As an artist-cum-mad-scientist and avid recycling nerd, folks often come to me for answers to their frustration and confusion about plastics. If I recycle them, do they end up in landfills anyway? Does it take more energy? How do I navigate my local system? Why is it all so complicated?
Let’s get nerdy, shall we?
Plastic is as ubiquitous in art as it is in the world. Invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt as an alternative to the elephant ivory used in everything from billiard balls to piano keys, it began as a true godsend. As Susan Strasser describes in her book Waste and Want, consumers literally had to be taught how to ‘throw away’ what had always been seen as reusable objects: containers, bags, cutlery, etc. This was a novel concept, and at first, people didn’t get it. Now, we understand far too well. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, choking turtles, tiny seahorses using pink plastic Q-tips to ride currents… These images range from shocking to trite in 2022. In Roland Barthes’ famous “Plastic” essay from Post Modernity 1961-1990, he describes this wonder material as a near-infinite alchemical transmutation of matter. To state the obvious, the word ‘plastic’ itself refers to the material’s inherent plasticity: that is, its malleability. It can become “buckets as well as jewels” (again, Barthes). Minimalist Donald Judd used it to remove the hand in his slick industrial works (though as Chicago-based fibre artist Karen Reimer astutely noted: this work did not remove the hand, but rather, the artist’s hand). West-Coast American “Finish Fetish” artists in the 1960s and 70s were all but obsessed with the stuff. Painters paint with acrylic, photographers frame in Plexiglas, sculptors sculpt in fibreglass, assemblages are assembled with hot glue, artworks are packed in Styrofoam and bubble wrap, wall text is mounted in vinyl, and so on. It’s hard to imagine anyone escaping plastic in our world, least of all the Art Worlds, embedded as they are in fabrication and circulation. It has so affected our time that the “Plastic Age” (1907-present) is the most recent of our seven material ages.
So where does that leave us? Oil companies who are divesting from oil are reinvesting in plastic, knowing it to be a safe asset for the foreseeable future. No matter how much we ‘hate it,’ we need it as much or more than we know, as plastic surgical masks, plastic rapid tests, and plastic barriers courtesy of the pandemic do well to remind us. We can banish straws all we want, but countless differently-abled people must still drink from straws or not drink at all (not to mention catheters, blood bags, ostomy bags, etc.). We can banish plastic bags, but the vast majority of what we put in bring-along canvas bags is still packaged one plastic or another. What is to be done?
Much is being done, dear reader. All I ask is that you build on your knowledge, and refuse to accept complexity and hearsay as excuses for inaction and despondency. And, take a dive with me 😉
So, let’s start with one of the biggest recycling obsessions I hear from people: why is recycling done differently everywhere? Indeed, recycling is unique from community to community, and if you’re in the Unites States, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. There are a few reasons for this:
1. Racism and Classism: throughout the Global North (though with some notable exceptions – I see you, Kamikatsu, Japan), I would be willing to bet that you will regularly find the following to be true: wealthy neighbourhoods have simple and comprehensive waste collection systems with bins corresponding to landfill waste, recycling, and perhaps even compost. Poor, BIPOC, and immigrant neighbourhoods, however, often lack even basic waste collection, let alone recycling. A perfectly logical consequence of this is that it leads to more visible waste in these areas, on the ground, or – as in many Chicago neighbourhoods, like Bronzeville or Humboldt Park – in tenderly collected shopping bags hung on chain-link fences in hopes that it will be collected by a city that rarely endeavours to do so. Here in the Hague, Netherlands, one need only compare a neighbourhood like Vogelwijk and my own, in Laak, to see more of the same.
2. Privatization: In countries and cities that are comfortable with socialism (i.e. providing basic needs and social equity via the distribution of resources regardless of individuating factors), there are often citywide and statewide systems for sorting waste, while in more capitalist, individualist nations these contracts are picked up competitively. This leads to a smattering of different systems, and often, the sacrifice of quality to bottom lines. As an example of the former, Belgium employs a centralized, government-backed mediation company called Fost Plus to sync up the design, collection, and allocation of Belgian recyclable materials (called secondary raw materials, or recyclate). Because Fost Plus is responsible for expanding and consulting the recycling sorting industry in Belgium, they not only have the expertise to advise companies how to make products that are easy to recycle, but also an acute awareness of the types and quantities of recyclate coming in. This in turn makes them expert distributers of these recyclables to locations where they can be best *recycled into new objects. This foresight is not only critical because it’s practical, but also because in 2020 the European Union enacted the European Green Deal, which requires member countries to transition to achieve 50% recycled plastic in packing by 2025, an ambitious target. Because of this, current supply already cannot meet demand for recycled plastic. Did you catch that? SUPPLY CURRENTLY CANNOT MEET DEMAND FOR RECYCLED PLASTIC IN EUROPE. This supply, as I’m sure the reader has no trouble imagining, exists. The issue is that most consumers are terrible at recycling it, and many collectors are bad at collecting it (63.4% is lost from the cycle annually in Europe). This has given companies the impetus to design plastics better for retrieval (see Arla’s new plastic containers for yoghurt and cottage cheese designed with cardboard sleeves that self-separate on their way to the recycling plant, and white plastic cups made of 40% less plastic with no colourants so as to be easily recaptured for all food-grade plastic applications: the Holy Grail of recycled plastic). If you’re looking to make any investments in the near future, I highly recommend looking into plastics recycling (sorting tech, processing plants, chemical recycling, etc.), with a particular eye to the government-backed and European…
My cottage cheese packaging 🙂
3. Plastic is Tricky, and can be hard to recycle. Plastics like #3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and #6 PS (polystyrene, commonly referred to by its main brand name, Styrofoam) release harmful gasses like hydrogen chloride and benzene when they are processed, and a great deal of plastic is unmarked or marked poorly. This is not to mention that plastics can come in many forms even within their types and numbering structures. For example, high-density polyethylene (#2 HDPE) is an extremely common and desirable plastic in its common form (think milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles), but it is (at present) undesirable and less-frequently recycled in its low-density form (#4 LDPE – mainly plastic bags). These different properties come from different chemical structures and plasticizers, and must be sorted according to type. The only way to circumvent this process while maintaining a pure and diverse product is via chemical recycling: a process by which it is possible to break down plastics into their basic chemical parts, and rebuild them from that baseline. Though it has somewhat of a bad rep (I assume for many of the same reasons GMOs and nuclear power do – a combination of blackboxing, misunderstanding, and perhaps even wilful ignorance), it is actually an excellent solution for certain situations, such as with highly with contaminated plastics. But mechanically recycling (as in physical sorting, whether optically with robots or physically by humans) is still better all around. The solution, you may have already guessed, is to put more resources into mechanical recycling so that we can capture better and higher quality plastics, to educate communities on not only what is recyclable but how and why, and to support chemical recycling as a supplement to this system when necessary. Technology and public will are ready for this, but as of yet, tax dollars, education, and logistics are not.
So, if I haven’t lost you yet, let’s quickly address the remaining question:
Doesn’t it get landfilled anyway?
Short answer, mostly no. Again, this depends where you are. When people talk about the plastics that are recycling being landfilled, they are mostly talking about PLASTIC FILM. Film plastic is a catch-all category for everything that looks like plastic wrap: Saran, plastic bags, shrink wrap, etc. These plastics are vastly diverse in their chemical makeups. Thus, when lumped together en masse (which it most often is), it is impossible to return it to its original form. It must therefore be DOWNCYCLED: as in, made into something less valuable and less recyclable than what it was. Mostly, film plastics recycled in this way are used to create lawn furniture and plastic lumber, and the best way to ensure that this is what happens when recycling in the United States is to drop it off at a location that expressly collects it, like Target. This is because the challenge with this junk is that it’s super hard to sort, and often shuts down sorting equipment by getting jammed in it. When you put it in the right stream from the get-go, you have not only ensured it will reach the appropriate destination, but you have also made it more valuable to those who would purchase it, since it arrives pre-sorted and uncontaminated. Conversely, the most recyclable plastic is #1 PET(E): a clear, flexible plastic most often used for beverage containers. This is because it remains CLOSED LOOP: meaning what it is (a clear bottle) is what it becomes (a clear bottle). You can indeed make fabric and carpet and you name it with recycled PET, but that is actually downcycling. Better to keep it in the system, which takes far less energy and doesn’t open the loop.
The other reason plastic might get thrown away? You or some other so-and-so threw a roast chicken or dirty diaper or bag of spaghetti in the recycling bin and it contaminated the line. These things are like a tax for our recycling systems, as is “wishcycling” (throwing something in the recycling bin that you wish could be recycled and in fact cannot, such as mixed materials like aluminium-lined pill packs, or other things your local system specifically rejects). These must be pulled off the line by human hands (trust me, I’ve worked as a sort-line recycler, where we lived in constant fear of guns and used needles) and discarded, or left in the mix to contaminate and devalue recyclate, which is a PRODUCT that needs to be sold to make the system function. Sometimes I hear people say things like “it takes more energy to rinse this plastic then it’s worth to recycle it” – stop it. If you’re deeply concerned with this, do your dishes with the sink plugged, give your plastics a small rinse at the end, and throw them in. Not only are cradle-to-grave analyses of materials notoriously difficult for even expert scientists to conduct, but also, nothing is that simple. Plastic is a resource, one that we rely on. Dignify that dinosaur carbon that was dug up to make your smoothie cup by permitting it (at least) future reincarnations as a smoothie cup, over and over until you remember to bring your reusable cup (or the pandemic is over, whichever comes first).
You might sense that I could go on forever, and you’re right. But instead I’ll leave you with these last few thoughts: it is my sense that people who spend any time thinking about plastic do one of two things: they either write it off as a societal issue that can’t be dealt with on an individual level, or they get obsessed, perhaps even a bit moralistic. Both are somewhat right and somewhat wrong. Getting takeout (or buying a polyester shirt punched from a pattern producing factory waste, or whatever or whatever) is like starting the ignition of a car, which on its own would not (and COULD not) start (or stop) global warming. Indeed, it is what Timothy Morton has described as a “hyperobject”: something which humans have the power to affect but not to comprehend, like plutonium taking mere moments to create and having a half-life of 24,100 years (or more). Thoughts like this tend to make us want to INVERSE QUARANTINE: Andrew Szaz’s term for consumers seeking to protect themselves from the uncertainty of environmental problems through individual solutions, like buying a metal straw and calling it a day. We need plastic; indeed, our society as it is cannot and will not function without it. But as Dutch designer-artist-entrepreneur Dave Hakkens has aptly noted, plastic is precious, and that’s how we must treat it. That means recapturing it, saving it, caring for it, and most of all – not calling it into existence through our demand only to casually discard it without a second thought. Of course, policy and mass-action are absolutely necessary (critical!) to enact the kind of change we need for plastic to make any manner of globally-felt difference. But individual action is part of this, not only as a citizen doing one’s part to keep plastics within closed loop circulation, but also as a meditation on the importance of materials, and the care that is required to demand change on any level, be it societal or individual. This has empirical and immaterial value.
Plastic is a polymer. It is not exclusively petroleum, but rather a strong and repeated molecular chain that leads to the properties that we prize in petroleum-based plastic. Nature’s plastic is tortoise shells, spider webs, bark, cellulose… the very stuff of cell walls in plants. Placing nature and culture in opposition to one another no longer serves us. Put your toe on the doorframe between binaries, and take out the recycling (with care).
*Contrary to common understanding, recycling is the chemical transmutation of recyclable waste into a new material or object, while the sorting process that comes before that is simply “sorting.”
Next edition: February 21st, 2022. Stay tuned!
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