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The Broken System of Recycling


I’ve long stated that recycling is a completely broken system. While a good idea in theory, in fact what happens is that our crap gets sent to China, thrown in the ocean, or whatever other way that is counter to what the system initially intended. The idea behind recycling was that there was no reason to reduce our consumption if we just put our things in the green baskets that would be picked up every week. That’s fine if there’s a use for this stuff, but there mostly isn’t. The profit isn’t there for companies to use the material. Moreover, what are the working conditions here? What happens after you put it in the green basket? No one knows because, like with the rest of their trash, they don’t have to know. People feel good about themselves while doing absolutely nothing, which is the perfect picture of environmentalism under capitalism.

Well, the evidence around these problems sometimes comes to light. Such as around plastics:

Of the 51 million tons of plastic waste US households generated in 2021, just 2.4 million tons — or 5 percent — was recycled, new research shows.

The findings provide yet more proof that plastic recycling is a “myth,” says the new analysis, published by the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace USA this week.

Plastic, which is made from fossil fuels,is notoriously difficult to recycle. A major reason: Though they can be broken down into broad categories, there are thousands of varieties of the material, each with its own chemical makeup. Most cannot be recycled together, so to be processed, they must be meticulously sorted. Still, hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced each year, which is a major problem for the climate: Plastic production and disposal account for 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“If plastics were a country, they would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world,” said Lisa Ramsden, senior plastics campaigner for Greenpeace USA.

That number is expected to rise. By 2050, the cumulation of emissions from making and disposing of plastics since 2015 could reach over 56 gigatons, according to a separate 2019 report by the Center for International Environmental Law. That’s almost 50 times the annual emissions of all of the coal power plants in the US, or up to 13 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget if we’re to keep warming below catastrophic levels.

To create the material — used to make everything from food packaging to medical equipment to Barbie dolls — gas must be extracted, transported, and then processed industrially. Each step produces millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

When plastic is burned in garbage incinerators, it produces even more planet-heating pollution. Studies show that even discarded plastic gives off methane and other powerful greenhouse gasses, just by being exposed to the elements. And there’s mounting evidence that when it ends up floating in waterways, it can leech chemicals that disrupt oceans’ ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Basically, I don’t think that a capitalist system can keep the planet livable for any kind of civilization in the next century. Maybe that’s true of socialism too but we don’t have socialist states anymore in any meaningful way. In any case, the use of plastics is just poison to the rest of our planet and, thus, ourselves.

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