plastic crisis they created. Now you may be thinking, so should I not even
bother recycling anymore? The point of this
video is not to take all the responsibility off of
individuals like you and me. Please keep recycling
stuff that’s recyclable. But we’ve been made
to feel that as long as we put our plastic in the
blue bin we’ve done our part. And that’s just not true. The best thing
we can really do is start buying as if nothing
gets recycled. Because that’s pretty much what’s going on. It’s ridiculous that
we had to pull this out of the trash can
for this video.

Stephen Childs


  1. Michael Moore was on to this years ago. He quite separating his garbage. And to be honest most people have given up on it for the reasons mentioned here.


  3. Lol. NOPE.
    And if you think it is you have been living under a rock.
    There. Saved you 5 minutes.

  4. 99% of it ends up in ovens and all the recycling hippies hate on aluminium, of which 99% actually gets recycled

  5. Bury it. Burying carbon makes more sense than using energy to collect, recycle and give to new manufacturers. Actually, if you just rely on prices, you'll know. If it's money-wise, then recycle. If it's just because central planners require you to (like all Americans who recycle with municipal collection systems). How can you tell? Will someone pay your for the materials, or do you pay to have it taken away?
    It is funny that the blame is put on corporations, as if those labels and requirements were driven by corporations, not environmentalists, the same ones who have helped increase CO2 output dramatically when their fear lead them away from the promise and progress we'd have enjoyed with nuclear power. Central planning always creates these sorts of messes. It fails to account for change.

  6. It's also a problem when the janitor comes in at the end of the day and just dumps everything from the trash and recycling bins into the same big trash can.

  7. As a nine year old, in 1969, I was aware and concerned about pollution and the adverse effects it was having on the environment and the consequences it could have on our lives. Even at that time, 50 years ago, I sort-of didn’t really believe anything substantial and effective would be done to remedy the problem. I was right.

    Today, well, I have no children, I’m jaded and I’ve stopped caring.

    All my trash goes together into the nearest trash can because it’s just easier and it makes no Goddam difference.

  8. My ceramics engineer friend from China told me that recyclable products such as paper decomposes, metal decomposes, glass decomposes, the only thing that doesn’t is plastic. And it’s not recycled. Our governments need to BAN PLASTIC NOW.

  9. About 1/3 of the time, I see our garbage pickup truck dump the recycle bin and the regular trash bin into the same truck.

  10. I think it would make a significant difference if recycling companies added a disclaimer about pizza boxes considering how widely consumed it is.

    Don't recycle pizza boxes, folks. They go to landfill.

  11. I’m using freshwater to rinse out plastics before recycling. My local recycling company and city won’t list what is not being recycled, so I don’t have any idea if I’m wasting my time and precious desert water resources.

  12. It is messed up because we are trying to reduce our pollution . Hope all this gets fixed because it hard to avoid plastic. It even be if everything can be actual be recycled or be actual biodegradable . Also some old things like glass bottles they are still used in other counties the companies take them then wash and sanitize them ,but I remember when I was little when I noticed the change is that if it falls especially by a kid or person with lesser motor skills it will not break. Hope like this video said better regulations on labeling and essayer access to actual recycle or have it be reused.

  13. So
    With this being said,
    Diapers, condoms, tampons, sanitary napkins, and styrofoam is still used today.
    * Bloodwork with silver needles keeps going.
    * Cigarettes keep being made.
    * Not every place did away with plastic straws yet.
    * Bullets and guns are still being sold and used too.
    Everyone wants to keep a gun, but recycle that plastic! 😡
    * NASA keeps using rocket fuel.
    New York Times isn't thinking yet.. 🤪
    You need more time to make a story, I guess.
    Oh and um, how much paper is used to make a newspaper to be tossed away on a daily basis?
    Honestly, let's try more stuff to make us feel guilty shall we?!
    Truth! 🧐

  14. Not having kids is the single biggest reduction in your carbon footprint… stop reproducing you egotistical morons.

  15. You posed a problem, but offered no solutions. Where are we going to recycle our trash? Who is going to build recycling plants to take it, where will they be? Shouldn’t each community have some type of recycling/sorting facility? Maybe a composting station could be combined for easier community access. Maybe the composting station is really a chicken farm also, where the animals do the bulk of the work. There may be many solutions to discuss

  16. Sure keep telling us to recycle ( i still do btw) but gigantic floating plastic islands in the pacific don't develop from people tossing their water bottles. Thats criminals, plain and simple, dumping it mid transit and collecting the pay cheque to recycle.

  17. Theres is so much ignorance. Knowledge needs to begin in elementary schools!!

  18. You mean the free market fails not to lie to the consumers, and Alt-Reichs bark at you for being unpatriotic for questioning corporations' blatant lies?

  19. Thank you for this! So many great and useful information! I can't wait for "The Story of Plastic" to come out, I was lucky enough to see a preview and it's mindblowing! Trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krhZmrDVv_k

  20. this is why i try to avoid buying anything with plastic packaging . i assume anything i consume will not be recycled so i opt for biodegradable packaging

  21. people should be allowed to turn plastic garbage into cash or currency of some sort and it will get cleaned up and collected like coal or gold or silver and copper

  22. Eugene Oregon! Ha, I never hear my city in something from the east coast! Anyway, yeah, everyone needs to use a lot less plastic. I've been avoiding clamshells as much as I can, for example.

  23. Wastebot is releasing a desktop scale plastic recycling technology in the new year. It recycles soft plastics #2,4,5,6, ABS.
    Currently piloting an online STEM course.
    It costs about what a good 3D printer costs. Not a solution for everyone, but a good start. Www.wastebot.com

  24. We buy garbage from China
    They buy garbage from us.

    It was a perfect relationship,
    till now. Thanks a lot, China!

  25. If barely 8% is used to recycle. Why are we wasting our time paying for recycling taxes when we buy Sodas.

  26. Thanks NYT for this video! All, take it a step further – reduce your use of single-use plastics! Bring your cups, bring utensils, stop supporting Amazon and GO to the store!

    But in all seriousness, it also stinks to have the burden fall on the consumer. Corporations need to be liable for more of their wasteful actions. I’m glad that more and more folks are realizing that recycling is mostly a myth. If anyone has ways to pressure corporations to clean – no pun intended – their act, I’d love to hear about them.

  27. There is a recycling center on my block. Lines of people wait to cash in their bags of recyclables. They empty of the contents and leave the bottle caps all over the sidewalk, which just ends up in the rivers after it rains.. It's heinous. They only do it for a buck which is usually just spent of booze or lotto tickets. Seems pretty pointless to allow this to continue, sad as it is to say.

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