Then, there’s the threat posed by the particles themselves. Microplastics—and in particular, it seems, microfibres—can get pulled deep into the lungs. People who work in the synthetic-textile industry, it has long been known, suffer from high rates of lung disease. Are we breathing in enough microfibres that we are all, in effect, becoming synthetic-textile workers? No one can say for sure, but, as Fay Couceiro, a researcher at England’s University of Portsmouth, observes to Simon, “We desperately need to find out.”
Whatever you had for dinner last night, the meal almost certainly left behind plastic in need of disposal. Before tossing your empty sour-cream tub or mostly empty ketchup bottle, you may have searched it for a number, and if you found one, inside a cheerful little triangle, you washed it out and set it aside to be recycled. You might also have imagined that with this effort you were doing your part to stem the global plastic-pollution tide.
The British journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis used to be a believer. He religiously rinsed his plastics before depositing them in one of the five color-coded rubbish bins that he and his wife kept at their home in Royston, north of London. Then Franklin-Wallis decided to find out what was actually happening to his garbage. Disenchantment followed.
“If a product is seen as recycled, or recyclable, it makes us feel better about buying it,” he writes in “Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future.” But all those little numbers inside the triangles “mostly serve to trick consumers.”
Franklin-Wallis became interested in the fate of his detritus just as the old order of Britain’s rubbish was collapsing. Up until 2017, most of the plastic waste collected in Europe and in the United States was shipped to China, as was most of the mixed paper. Then Beijing imposed a new policy, known as National Sword, that prohibited imports of yang laji, or “foreign garbage.” The move left waste haulers from California to Catalonia with millions of mildewy containers they couldn’t get rid of. “PLASTICS PILE UP AS CHINA REFUSES TO TAKE THE WEST’S RECYCLING,” a January, 2018, headline in the Times read. “It’s tough times,” Simon Ellin, the chief executive of Britain’s Recycling Association, told the paper.
Trash, though, finds a way. Not long after China stopped taking in foreign garbage, waste entrepreneurs in other nations—Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka—started to accept it. Mom-and-pop plastic-recycling businesses sprang up in places where they were regulated laxly, if at all. Franklin-Wallis visited one such informal recycling plant, in New Delhi; the owner allowed him inside on the condition that he not reveal exactly how the business operates or where it is situated. He found workers in a fiendishly hot room feeding junk into a shredder. Workers in another, equally hot room fed the shreds into an extruder, which pumped out little gray pellets known as nurdles. The ventilation system consisted of an open window. “The thick fug of plastic fumes in the air left me dazed,” Franklin-Wallis writes.
Nurdles, which are key to manufacturing plastic products, are small enough to qualify as microplastics. (It’s been estimated that ten trillion nurdles a year leak into the oceans, most from shipping containers that tip overboard.) Usually, nurdles are composed of “virgin” polymers, but, as the New Delhi plant demonstrates, it is also possible to produce them from used plastic. The problem with the process, and with plastic recycling more generally, is that a polymer degrades each time it’s heated. Thus, even under ideal circumstances, plastic can be reused only a couple of times, and in the waste-management business very little is ideal. Franklin-Wallis toured a high-end recycling plant in northern England that handles PET, the material that most water and soda bottles are made from. He learned that nearly half the bales of PET that arrive at the plant can’t be reprocessed because they’re too contaminated, either by other kinds of plastic or by random crap. “Yield is a problem for us,” the plant’s commercial director concedes.
Franklin-Wallis comes to see plastic recycling as so much (potentially toxic) smoke and mirrors. Over the years, he writes, “a kind of playbook” has emerged. Under public pressure, a company like Coca-Cola or Nestlé pledges to insure that the packaging for its products gets recycled. When the pressure eases, it quietly abandons its pledge. Meanwhile, it lobbies against any kind of legislation that would restrict the sale of single-use plastics. Franklin-Wallis quotes Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, who once said, “If the public thinks recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment.”
Right around the time that Franklin-Wallis started tracking his trash, Eve O. Schaub decided to spend a year not producing any. Schaub, who has been described as a “stunt memoirist,” had previously spent a year avoiding sugar and forcing her family to do the same, an exercise she chronicled in a book titled “Year of No Sugar.” The year of no sugar was followed by “Year of No Clutter.” When she proposes a trash-free annum to her husband, he says he doubts it is possible. Her younger daughter begs her to wait until she goes away to college. Schaub plunges ahead anyway.
“As the beginning of the new year loomed, I was feeling pretty good about our chances,” she recalls in “Year of No Garbage.” “I mean, really. How hard could it be?”
What Schaub means by “no garbage” is not exactly no garbage. Under her scheme, refuse that can be composted or recycled is allowed, so her family can keep tossing out old cans and empty wine bottles along with food scraps. What turns out to be hard—really, really hard—is dealing with plastic.
At first, Schaub divides plastic waste into two varieties. There’s the kind with the little numbers, which her trash hauler accepts as part of its “single stream” recycling program and so, by her definition, doesn’t count as trash. Then, there’s the kind with no numbers, which isn’t supposed to go in the recycling bin and therefore does count. Schaub finds that even when she purchases something in a numbered container—guacamole, say—there’s usually a thin sheet of plastic under the lid that’s numberless. A lot of her time goes into rinsing off these sheets and other stray plastic bits and trying to figure out what to do with them. She is excited to find a company called TerraCycle, which promises—for a price—to “recycle the unrecyclable.” For a hundred and thirty-four dollars, she purchases a box that can be returned to TerraCycle filled with plastic packaging, and for an additional forty-two dollars she buys another box that can be filled with “oral care waste,” such as used toothpaste tubes. “I sent my TerraCycle Plastic Packaging box as densely packed with plastic as any box could be,” she writes.
Eventually, though, like Franklin-Wallis, Schaub comes to see that she’s been living a lie. Midway through her experiment, she signs up for an online course called Beyond Plastic Pollution, offered by Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the E.P.A. Only containers labelled No. 1 (PET) and No. 2 (high-density polyethylene) get melted down with any regularity, Schaub learns, and to refashion the resulting nurdles into anything useful usually requires the addition of lots of new material. “No matter what your garbage service provider is telling you, numbers 3, 4, 6 and 7 are not getting recycled,” Schaub writes. (The italics are hers.) “Number 5 is a veeeery dubious maybe.”
TerraCycle, too, proves a disappointment. It gets sued for deceptive labelling and settles out of court. A documentary-film crew finds that dozens of bales of waste sent to the company for recycling have instead been shipped off to be burned at a cement kiln in Bulgaria. (According to the company’s founder, this is the result of an unfortunate mistake.)
“I had wanted so badly to believe that TerraCycle and Santa Claus and the Easter bunny were real, that I had been willing to overlook the fact that Santa’s handwriting looks suspiciously like Mom’s,” Schaub writes. Toward the end of the year, she concludes that pretty much all plastic waste—numbered, unnumbered, or shipped off in boxes—falls under her definition of garbage. She also concludes that, “in this day, age and culture,” such waste is pretty much impossible to avoid.
A few months ago, the E.P.A. issued a “draft national strategy to prevent plastic pollution.” Americans, the report noted, produce more plastic waste each year than the residents of any other country—almost five hundred pounds per person, nearly twice as much as the average European and sixteen times as much as the average Indian. The E.P.A. declared the “business-as-usual approach” to managing this waste to be “unsustainable.” At the top of its list of recommendations was “reduce the production and consumption” of single-use plastics.
Just about everyone who contemplates the “plastic pollution crisis” arrives at the same conclusion. Once a plastic bottle (or bag or takeout container) has been tossed, the odds of its ending up in landfill, on a faraway beach, or as tiny fragments drifting around in the ocean are high. The best way to alter these odds is not to create the bottle (or bag or container) in the first place.
“So long as we’re churning out single-use plastic . . . we’re trying to drain the tub without turning off the tap,” Simon writes. “We’ve got to cut it out.”
“We can’t rely on half-measures,” Schaub says. “We have to go to the source.” Her own local supermarket, in southern Vermont, stopped handing out plastic bags in late 2020, she notes. “Do you know what happened? Nothing. One day we were poisoning the environment with plastic bags in the name of ultra-convenience and the next? We weren’t.”
“We now know that we can’t start to reduce plastic pollution without a reduction of production,” Imari Walker-Franklin and Jenna Jambeck, both environmental engineers, observe in “Plastics,” forthcoming from M.I.T. Press. “Upstream and systemic change is needed.”