The following was submitted by Conservation Coordinator Jenny Roberts:

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. We have been taught the same three R’s since elementary school, and after we’ve gone through reducing and reusing our plastic waste, recycling was always there as a “feel-good fall back”, letting us think that we did our duty to the planet with a pat on the back.

But recycling isn’t at all what we thought it was, nor has it been effective for decades. In 2016 alone, China was collecting 72.4% of the World’s plastic waste, but only a small fraction was actually getting recycled. According to a study by Geyer et. al (2017), out of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever created, only 9% has been recycled, 12% has been incinerated and 79% has been accumulating in landfills or throughout the environment, putting the ocean and its inhabitants in danger. Executive director for the Basel Action Network Jim Puckett told The Guardian,

“It’s really a complete myth when people say that we’re recycling our plastics. It all sounded good. ‘It’s going to be recycled in China!’ I hate to break it to everyone, but these places are routinely dumping massive amounts of [that] plastic and burning it on open fires.”

And things are not looking good for future recycling rates either.

In 2017, China announced its new recycling policy ominously named National Sword. Fed up with receiving the world’s contaminated recycling while their own country faced massive pollution problems, National Sword now prohibits 24 types of waste from entering the country, causing recycling profits around the world to plummet and hundreds of recycling facilities to shut down. Without China as their dumping grounds, the United States, Canada, the UK and many more are frantically looking for a place to ship their recycling. Unfortunately, this means countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia are being smothered with the plastic waste, unable to sort it all due to a lack of waste management infrastructure and space. Even if we somehow got every person on Earth to turn in their plastic for recycling, most plastics are only recyclable a very limited amount of times and would end up as waste anyway. So if recycling isn’t the answer, what should we be doing? 

RETHINK! Pacific Whale Foundation’s newest conservation campaign, aims to add another R to the equation. RETHINK the single-use plastics in your daily routine: say no to a plastic straw and switch to reusable metal, bring a reusable shopping bag with you to the grocery store, purchase non-plastic alternatives. Reuse what you can and then, as the absolute final step, recycle properly by rinsing items and placing them in the correct bins. Double-check what is recyclable in your area. By first thinking about the waste that we generate, we can then RETHINK our habits and utilize our own purchasing power to change the plastic pollution narrative. The time has come to rethink the way we have all been taught to live for so many years and we need to do it fast; the state of our environment depends on it.  

To learn more ways you can reduce your single-use plastics visit our website at pacificwhale.org/rethink.  

Literature Cited: 

  1. Brooks, A., S. Wang, J.R. Jambeck. 2018. The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade. Science Advances vol 4: 1-7. 
  2. Geyer, R., J. R. Jambeck, K.L.Law. 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances vol 3; 1-6. 
  3. Franklin-Wallis, O. (2019, August 17). ‘Plastic recycling is a myth’: what really happens to your rubbish? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish 
Posted by:Alicia Wood

Alicia joined Pacific Whale Foundation in 2018 as communications coordinator, after graduating from the University of Hawaii Maui College with a degree in Sustainable Science Management.

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