On March 22, 2021, the show Last Week Tonight hosted by John Oliver released an episode discussing low recycling rates of plastics and criticizing companies for shifting responsibilities and financial burden to the public sector and consumers.
In the episode, Oliver discusses a press release by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which showed that only about nine percent of all produced plastics are recycled, the remaining are either landfilled, incinerated, or end up in the environment (FPF reported here and here). Of the seven main plastic materials in use, only polyethylene terephthalate (PET; CAS 25038-59-9) and polyethylene (PE; CAS 9002-88-4) have functioning recycling systems that have been established (FPF reported). Unfavorably designed packaging that complicates separation and waste stream impurity as well as the low price of virgin plastic could also help explain this low recycling rate.
Oliver also highlights that a large amount of US low-value plastic waste had been sold and shipped to other countries such as China until it banned plastic waste imports in 2018 (FPF reported). Over 180 countries then agreed in January 2020 to an amendment to the Basel Convention, which limits selling or exporting plastic waste (FPF reported). However, the US is the only developed country that has not ratified the global treaty.
Oliver further criticizes the plastic industry for spreading misleading beliefs in its recycling efforts, specifically big food brands such as Nestlé and Coca Cola that repeatedly advertised recycled content targets and did not meet set goals. In addition, he criticizes companies that have implied that virgin plastic material can be recycled infinitely (FPF reported). Mechanical recycling processes limit the number of times plastics can be recycled, and according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 2% of plastic stays in a closed-looped system, while the rest of it is downcycled.
Recycling can have a beneficial impact on plastic waste reduction, however, Oliver concludes that the main focus should be to reduce production and use of unrecyclable single-use plastic. This could be achieved, he says, for example by introducing targeted bans to incentivize alternatives and by shifting the financial responsibility to pay for pollution and waste management back from consumers and the public to plastic producers and retailers. One approach that could support this change could be introducing mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPs) schemes. The potential presence and migration of hazardous chemicals from plastic packaging is a further important aspect to consider for environmental and human health that was not covered in Oliver’s episode (FPF reported).
John Oliver (March 22, 2021). “Plastics: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” YouTube
Tiffany Duong (April 20, 2021). “The Recycling Industry in America Is Broken.” EcoWatch
EcoWatch (March 23, 2021). “John Oliver Takes on the Plastics Industry.”
EPA (December 2020). “Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling.”
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (December 13, 2017). “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics & catalyzing action.”