The other day we saw a significant segment on John Oliver’s @LastWeekTonight that discussed the pernicious and pervasive presence of plastics in our environment. While I had read a bit about the wide ranging pollution from microplastics all over the world, even in the remotest reaches of the Arctic and Antarctic, the @johnoliver segment was still so depressing. He talked a bit about the huge failures and deception surrounding recycling efforts and plastics, which have only gotten worse since China stopped global importations of waste plastic from the USA and other countries a few years ago. It was clear that there really has not been a market for reusable plastics at all despite the television commercials that would have us believe otherwise. Even the partial exception of plastic water and soda bottles is a very limited one, with sourced virgin plastic use still vastly greater than the use of recycled plastic. It was particularly sobering when Oliver interviewed a recycle center manager who referred to the reality that far too many Americans “wishcycle” rather than “recycle.” Crazy things are put into recycle bins, such as broken umbrellas and other materials that will never be recycled.
Moreover, there really is no public policy communications or outreach effort at clarifying this for the public. We see that here in Fairfax County Virginia. Little or nothing is done to detract from the American fascination with “wishcycling” and wishcycle expectations. Little is done to make the recycling of even glass from jars more easily managed, as those are actually not supposed to be accepted in the household bins we put out but are supposed to be deposited – if at all – in a few select glass bins at scattered and inconvenient locations.
It seems like this whole issue is just another example of a failure of policy where there are real economic incentives or disincentives put in place by government, and no effort to gin up wider public support and understanding for what is doable and what is not doable in terms of local government recycling efforts. Meanwhile the fact is that plastics continue to grow in volume and pollution. Those that make it into the ocean break down to horrible micro plastics that completely contaminate the food chain. John Oliver said there are government projections that in a few short years the total weight of waste plastic in the oceans will exceed the total weight of marine life in the oceans, which should make you pause and consider in horror what that means.
We need people speaking truth about topics like this, and we need to radically transform the incentives that drive our industries if we are to ever get a handle on what this means for the earth our children will inherit.