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We Need to Talk About Recycling

An Interview with Matt Wilkins on the realities of plastic pollution
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There is a two panel gif that has become incredibly popular in the last few years. The first panel shows a dog sitting at his kitchen table having a coffee while his house burns down around him. In the second panel, the dog says, “This is fine.” The meme is part of a longer comic by artist K.C. Green, which was posted on his Gunshow website in 2013, in which the dog slowly, grotesquely, melts while insisting that “things are going to be ok.” While “This is fine” has been used by everybody from college students describing their stress levels to the official GOP twitter account, it’s continued popularity says something about our lassitude in the face of catastrophic climate change, the rise of white nationalism, and countless other modern horrors. 

I thought of “This is fine” a lot when speaking to Matt Wilkins, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Science Outreach in Nashville, who wrote an op-ed for Scientific American titled “More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution.” Wilkins’ piece posits that, though recycling has been positioned as a one-size-fits-all solution to our plastic problem, the industry is not equipped to handle the barrage of single use plastics that we consume and discard on a daily basis. In fact, recycling was originally promoted by an organization called Keep America Beautiful, a non-profit founded by Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, and other big beverage companies. “At face value, these efforts seem benevolent,” Wilkins writes, “but they obscure the real problem, which is the role that corporate polluters play in the plastic problem.” He continues, stating that the organization “has helped shift the public focus to consumer recycling behavior and actively thwarted legislation that would increase extended producer responsibility for waste management.” 

Though Wilkins’ area of study is wildlife, he became interested in the effects of plastics on the environment while attending conferences as a Ph.D. candidate. “I had an insider’s view on what the new science was telling us about plastic, and I had early information about BPA, before that was a thing, and heard disturbing statistics about the size of the garbage patch, and that these gyres were forming in every major ocean,” he tells us. After those conferences Wilkins grew increasingly disturbed by the lack of public awareness around the issue, and by the focus on recycling when, at the same time he was learning about how impenetrable our recycling laws are. “Each local recycling system is different,” he explains. “Like if I don’t fully wash my recyclables, will they toss them? There are all these nuances that make it difficult to understand.” He emphasises that convoluted recycling policies aren’t created to be malicious, but rather are a product of our inefficient single stream system, where all types of recyclables—glass, plastic, and paper—are collected in one bin and seperated in a central processing facility. “The processing and separation of recyclables in the single stream system is the most expensive and non-energy efficient way to recycle,” he tells us. “And what’s even more mind-boggling is that single stream recycling can have up to thirty percent impurity, which can reduce the quality and the reusability of that material.” That quality metric is a big deal, because, as Wilkins says, “the way that recycling is portrayed to the public is that you throw a bottle in and get a bottle out, but nothing can be further from the truth.” Because of the decrease in quality that occurs in the recycling process, we often get non-recyclable things out of recycled plastic, like synthetic materials which are used for clothing and can’t be recycled again. Wilkins applauds companies like Billabong and Everlane who use material made from recycled bottles, but adds that “it’s that kind of mentality that leads to the near rapid destruction of all of our resources and the pollution of our planet, which is what we’re seeing.” 

In 2014, California became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Next year it will make customers in sit-down restaurants ask for single use plastic straws. A year ago, Kenya banned plastic bags and introduced the toughest rules on the planet to punish anyone caught making, selling, or using them. Next year, Jamaica will stop using single use plastic bags, straws, and Styrofoam. These measures come at the same time as news that scientists have discovered plastic in the feces of every person who took part in a European study. That ninety-two percent of all salt brands contain microplastics. That it’s estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. 

I ask Wilkins where he thinks we can go from here, with so little awareness around this issue, and indeed, a shunning of environmental policy at the highest levels of US government. “It’s a societal shift to be conscious and think about any way that you can reduce plastic,” he says. “Don’t buy the marketing that says you need bottled water, and with the water crisis in several places around the country people just don’t trust tap water, so part of it is public trust, and part of it is trying to reeducate people about how big of a problem plastic pollution is. It’s not just about marine plastics and plastic accumulating, it’s also about dangers to personal health. Not only are plastics a danger themselves, but they also absorb persistent organic pollutants in the water column, things that we stopped producing that are basically going to be on earth forever and are probably at some concentration in every human on the planet.” 

It’s obvious to almost everyone that we’re in the midst of a worldwide crisis. The question we now face is not whether we should stop using single use plastics, but if we will be able to stop in time to save what’s left of the natural resources we depend on. Maybe “This is fine”’s ubiquity reflects the fact that we are all the dog in the gif, continuing to drink our cold brew out of our plastic cups which we then, if it’s convenient, toss in the recycling bin, where maybe it’ll end up a sweater, and maybe it’ll just get thrown into a landfill. 

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