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Is recycling really the best way to keep plastic out of the oceans?

Op-ed suggests that landfills keep plastic where it belongs -- in the earth

A dead bird's stomach contents (Screengrab from Midwayfilm.com)
Confession time. I throw plastic into the garbage.

What? Don’t you recycle plastic?

No. I most certainly do not. You see, I care about the environment.

Coming soon to an alternative theatre near you, the eco-documentary "Midway" invites you to take a journey “across an ocean of grief, and beyond.” Sea birds die agonizing deaths after ingesting bits of plastic that collect in gigantic oceanic whirlpools called gyres. For years this has prompted environmentalists to ask, “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time?”

Before we get to that reality, can I first ask, is there a shortage of sea birds I’m not aware of? There must be billions of them along the coastlines of the United States alone. But all right… I don’t want animals to suffer. And besides, the plastic debris is also fatal to fish. So, here’s the reality.

The notion that recycling plastic will prevent sea birds from dying is false. It turns out recycling is the source of the problem here, not the solution.

Trash discarded into landfills is perfectly safe, buried under layer upon layer of tons of soil. Very little plastic trash escapes a landfill, thus protecting sea birds everywhere. And besides, plastic originates in the soil from fossilized plants, so it’s best to put it right back in the soil when we’re done with it.

By contrast, there are many points in the recycling process where recyclables escape into the environment, beginning right at your curbside, followed by the sorely imperfect processes of transportation, handling, and storage, all of which occurs outdoors since it would be extremely cost-ineffective to handle and store plastic trash indoors. It’s just trash, after all.

Wind blows plastic trash for miles, literally… into waterways and hence right into the world’s oceans. Then there’s the biggest breakdown in the whole recycling system. Fraud.

Since it does not pay to recycle most materials, especially plastics, subsidies keep the nation’s “green” recycling systems running every step of the way. And once such “green” subsidies are paid, is it such a leap to imagine the odd recycling tycoon choosing to avoid the expense of actually recycling all the plastic he receives? Government inspectors aren’t going to check. What would they check for? A few hundred tons of plastic missing out of thousands of tons? It’s not as if recyclable material is traceable; it’s not labelled.

Of course, if a recycler dumps a few tons of plastic into the ocean every now and then, he’ll have less recycled plastic to sell. But subsidies are paid to move plastic INTO recycling facilities, while the amount leaving is left to the whims of the open market. Meanwhile, the raw material from which new plastic is made, fossilized plants, also known as oil, costs ten times LESS than the actual expense of recycling used plastic! So, who in his right mind is bothering to pay anything close to the production cost for recycled plastic anyway?

The more plastic a recycler recycles, the more money he’s losing.

As long as the public sees government officials supporting the recycling industry, most of us remain blissfully ignorant in the belief that millions upon millions of tons of plastic are being chipped-up, melted down, and made into new plastic products somewhere by someone. It MUST be true, because recycling is good! The result, we assume, is a bit less plastic in our landfills, but the reality is more plastic in the ocean.

And for those who refuse to believe there’s fraud in the sacrosanct recycling industry, the fact remains that nothing escapes a landfill. Nothing, except maybe a few plastic bags here and there, but certainly not any of the heavy plastic bits found in the carcasses of dead sea birds.

And besides… what are all those millions of birds that live off our nation’s landfills? Oh yeah… sea birds.

Landfills are the solution here, not the problem.


Mischa Popoff is a Policy Advisor at The Heartland Institute, and is the author of "Is it Organic? The inside story of the organic industry."

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