Real vs. False Solutions to Plastic Pollution

False solutions do not adequately or effectively address plastic pollution and its serious impacts. Corporations that profit by dealing in petrochemicals and plastics seek to offer up false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis so that they can distract and confuse the media and the public, which prevents actual progress in reducing plastic production. Many false solutions are “greenwashed,” meaning they falsely convey environmental or health advantages or positive impacts, when in reality they distract from real solutions or may even cause harm. False solutions to plastic pollution include the following, and unfortunately, given industry’s track record, there may be more to come.

Announced-then-nothing projects, including pilot projects for green marketing material

Corporations in the fossil fuel and plastics industries commonly promote announced-then-nothing projects. These projects are typically promoted with so-called “safe-harbor” or “forward-looking” statements that are designed to impress and attract investors. Yet, these statements are not founded in any evidence or track record. Industries’ “pilot projects” and “demonstrations” for speculative, often expensive technological treatments for plastic pollution rarely, if ever, move past these early stages.

“Chemical” or “advanced” recycling (plastic-to-fuel: gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc)

“Chemical” or “advanced” recycling, or plastic-to-fuel (depending on the process, also known as gasification, pyrolysis, or plasma arc), requires huge amounts of energy and can release toxic chemicals in the process. Essentially, these processes entail burning or using chemicals to melt down plastics into their toxic petrochemical ingredients. These processes are expensive, highly energy intensive, and cause air, water, and soil pollution. Despite these technologies being unproven for decades, investors continue to build up their infrastructure, significantly delaying real efforts to stop plastic pollution.

Bioplastics, biodegradable and compostable plastics, and “oxo-degradable” plastics

“Bioplastics”  are single-use alternatives to conventional plastics made with crops that have many known social, human health, and ecological costs. Bioplastics commonly act like conventional plastics in that they break up into small particles that travel around ecosystems and into our bodies. Bioplastics and biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically made with many of the same additives as conventional plastics, and research shows that these chemicals are harmful. Meanwhile “oxo-degradable” plastics are simply conventional plastics designed to break up more rapidly into microplastics.

Downcycling and incineration

Plastics are not really “recycled,” but are downcycled, as recycled plastics are mixed with new plastics and toxic chemicals to produce lower value items (e.g., plastic park benches and plastic fast-fashion clothing). In addition to concentrating toxic pollution in recycled plastic, recycling requires immense inputs of energy and water, and creates microplastic pollution. The plastic and petrochemical industries’ perpetuation of recycling as a “green” solution to the plastic crisis is in fact greenwashing: it delays, distracts, and deflects from real, just, equitable solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. 

Incineration of used plastic (including waste-to-energy burning) is among the most toxic types of incineration. The burning of plastic requires significant energy inputs and contributes to toxic air and greenhouse gas pollution. Ash created by incinerators is commonly dumped in ashfills that pollute waterways, soils, air, and communities. 

Fenceline communities near incinerators and recycling plants typically must endure this polluted air, soil, and water, in addition to truck traffic and stored waste. Because plastics are highly flammable, communities nearby are also at increased risk of experiencing fire and explosions.

False narratives that champion individual behavior changes or “recycling”

In the mid-1950s Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging magazine, had advised industry insiders that “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Indeed, there is no good place to put plastic products at the end of their perceived usefulness, nor can recycling solve the problem. Ultimately putting the onus on consumers alone to solve the problem perpetuates the plastic industry’s tired narrative, is ignorant of this nuanced problem, and only profits the corporations that are driving pollution. Further, governments also profit from plastics production by means of investments and taxes, and support the plastics industry with business-friendly policies and subsidization of plastics’ fossil fuel ingredients. All of this underscores the need to end plastic pollution at the source by significantly curbing, if not ending, new plastics production. 

Plastic credits, neutrality, and offsetting

Plastic credits and plastic neutrality are another form of greenwashing, often involving payment for plastic cleanups by companies that make and sell plastic. The term “neutrality” is being used to justify ongoing production and use of plastic—as it implies that plastic production can be free of negative impacts as long as it is “canceled out” with credits. In reality, plastic — which is made from fossil fuels — causes harm at every stage of its endless toxic existence.

Real Solutions to Plastic Pollution

Although there are many false solutions, there are many real solutions too.

Generally, effective regulation to end plastic pollution incentivizes reducing the production of plastic and plastic’s fossil fuel ingredients by shutting down industrial permitting and expansion. Regulation must hold corporations and governments accountable for pollution and protect frontline communities from pollution and harm, providing support such as remediation and compensation. Incentives can support installation and maintenance of public reuse and refill systems. Another effective tool is providing tools and spaces for repairing and sharing material items.

The differences between real and false solutions to plastic pollution are stark, and important. As time passes and the efficacy of plastic pollution legislation can be evaluated, the Global Plastic Laws Database will help to track which types of plastic pollution legislation are effective, and which are ineffective. 

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