Alex Blumberg: This is How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: And I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we make those things happen.
Alex: So Ayana, do you know the question that we get most often from listeners?
Ayana: No, I do not.
Alex: Um ...
Ayana: Were you wanting me to guess? [laughs]
Alex: No, I don't either. But I bet—I haven't done an actual count, but I have a gut feeling. I'm pretty sure questions about recycling—if not the most popular question—is right up there.
Ayana: Yeah, I could see how that's a big one. It's confusing.
Ayana: And I appreciate the diligence of our listeners wanting to get it right, and wanting to know if it is worth all the effort to actually get it right. And whether it even matters that much for the climate.
Alex: So we've answered a lot of those questions here at How to Save a Planet. We actually did an episode about this from earlier this year, we took a deep dive into this topic.
Ayana: Like a dumpster dive?
Alex: [laughs] Nicely done! Yes.
Ayana: Thank you.
Alex: A deep dumpster dive. Our reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis walked me through the big question on everyone's minds: is recycling BS? Or is it a great and useful thing? And we're gonna rerun that episode right now because we still get this question so much that we figured we should do a public service and rerun the episode. And Ayana, you were out that week when we did this episode, so listeners, you're gonna hear just me and Kendra Pierre-Louis.
Ayana: Kendra! She's got the facts.
Alex: Oh, and speaking of Kendra and facts, there is one important point before we get to this episode.
Ayana: Yeah. So Kendra wanted us to remind you, our listeners, that recycling rules are very local. So while Alex and Kendra talked through some of the big themes in this episode that are true pretty much everywhere, there are also examples specific to where we all work and live, which happens to be New York City.
Alex: So just because you will hear us saying, for example, you can recycle a filing cabinet ...
Ayana: You could just throw your organizational system literally out the window! Like, what is this?
Alex: That does not mean it is necessarily true in your town or city. That is a New York City-specific thing to say. So ...
Ayana: Does it make you sad, Alex, that filing cabinets may be a relic of the pre-digital era? Or is it just me?
Alex: I know. Like, 20 percent of our audience is like, "What's a filing cabinet?"
Ayana: I just love a filing cabinet. [laughs]
Alex: I know. Anyway, if it's not an aluminum can, you know, Google it first, just to be safe.
Ayana: So without further ado, turning it over to Kendra and Alex for this episode: "Recycling. Is it BS?" Do you know what BS stands for, Alex? [laughs]
Alex: Um, beautiful surprise?
Alex: So, Kendra?
Alex: As listeners to this podcast know, you are a long time climate journalist. And as a member of the How to Save a Planet team, you've made frequent appearances on this podcast. And today in particular, I'm super excited that you're here because we're tackling a topic that I know is near and dear to your heart: Recycling.
Kendra: It is true. I cannot tell you the number of times as a child, I went into my parents' recycling bin to fish things out that they put there by mistake. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] Are you serious that you actually did that? You would, like, watch them?
Kendra: You know, it was my responsibility to take the trash out, and I would look in the bin and there were often things that did not belong in there. And so I'd fish them out, and I would put them in the trash can where they belonged.
Alex: [laughs] So essentially, you have been preparing your whole life to answer this question that we just got from a listener, a question about recycling. Here we'll play it.
Guey-Mei: Hello, How to Save a Planet. My name is Guey-Mei. I'm Taiwanese and I'm currently living in Taiwan. Well, to help the earth, Taiwan has practiced recycling and reusing for years, but how helpful is recycling to our planet? As it was my understanding that there would always be some patch of our waste that can almost never be recycled, like plastic. I see logos that said some new plastics are recyclable, but is it true? I feel guilty when I see all the plastic wraps being dumped, and I never know how much of them are going to end up in the ocean. I would love to hear your viewpoints on recycling and garbage.
Alex: So Guey-Mei's question, we get this question a lot. A lot of listeners have written to us asking about recycling. And if I'm honest Kendra, I have this question as well. I've often paused in front of the recycling bin, looked at the numbers on the bottom of the plastic and just like, "Hey, wait. Is this even doing anything? Is this even worth it?" I'm not alone, am I?
Kendra: I've taken a poll and you actually are alone. It's just you.
Alex: [laughs] Oh, no!
Kendra: No, a lot of people have that question.
Alex: And I get it, because I think it's like a very personal thing that you can do, and it feels like something you have control over. But also, what does recycling really have to do with the climate? Are they actually related?
Kendra: Yeah, we often think of recycling as a waste issue—which it is—but it is also a climate issue, and that's because recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions. For reasons we'll explore a bit more in this episode, making new stuff requires a lot of energy, and recycling takes less energy. It's pretty much that simple. And we know, for example, that electricity is the second-leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Alex: For now.
Kendra: For now, yeah. So anything that we can do to cut the amount of energy that we are using allows us a) to make that transition to renewable so much more easily; and b) just in the short term, cuts down on the amount of emissions we produce.
Alex: So on today's episode, we will answer Guey-Mei's questions: how helpful is recycling, and what is the deal with plastic? That's all coming up after the break.
Alex: Okay, so Kendra? Let's just quickly define our terms. What is recycling?
Kendra: So when you say recycling, you're talking about taking something, breaking it down and turning it back into the same thing. So, like, taking a plastic soda bottle and turning it into a new soda bottle.
Alex: Got it. But taking an old soda bottle and turning it into something else—I don't know, like a fleece jacket or a carpet or something like that, that does not count as recycling.
Kendra: No, we would call that downcycling generally, because it would be hard to get that plastic back out to make another fleece jacket or another bottle. Any time it's kind of hard to pull out that original material from the finished product so that we can recycle it again, we call that downcycling. And it's less ideal because it ends the use of that material.
Alex: Got it.
Kendra: So inevitably, we're going to have to mine or produce more raw material and have the extra emissions because of it.
Alex: Okay. And so what we're talking about today is recycling and what we can recycle, right?
Kendra: And so I feel like this question is prescient in many ways that you brought me on to tackle it, because did you know sort of one of my last big public acts out in the world unmasked before New York City entered into the lockdown last March was visiting New York City's recycling center?
Alex: No! Wow!
Kendra: So this recycling center we visited, it's owned by a company named Sims.
Kendra: They're the main recycler for residential waste in New York City, and almost all of the stuff that gets picked up in sort of the blue recycling bins across the city gets brought to this facility in Sunset Park. Do you want to see a video?
Alex: [laughs] Are you kidding? Yes, I want to see a video.
Alex: Well, it's just like a video of this mountain of, like, just I guess recyclables. And then there are these two trucks that in the video they look like toy trucks. They look like a Tonka truck, kind of. Those little toys. It's like this toy excavator next to this gigantic mountain of recycled material.
Kendra: The whole time that we were there, that's what we were watching. We were watching these garbage trucks just sort of back in, dump their recycling, drive out, and just constantly—and it was like a beehive of activity. If you like big machines at all, I can't recommend it enough.
Alex: Noted. And we'll actually put these videos on Instagram and also put links to them in our newsletter so you can see what we're looking at. And by the way, you can subscribe to our newsletter at how2saveaplanet.show. That's "How 2"—the number two—"save a planet.show."
Kendra: So one of the things that I found really surprising when I was there is that they don't actually do what I typically think of as recycling.
Kendra: They don't take a newspaper and break it down into, like, toilet paper or something.
Kendra: What they do is they take the stuff that comes in and they break it up into categories: paper, glass, metal, and plastics. And then they turn around and they sell it.
Kendra: So Sims is what's known as a MRF, or a material recovery facility.
Alex: Got it. A MRF.
Kendra: A MRF. Yeah, it's a good word, right? MRF, Nerf.
Alex: Yeah. [laughs]
Kendra: And it's how a lot of recycling that is picked up on a municipality level is handled. It either goes to a place like Sims, which is called a clean MRF, because all of the recyclables have been sort of separated from the rest of trash. But if the recyclables and the trash are mixed together, they go to a place called a dirty MRF, which sorts it out. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] A dirty MRF!
Kendra: I don't name these things, I just bring them to your attention.
Alex: I'm gonna leave dirty MRF right there.
Kendra: And of course, not everyone does it this way. In Taiwan where Guey-Mei lives, people sort their own recycling. In fact, they have a really cute system where the recycling trucks come around multiple times a week and they play Beethoven's "Für Elise" to let you know that the truck is on your street.
Alex: Oh my God!
Kendra: [laughs] And then you, like, run outside and you sort your recycling into different, like, compartments. And there's someone there to make sure that you're doing it right.
Alex: Wow. It's like the opposite of the ice cream man.
Kendra: Yes. The exact opposite. They do not give you treats.
Kendra: The reason we go to all of this trouble to sort recycling is because the way recycling happens depends on what we're recycling. And while a lot of things can be potentially recycled, today we are going to focus on the main things we recycle in the US: metal, glass, paper, and the big one on everybody's mind: plastic.
Alex: Gotcha. All right. So if you live in the United States and you have a recycling bin, chances are we're gonna be talking about the stuff that's in there.
Kendra: Cool. And so kind of the OG of recycling is this guy. [sound of can being opened] It's the aluminum can.
Alex: The aluminum can. I have one myself.
Kendra: Once you make an aluminum can, you can pretty much melt it down and make a new aluminum can from it pretty much forever.
Alex: Okay. Oh, wow. Forever.
Kendra: Mm-hmm. And this is great news, because making what they call virgin aluminum as opposed to recycled aluminum, is both really hard and really polluting. You have to mine it, usually in the form of something called bauxite, which is a kind of rock or ore, and then you have to chemically extract it through something known as the Bayer process. And then you have to smelt it, which is an extremely energy-intensive process, because you have to heat it to around 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. And you're doing this while also zapping it with electricity. It is so energy intensive that a recycled aluminum can has a 95 percent smaller carbon footprint than making that same can from virgin aluminum.
Alex: So recycling has a way smaller carbon footprint than making new aluminum.
Alex: Got it.
Kendra: And this is just kind of true across the board for metals. They are hard to make from scratch and pretty easy to recycle. You sort of see it in the sense that, like, most places that recycle and they're like, what can you put in the bin? They will often be very descriptive about, like, this kind of glass, but not that kind of—you know, they'll get very descriptive.
Alex: Yeah. Green—not green glass, clear glass. Not this kind of—not this kind of plastic with this number, but this kind. Yeah, exactly.
Kendra: And with metal they're just like metal. We don't care.
Alex: Exactly. We'll take it all. [laughs] But wait, is that literally true? Like, they'll take any kind of metal? Like, if I had an old cast iron skillet? Or, like, I don't know. A toaster? I could just chuck it in the recycling bin?
Kendra: So I checked on New York City's Department of Sanitation website, where they describe sort of what you can recycle, because of course every municipality has slightly different rules, but here in New York City it says metal of all kinds. Cans, aluminum foil, empty aerosol cans, metal caps and lids, household metal items. You've got your wire hangers, your pots, your tools, your curtain rods, your small appliances.
Alex: Oh my God, you can literally put any—as long as it's metal, it's true, they'll just take it.
Kendra: Yeah, the only exception that they sort of carve out is for electronics, because electronics often have lots of other kinds of toxic wacky things attached to it that it's not easy to pull the metal out of it. But yeah, basically—I mean, they even are like large metal items like furniture, cabinets. If it fits in the bin, you're good.
Alex: That's amazing. So what I'm taking away is that, to answer Guey-Mei's question, aluminum and basically any kind of metal that you've put into your recycling bin, yes, it's definitely better for the climate.
Kendra: Yes. And with that, we are onto the next item in our journey through the recycling bin, which is actually this guy.
Kendra: Glass. It's a glass bottle.
Alex: A bottle of wine. Are we going to drink that now? We're still on the clock, Kendra. [laughs]
Kendra: It's five o'clock somewhere, right? Isn't that what they say? And so glass, like metals, can be recycled forever. You just melt it down and begin again.
Kendra: There are some caveats which we kind of hinted at earlier, which is glass cookware like Pyrex shouldn't go in the bin because it's been treated to withstand heat, and so it makes it harder to melt it down.
Kendra: And things like windshields have a plastic layer that also keep them out of the recycling bin. But if we're talking about your basic beer or kombucha bottle, those can pretty much be recycled forever.
Alex: Got it. And does that also have, like, a huge carbon footprint savings, recycling glass?
Kendra: It's hard to get numbers on how much carbon dioxide you're saving with glass. The numbers are definitely not as significant as the numbers for aluminum, but it still seems to be worth doing, because making virgin glass, like making virgin aluminum, takes a lot of energy. You have to heat sand and soda ash and limestone to these really high temperatures so that it turns into glass. And the kind of sand that we tend to use to make glass, like, there's a global sand shortage so, like, it's increasingly scarce resources.
Kendra: And recycling glass definitely takes less energy than making brand new glass. So recycling glass is better than not recycling glass.
Alex: Okay, so recycling glass? Good for the climate. So we've checked off glass and aluminum. What's next?
Kendra: Paper. EPA data says basically that yes, recycling paper cuts emissions. So they use this example of, you know, let's say—they say imagine an office that throws out a hundred tons of copy paper every year, recycles half of that copy paper, they would reduce emissions from paper by a bit more than 60 percent, from 109 metric tons of carbon dioxide to about 40 metric tons.
Alex: Okay. So it's pretty big. That's real.
Kendra: That savings comes from the basic fact that paper comes from trees. Some of that carbon dioxide reduction is essentially because you leave a tree standing when you don't chop it down to make paper. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] Right. So the tree continues to pull carbon dioxide out of air.
Kendra: Yeah. And using more recycled paper means that you then need to cut down fewer trees.
Alex: Right. Gotcha.
Kendra: But unlike aluminum and glass, you can't recycle paper forever. That's kind of one of the inherent limitations. The issue first has to do with paper itself, which is we use it to write on, for the most part, in some capacity. And to recycle paper, you then have to use chemicals to remove all the inks and colors and adhesives that we put on it, and kind of return it back to its original pulp state.
Kendra: So if you've ever made papier-mâché, you have a rough idea of kind of what they're trying to get paper back to before we make it into paper again.
Kendra: But every time you do that, you weaken the fibers. It gets less strong. So there's a limit to how many times you can recycle it. You can only do it about five to seven times, according to the US EPA.
Alex: Got it. And is it a situation where if you're recycling, like, some nice printer paper, it can't come back as another piece of nice printer paper? Does it have to come back as a lower quality piece of paper like newsprint? Or can it come back as printer paper again?
Kendra: So it can come back as printer paper.
Alex: Oh, cool. It can truly live again.
Kendra: Mm-hmm. And overall, I can say that paper actually has a pretty high rate of recycling in this country. It's around 70 percent.
Alex: 70 percent of paper that we use in America gets recycled?
Alex: That's crazy! Way higher than I would've thought. Okay. Ultimately, paper is recyclable and it's better for the climate if we do recycle it.
Kendra: Yep! That's a very different story for the material that many people sort of see as the villain in our recycling bin.
Kendra: Which is plastic.
Alex: Plastic! I have a sense that this one's a doozy. Like, we're gonna open a Pandora's box here.
Kendra: We will. After the break.
Alex: Welcome back to the tour of your recycling bin with our guide Kendra Pierre-Louis. So Kendra, you've sort of confirmed in a very pleasurable way, metal and glass, you're on very solid footing. It's basically a no-brainer. Definitely better to recycle them. Paper? Also pretty good. And now we get to plastic.
Kendra: And we get so many listener emails about plastics. And, you know, there's a really good reason, which is we just produce so much of it.
Kendra: A 2015 study in the journal Science found that we make about 300 million tons of plastic waste a year. Between five million and 14 million tons of that ends up in the ocean. And because of how much plastic we make and dispose of every year, plastic is just everywhere. They've found it at the top of Mount Everest, in the deep ocean, in rainwater, in the Arctic. And so focusing just on the original question of can we recycle plastic? The answer is not really.
Alex: Mm-hmm. I was thinking you were gonna say something like that. All right, but let's dive into it.
Kendra: Yeah. I think to understand why, it first helps to go back to the basic question of what is recycling?
Kendra: And as we said, it's this idea in the world where you take a material, break it down to its parts and then make the same new material out of it.
Alex: Got it. So the platonic ideal of recycling is the aluminum can, which can come back as an aluminum can over and over and over again into infinity.
Kendra: Yeah. And we call that actually closed-loop recycling, because you never have to add anything new to the system except for heat, obviously.
Kendra: But, like, the aluminum itself just keeps going and going and going. That's closed loop. And with plastic, you often can't do that.
Alex: Wait. Why?
Kendra: The reason has to do with the nature of plastic itself. So, for example, let's take a very common kind of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or P-E-T.
Alex: I feel like I've heard that term, P-E-T.
Kendra: Yeah. It's the kind of disposable bottles that you get water or soda in.
Kendra: The most common way with a P-E-T bottle that you recycle it, is through melting them, just like aluminum.
Kendra: But melting this type of plastic is hard to get right. And unlike aluminum and glass, when you reheat plastic it gets weaker every time, just like recycling paper.
Alex: I see. So it can't come back indefinitely as a new version of itself. Eventually, you're gonna get to the end of the rope.
Kendra: Yeah, kind of. And P-E-T bottles, for example, when you want it to melt down into plastic and then turn it into a new bottle, you will often have to add what's called virgin plastic, or what the industry calls an additive, which is brand new plastic back into it to make that bottle strong enough.
Alex: Got it. Okay.
Kendra: So what often happens with these bottles is that we downcycle them, so it gets turned into a fleece jacket or a carpet, not new bottles.
Kendra: And that matters because once it turns into a jacket, you can't then recycle that jacket.
Kendra: It just sort of closes. It ends the cycle.
Kendra: And that's just one type of plastic, a type of plastic that can technically be recycled. But there are lots of plastics that can't be recycled at all. We tend to think of plastic as a single thing, right?
Kendra: But it's more accurately thought of as a class of materials, kind of like starches in food. So you have your potatoes, you have your rice, you have your wheat, right? Just like that, you have your rigid plastics like P-E-T, you have your soft plastics, and you sort of have your in-between plastics.
Kendra: And each of those have varying abilities to be recycled. You know when you flip over a plastic container and you see the recycling triangle and a number inside?
Alex: Yeah, I do. And actually our listener, Guey-Mei was asking about that, that little recycling-looking symbol. I have a bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk, and I'm looking at it and there's, like, this—you know, it's like that symbol with, like, the triangle made out of little arrows, and inside it there's a little number. Is that BS? To paraphrase Guey-Mei, is that BS?
Kendra: It's BS.
Kendra: That recycling symbol does not, in fact, tell you that that container can be recycled.
Alex: Wait a minute.
Alex: Isn't that a recycling symbol? Those, like, little arrows? You know what I mean?
Kendra: Yeah. The plastics industry lobbied to have it on plastic containers. In many states, plastic containers are required to carry that symbol even if they're not actually recyclable.
Alex: If it's not a recycling symbol, what is it?
Kendra: I can tell you that all the number tells you is sort of the, like, grade of plastic that it is.
Kendra: Everything else is just ...
Kendra: Yeah. [laughs]
Alex: Coincidental design? Or not so coincidental?
Kendra: Yeah, yeah. And so let's talk about some of those other plastics, which are even worse than the P-E-T, the sort of water bottle plastics that I mentioned earlier. A huge driver of the plastics problem is single-use plastics. Globally, companies make about 300 million tons of plastic every year, but half of that is single use.
Kendra: And so that includes things like plastic bags or Saran wraps or those plastic bubble mailers. And they're made from a different kind of plastic called low-density polyethylene. And they're really hard to recycle.
Alex: Oh! So the quote-unquote "easy" plastic to recycle, which is still really hard to recycle, that's something completely different than—like, often something will come in a plastic box, and then the plastic box is wrapped in that film-y plastic.
Kendra: Yeah. So that film-y—it literally is called film. So it's an entire category of plastics called film plastics. And that category is very difficult to recycle. And you should absolutely not put it in your bin in most cases, because it also gunks up the machinery at recycling facilities.
Kendra: And in fact, when I was at Sims, they constantly had to stop running the machine because people were shoving films in their recycling bags and they were getting stuck in the machinery and it's like, somebody's job to stop the line, pull out the plastic bag or the film or whatever it was, and then restart the line.
Alex: Oh, my God! So, like, the film from, I don't know, like, a video game or whatever, like, that little plastic film that it's wrapped in?
Kendra: Yeah. So funnily enough, the other thing that I did before I went to Sims was I also went on a trash walk of New York City's recycling. As one does. And what I found is that lots of people are putting this type of plastics that can't be recycled into their bins. Like, take those bubble wrap mailers—you know, like the Amazon Prime ones?
Kendra: People stick them in their recycling bins all of the time, but you can't recycle them in New York City.
Alex: It makes sense that people would do that because, well first of all, they have that bogus recycling-looking design on them, which is obviously very confusing. And it also just feels like, you don't want to just—like, it's so wasteful to open all these boxes. And more and more of us are, like, living through boxes and dealing with, like, bubble wrap. And I think it's just sort of like, partly there's an element of wish fulfillment, and you're just like, "I really want this to not just be something that I have purchased and now I'm throwing away, and it's gonna end up in the ocean somewhere. I really want this to be recycled." Yeah.
Kendra: Actually, there's a name for that. It's called aspirational recycling, [laughs]
Alex: So let me ask you a question then. So are you telling me that not only can bubble wrap and lots of other plastics not be recycled, but it is better not to put them in the recycling bin? You are actually doing harm by your aspirational recycling of these items, and it's actually better just to put them in the trash.
Kendra: Yes. And it's better for two reasons. The first is the one that I was talking about, which is it just gunks up the machinery.
Kendra: But the other is, remember I said that Sims is a MRF, right? So they don't recycle the materials, they sell them. And when you give them something that can't be recycled, they then have to take that garbage and pay someone to put it in a landfill.
Kendra: [laughs] So you're cutting into their bottom line. And I don't—you know, I don't work for Sims. I have no skin in this game, but ideally, I would like our recyclers not to go bankrupt. [laughs]
Alex: Right. And it's essentially—by doing that, you're essentially putting a tax on recycling.
Alex: If, like, for every dollar they make, they have to spend 10 cents of it on top of other overhead, they have to spend 10 cents of it just sort of like paying to cart off the trash that aspirational recyclers put in the bins, that's not good. That's not a good outcome.
Kendra: And the fact that these plastics are so expendable? That's by design, actually.
Alex: Wait. What do you mean?
Kendra: It's strange to think of that now, because we throw out so much plastic, but when the first plastics were invented in the early 1900s, they were essentially a durable good. Like, you couldn't afford ivory keys on your piano, so we can give you a plastic one.
Kendra: Instead of making your radio out of wood, let's make it out of plastic.
Alex: Yes. And there's still that. I mean, there's still lots and lots of plastic that is that way. Like, there's plastic all around in the computers that we're talking to each other on. Like, there's lots and lots of plastic componentry, which is like, you know, durable and made to, like, basically last for some amount of time.
Kendra: Right. But by the 1960s, that worldview that, like, plastic is this durable good that we should sort of hold on to, that had changed. Not on the part of the consumer, but industry. In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, who was the editor of Modern Packaging Magazine, said at a plastics conference that the future of plastics is in the trash can.
Alex: Oh, wow!
Kendra: And at the time, he was commenting on this trend in the industry about the rise of single-use disposable plastic. And he was a big cheerleader for this trend. Seven years later, he wrote this essay as part of the National Plastics Conference in 1963, where he talked about how much progress the industry had made since his initial comment seven years earlier.
Kendra: And I'm just going to read you what he wrote. He said, "What I had said in the talk was it was time for the plastics industry to stop thinking about reuse packages and concentrate on single use. For the package that is used once and thrown away like a tin can or a paper carton represents not a one-shot market for a few thousand units, but an everyday recurring market measured by the billions of units. Your future in packaging, I said, does indeed lie in the trash can. It is a measure of your progress in packaging in the last seven years that this remark will no longer raise any eyebrows. You're filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps, and the incinerators with literally billions of plastic bottles, plastic jugs, plastic tubes, blisters and skin packs, plastic bags and films and cheap packages. And now, even plastic cans."
Alex: [laughs] Oh my God. That is so crazy that he's just sort of like, "Look at us, we're doing it! We're filling the incinerators!" So making plastics disposable, that was not at all like a gimme, that was a concerted decision on the part of the industry.
Kendra: Yeah. And for the plastics industry, it wasn't enough just to develop these single-use plastics, they also had to teach people how to use them. They had to teach people, don't save this stuff, throw it away.
Kendra: Back in the day, people would just hold on to it, or they would reuse saran wrap. You know, I have very immigrant-y parents so, like, we reused paper towels as a kid. So, like, this idea that, like, this is a one-use product. You know, you go into any, like, Black person's home and like, the Parkay container, you know, the butter, the margarine tubs? That was our Tupperware. [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] It has everything in there.
Kendra: Like, you don't know what's—like, if you were fancy you maybe labeled it, but you didn't know what was in there. Like, you did not assume that that was margarine.
Alex: [laughs] Right.
Kendra: The plastics industry had to basically teach people like my parents, don't keep this stuff. Throw it away. And, you know, they largely succeeded. People learned to finish the margarine and then toss out the container. But that led to another problem: litter.
Kendra: Yeah. And to address it, the industry went on another education campaign. So after teaching everyone to throw away all of this plastic, they started telling people, "No, no. You have to throw it away, but you're not throwing it away the right way."
Alex: Right. Not on the ground, everyone. Exactly.
Kendra: You've probably seen this video.
Alex: Oh, I've seen this video. So it's this Native American. He's, like, paddling down this sort of bucolic river, and then the river starts to change and you realize, like, it's an urban river, and then it's like a big sort of industrial river in the middle of the city. And there's, like, trash in the river and trash on the banks. And then he pulls his canoe up on the beach and then starts walking. And then all the sudden he's on the side of a highway, and this guy tosses this trash out of his car window as it's going by, and then it lands at the Native American's feet. And then you—and then there's this closeup on his face as he, like, sort of turns and faces the camera. And then there's a single tear rolling down his cheek.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don't. People start pollution, people can stop it.]
Alex: And I remember that so—it's like one of my first memories. It was so heartbreaking to me as a child.
Kendra: So apart from the fact that that video is racist and that the actor is not Native American at all ...
Kendra: He's an Italian-American man named Iron Eyes Cody. That campaign was created by beverage producers in response to the rise of litter, which came from the single-use packaging that they created. And so it puts the onus on consumers, in many cases municipalities, to pay for the disposal of the waste that they created.
Alex: So wait a minute. Are you telling me that that commercial that was like—ran on TV in the '70s all the time when I was a kid, it was iconic, it sort of instilled in me, like, a lifelong heartbreak and shame about littering, that was created by the packaging industry?
Alex: Oh my God! I thought it was, like, some sort of government—I thought it was like the EPA or something.
Kendra: Yeah, I know. And, like, they've got the flag and, like, the Keep America Beautiful logo. Like, it feels very—I don't know, patriotic.
Kendra: I think rewatching this ad, it raises a question that our listener Guey-Mei was getting at, which is kind of how guilty should we feel about it as individuals? Should we all just swear off of plastic? And, you know, to be honest, you hinted at it earlier. I've been feeling that guilt myself. I moved during the middle of the pandemic. Just because of the nature of how I moved, I've had to buy a ton of stuff. And because of the pandemic, I wasn't, you know, going to the store. So I bought a lot of stuff online, like my couch—and it's a beautiful couch, but it came completely wrapped in two giant plastic bags that I then promptly put in the trash. And so I talked to Deia Schlosberg about this feeling.
Kendra: She's a documentary filmmaker who has looked at a lot of environmental issues. And in the interest of full disclosure, she's also my dear friend's cousin. And she filmed this great documentary film that takes an in-depth look at plastics globally called The Story of Plastic. And so I put the question of my guilt to her, and this is what she had to say:
Deia Schlosberg: You said before you felt guilty for, like, the plastic that comes with stuff when it's shipped. And you didn't order that. You didn't order the plastic, like, air pack thing. You ordered the durable good, or something that you're gonna use for years and years. They could package that in something else. That was not your decision. And I think we need to get away from feeling that guilt individually, because we did not choose the system.
Deia Schlosberg: And that is an industry messaging that if you didn't ask for that bubble wrapping, we wouldn't make it. But you didn't ask for that bubble wrapping. It's built into this system that has evolved out of their interests. Out of their guiding it that way.
Alex: It's so true when you think about it that way, because you do, you feel this guilt of, like, every sort of thing that you get delivered or every sort of thing that you get. And the truth is, like, it doesn't have to be that way. We could think of the pollution from packaging waste or litter the same way we think about air pollution or water pollution. Like, we don't say air pollution is the individual's responsibility simply because they use electricity from a polluting plant. It's the responsibility of the plant that generated that electricity. And so the idea is that maybe we could ask packagers and shippers to share in the responsibility for the waste that they are generating as well.
Kendra: Yeah. And I talked to a business owner about this. Sarah Paiji Yoo is the CEO and co-founder of Blueland, which is this company that makes household cleaners like dish soap and laundry detergent that she ships to people. And she says, as a business owner, she would face zero penalty for including single-use plastics in her packaging.
Sarah Paiji Yoo: Businesses are not responsible for the waste that they create. Like, we're incentivized in strange ways where you almost, you know, can take the path of least resistance, the path of lower costs, right? And you don't have to worry about, you know, whether that packaging that you're then purchasing that may be cheaper than an alternative, you know, is ultimately worse for the environment or not recyclable. And, you know, there are definitely, you know, perverse incentives that are in place that could be adjusted for certainly, with government involvement or intervention.
Kendra: Sarah is choosing on her own to use less plastic in her business, so she focuses on a reuse model using powder concentrates. That way she can ship a lot of product at once in very little packaging. But that's a choice that not every business will make without laws mandating it. And right now, there are lots of people out there really trying to sell plastic to business owners like Sarah Paiji Yoo. I mean, the reason plastic exists at all is because it's a cheap by-product of natural gas and oil extraction.
Alex: And plastic—spoiler alert—plastic is actually made from fossil fuels.
Kendra: Yes. And increasingly, as we pivot away from fossil fuels as, you know, well, fuels, companies are pushing plastics on us as a way to keep pumping oil and gas. Even as we know we need to keep it in the ground.
Kendra: And so right now in the United States, there are a slew of new plastic plant projects that are either underway or proposed.
Alex: So that is all, like, sad and terrifying. And I think from, like, you know, anybody who has ever seen a tree in the city with a plastic big flapping in it like a leaf, or been to a beach where, like, plastic is washing up on the shore, it's obvious this stuff is everywhere now. And it just feels like it's in my lifetime, it's become, you know, way, way, way worse of a problem. From a purely climate sort of greenhouse gas perspective though, taking oil from the ground and burning it as gasoline, like, that releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Alex: Taking oil from the ground and turning it into a plastic bag ...
Kendra: Also releases greenhouse gases.
Alex: It does. Okay. Okay. Why is that?
Kendra: Part of that is because we are not able to perfectly get oil or fossil fuels out of the ground, right? Natural gas in particular, there's a huge problem with natural gas fracking sites just leaking methane all over the place.
Alex: Right. And methane is a big greenhouse gas, which is very, very potent.
Kendra: Yeah. So that's just one element of it. Even assuming in a perfect world where it didn't leak, you're still pulling it out of the ground and then using a combination of heat and chemical processes to sort of break down the natural gas or the oil into its core components that make up plastic, and that process also releases emissions.
Alex: Got it, got it. So some part of the oil is then sort of like released as gas into the atmosphere, and then some part of it becomes the plastic.
Alex: Got it.
Kendra: And just to give you a sense of how many greenhouse gas emissions we are talking about, the Center for International Environmental Law said that in 2019, making plastic and incinerating plastic generated as many emissions as 189 coal power plants.
Alex: Wow! So summing up, to come full circle to the recycling bin, it seems like I can feel pretty good about cans, glass, and basically even paper. What should I do with my plastic? I mean, I do order take out. I do sometimes have plastic that I need to get rid of. What should I do with it? And then my follow-up question is: what should I do with my guilt about my plastic? [laughs] Are you officially absolving me of all the guilt that I should feel about plastic?
Kendra: No. [laughs]
Kendra: Because I grew up Catholic, and I just feel like guilt is a natural part of human emotions. And are you even alive if you're not feeling guilty about something?
Alex: And not feeling guilt is just dangerous.
Kendra: Yeah. It's unsettling. You know, sometimes if I'm not feeling guilty, I just—I feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
Alex: So if I'm looking for somebody to absolve my guilt, you're not the place to go.
Alex: Okay. I am not absolved of all guilt when it comes to plastic recycling, even as we acknowledge that we are part of this larger system that does incentivize companies not really to care about whether they use single-use plastics in their packaging or not. But returning to Guey-mei's question, as I'm pausing in front of my recycling bin pondering, is this helping or not? If it's film or bubble wrap, flimsy plastic like that? Don't recycle it. It just gunks things up. It's actually worse.
Alex: What about things like takeout containers?
Kendra: So it depends on where you live. I would look at the rules in your community, and see what they accept for recycling. And if they do take those takeout containers, I would put it in the bin. Because even if it ends up as, like, a fleece jacket, it's better in the short term than it going straight to the landfill.
Alex: Okay. Recycling a food container is better than just chucking it.
Kendra: Yeah. But better yet, I want to remind you that there are actually at least two other Rs that go with recycling: reduce and reuse. Do you remember that from school?
Alex: I do, I do. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Yup.
Kendra: And so we often get so fixated on recycling that we forget about reuse and reduce. And so reuse, you could keep your plastic takeout container and use it again instead of recycling it.
Alex: Right. Like, just put—use it as a Tupperware container or something like that?
Kendra: No, actually. Because the chemicals that are in it can leak out into your food, especially if you heat them and cause all sorts of health effects down the line.
Alex: So you could do that, but you shouldn't.
Kendra: Right. But you could use it to store stuff, like the millions of extra cables that you get when you buy electronics that you don't actually need more of, but you're afraid that the second you throw it out, you will suddenly need that cable.
Kendra: You know, wash it out and store those cables in there. That's the perfect use of that container.
Alex: You're trying to turn everyone into your parents.
Kendra: Yes. [laughs]
Alex: It's not enough just for yourself to turn into your parents, you want everybody to become your parents.
Kendra: You would be ashamed if you could see how organized my cabinets were. I'm really into containers.
Alex: [laughs] But that's true. The Pierre-Louis's were, like, heavy into reusing long before it was fashionable. Long before it was part of a spiffy slogan.
Alex: So wait. We're at the end of our episode, but is this where we're leaving things? Like, that's the call to action: store your rubber bands in take-out containers? That's sort of—it's a little anticlimactic.
Alex: It's a little—yes. It's sort of sad.
Kendra: I'm not encouraging our listeners to become hoarders. The reality is that we just need to be using less stuff.
Alex: We society, not just we the listeners of How to Save a Planet.
Kendra: Yeah. And to Deia's point, there's only so much that is directly in our control.
Kendra: And so increasingly, there are efforts to push companies to reduce packaging, so that we are all consuming less plastic in particular, and packaging in general.
Alex: And so that brings us to our patented How to Save a Planet calls to action.
Kendra: Doo doo doo!
Alex: So first there's the Break Free from Plastic campaign, and it has a bunch of ways for individual people to get involved, from resources about local legislation, to consumer campaigns that target the corporations that are most responsible for plastic pollution. That is at breakfreefromplastic.org And again, we'll put these links in our show notes as well as in our newsletter.
Kendra: Yep. And last year, Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) they introduced a piece of legislation called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. Among other things, it would require product producers to collect and recycle their own packaging. You should read the bill, and we'll include a link to it in our show notes and in our newsletter. And if you like what's in it, you might want to reach out to your local elected officials and tell them to support the bill and that you would like to see it passed.
Alex: And then, if there's a product or a brand you love, you can try just reaching out to that company and asking them to change their packaging. Increasingly, companies are pivoting to sort of refill models. Like, I know, like, a lot of brewers are doing this and vineyards, where they don't send you disposable packaging, they send you something you can refill over and over again. And if you do reach out to a company that you love, let us know how it goes. We'd love to hear from you. Perhaps you can get How to Save a Planet famous when we play your voicemail on an episode. And there is also a great resource here for people who are interested in this kind of thing. Loop. You can visit loopstore.com. And Loop Store ships your favorite brands in refillable containers that they then take back, wash and reuse. So if you love a specific brand of, I don't know, shampoo, through Loop you can maybe get it delivered without the bubble wrap.
Kendra: And finally, if you want to learn more about plastic if we haven't given you enough, you should definitely check out Deia Schlosberg's film, The Story of Plastic. We'll include a link to the movie in the show notes.
Ayana: Well, hello. I'm back to say hello and goodbye.
Alex: It's us again. Right. We're back in the present, with one more thing to add.
Alex: After we aired this episode the first time, we got a ton of questions from listeners.
Ayana: We sure did.
Alex: About specifically recycling plastic bags.
Ayana: And because we want to make sure you are all fully informed to make excellent decisions to protect our environment and address the climate crisis, we answered your question about plastic bags in a previous episode—you can find it on Spotify—it's an episode where we answer multiple listener mail questions. It's called "Solving a Rooftop Solar Mystery and What's a Nurdle?"
Alex: Provocative title!
Ayana: It's such a good word: nurdle.
Alex: So check that episode out if you want to know more about plastic bags or rooftop solar. All right. Back to the credits.
Ayana: Hit it!
Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.
Kendra: And today by me, Kendra Pierre-Louis, filling in for Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Our reporters and producers are me, Rachel Waldholdz, Anna Ladd, and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard and Emma Munger. Our fact-checker this episode is James Gaines. Special thanks to Anna Sacks. And thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week.