America Confronts Its Plastic Waste Crisis

America's relationship with plastic has been one of convenience and contention.

by Faruk Imamovic
America Confronts Its Plastic Waste Crisis
© Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

America's relationship with plastic has been one of convenience and contention. Each year, the nation grapples with the disposal of 40 million tons of plastic waste—a staggering volume that, if laid out, could blanket Manhattan under a meter-deep layer of synthetic refuse. Historically, the bulk of this waste was either dumped in landfills or shipped abroad, primarily to China, which received about 7 million tons annually from the U.S. alone. However, a pivotal change occurred in 2018 when China ceased accepting plastic imports, sparking a major shift in global waste management dynamics and leaving Western nations scrambling for alternatives.

The problem is compounded by a harsh truth: the majority of plastic is designed in such a way that makes it unrecyclable. In the U.S., a mere 9% of plastic waste is successfully recycled. The rest contributes to a growing environmental catastrophe, adding significantly to global oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions due to its production processes.

The Global Shift and America's Search for Solutions

In response to the global crackdown on waste imports by countries like China, Thailand, and Malaysia, Western nations, including the U.S., have had to reconsider their waste disposal strategies. The message was clear: the Global South would no longer serve as the West’s dumping ground. This shift has forced countries like America to confront the reality of their plastic consumption and disposal practices.

One of the more controversial solutions proposed by major oil corporations, such as Chevron and Exxon, is turning plastic back into crude oil through pyrolysis—a chemical recycling process. This process aims to extend the life cycle of plastics by converting them into a form that can be used again for fuel and making lower-quality plastics. Proponents argue that pyrolysis is a step towards a circular economy, reducing the need to produce new plastic by reusing existing materials. Yet, critics are quick to point out that this method often results in toxic emissions and depends heavily on government subsidies, raising questions about its sustainability and environmental impact.

Despite the push for pyrolysis, the reality remains stark. Plastic production continues to rise, doubling approximately every 15 to 20 years, undermining the efforts to curb its environmental footprint. "This isn't sustainable," states Tim Miller, a vice president at the Ohio-based Royal Paper Stock. His remark underscores the ongoing challenge of reducing plastic usage without a clear and effective strategy in place.

America Confronts Its Plastic Waste Crisis
America Confronts Its Plastic Waste Crisis© Getty Images/Ezra Acayan

Recycling Realities and Industry Responses

Post-World War II, plastic emerged as a miracle material—cheap, versatile, and abundant. It fueled decades of consumerism, epitomized by the American dream of endless abundance. However, as environmental awareness grew, so did scrutiny over the sustainability of plastic consumption. In response, the oil and chemical industries explored recycling, only to determine it wasn't economically viable on a large scale. This led to a shift in strategy: instead of reducing production, companies promoted recycling as a solution, despite the small percentage of plastic actually being recycled effectively.

Notably, most recycling of plastic involves downcycling—turning used plastics into products of lesser quality before they ultimately end up in landfills or incinerators. Despite this, companies have continued to promote recycled products, even though these often contain little to no recycled material. This approach has been criticized as misleading, offering a false sense of sustainability to consumers.

Moreover, recent developments have further exposed the limitations of recycling as a standalone solution. The narrative around recycling, heavily promoted by industry-funded campaigns, has been instrumental in deflecting responsibility from producers to consumers. For instance, the infamous "Crying Indian" commercial of the 1970s, funded by beverage and packaging corporations, depicted a Native American man shedding a tear over littered landscapes, effectively shifting the blame for pollution onto the public.

Policy Shifts and New Paradigms

The urgency of resolving America's plastic crisis has catalyzed various policy shifts and spurred innovation in recycling technologies. One notable initiative is the adoption of pyrolysis. This process, although still controversial, represents an attempt to innovate within the recycling industry by converting plastic waste back into usable crude oil. The Akron, Ohio facility operated by Alterra Energy exemplifies this approach, claiming to transform "plastics back into their original building blocks." Despite these claims, the effectiveness and environmental impact of pyrolysis have been questioned. Recent studies suggest that the process might actually be more harmful than producing new plastic, due to the emissions and energy consumed.

Moreover, the pyrolysis industry faces significant challenges. Facilities across the U.S. have struggled with profitability and operational efficiency, leading to closures and financial losses, such as the recent shutdown of a pyrolysis plant in Oregon after immense financial setbacks. The reliance on substantial public subsidies and the limited success in achieving closed-loop recycling (where materials are perpetually recycled without quality degradation) have further fueled skepticism about this technology's viability as a long-term solution.

Despite these hurdles, there is a growing consensus that tackling plastic pollution requires more than technological fixes—it demands systemic changes. The recent initiatives by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who launched an $85 million campaign to combat the proliferation of petrochemical facilities, underscores the critical need for regulatory and policy interventions. Bloomberg's campaign aims to address the environmental and health impacts of these plants, highlighting the broader implications of plastic production on community well-being and sustainability.