A couch, a washing machine and a perfect plastic storm

Plastic “recycling” makes us more dependent on the material in surprising ways, and that makes our pollution problem much worse

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Olivia Sullivan
Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

Author: Olivia Sullivan

Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

 

Started on staff: 2020
B.A., Johns Hopkins University; M.S., University of California, San Francisco

Olivia works to advance U.S. PIRG’s zero waste campaign. Olivia lives in Denver with her two cats and enjoys hiking, vegan baking, and arts and crafts.

Fall weekends mean a few things for my family. In addition to decorating the front yard for Halloween, we also spend some time getting our backyard ready to face the New England winter. Part of the annual winterizing process meant washing the covers from the outdoor couch cushions that we practically lived on this summer before putting the couch inside for the season. 

When my mom and I managed to free the first cushion from its removable case (trust me, it was a process), a blizzard of fluffy white stuffing and tiny particles erupted as if shot out of a confetti cannon. On cue, a gust of wind picked up the confetti and dropped it back down on the deck, the table, the driveway and the grass. I was pretty sure I knew what it was, and a quick glance at the tag confirmed my suspicions.

The label read: “100% polyester, made from recycled content.” Translation: plastic

Competing with the wind, we raced to pick up as many of the larger pieces as possible. But the larger tufts broke apart in my hands, leaving behind little circles of plastic. They clung to my pants, my sweatshirt and my hands like snowflakes. While I could brush them off, unlike real snow, these plastic flakes would never melt, persisting in the environment for hundreds of years.

I was frustrated. My yard was now coated with plastic dust, and once those polyester cushion covers ran through the washing machine, they would shed plastic microfibers into the water. 

But the most frustrating part? This is often a best case scenario when we try to recycle plastic.

Only a tiny fraction of the plastic that we put into recycling bins actually gets recycled. Most is buried in landfills, burned in incinerators, shipped to other countries or litters our oceans and waterways. 

Just 9 percent of plastic is lucky enough to be given a second life. But even its fate is uncertain. In all likelihood, it will be downcycled, turned into less durable items like fabric or insulation. Or couch cushions. 

By calling this practice that creates plastic-dandruff shedding cushions “recycling,” we were duped into thinking our plastic was truly being reused in a waste-free way.  But in reality, new throwaway plastic continues to replace old throwaway plastic, creating millions of tons of waste, while downcycled plastic is occasionally hidden in creative places out of sight and out of mind. 

Our plastic recycling system is broken. So, why do we hold out hope that plastic will be recycled? Plastic recycling doesn’t work, and it probably never will. Meanwhile, plastic pollution has become a global crisis.

Of course, downcycling to extend the life of plastic products is better than the alternative: oceans overrun by plastic trash, trapping, choking, and killing unsuspecting turtles who get caught in a six-pack ring or whales who mistake plastic bags for food. Still, plastic recycling only delays the inevitable. All plastic, recycled or not, ends up polluting the environment eventually. 

We shouldn’t have to accept a bad, best case scenario that recycling offers plastic waste. Our climate, oceans and wildlife certainly cannot accept the worst case. Instead, we should demand an actual solution to the plastic pollution crisis: stop using so much plastic. 

Olivia Sullivan
Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

Author: Olivia Sullivan

Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

 

Started on staff: 2020
B.A., Johns Hopkins University; M.S., University of California, San Francisco

Olivia works to advance U.S. PIRG’s zero waste campaign. Olivia lives in Denver with her two cats and enjoys hiking, vegan baking, and arts and crafts.